When people become a boss for the first time, they usually screw it up badly. Too often people think being the boss means "doing what I used to do except, except on a larger scale, and now I've got people I can order around."
Both parts of that definition are wrong. Leaders often fail to recognize they are no longer workers. You may be working hard, harder than ever, but now you work through other people. When you're under stress, it's easy to fall back on your comfort zone. This happens to a lot of bosses; the first time things get difficult, they want to roll up their sleeves and go back to the talents that got them in that leadership position in the first place. But as you move up, the most important decisions become the decisions of who you are going to hire or promote, and how you're going to develop them. That may require set of skills very different from the ones you're used to using. You have to be patient, deciding when, for example, to refrain from doing something you're good at, because John or Jane need to learn to do it themselves.
As Linda Hill, a Harvard Business School professor, has written, the biggest shock for first-time managers is that they're not the boss. They may have worked with spreadsheets or widgets before, but now they work with people, and people are much less tractable. They are messy and complicated, and that makes for difficult work.. One of the terrible facts is that most first-rung and or even second-rung managers have very little power.
An analogous thing happens when you become CEO. Michael Porter, Jay Lorsch and Nitin Nohria wrote in an article several years for Harvard Business Review, entitled "Seven Surprises for New CEOs." The first surprise is "You are not the boss." For a CEO, of course, the board is the boss, but the point of the article is more subtle and profound. We think of bosses as people who give orders. But as Porter, Lorsch, and Nohria point out, giving orders is very costly; it uses up a lot of political capital. The right to lead has to be won regularly. You get some legitimacy when you are named leader, but organizations have all kinds of ways of ignoring you if they feel you are no longer legitimate. As Jack Welch once said to me, "Too many people think the high point of their career is the day they become CEO." You have to be constantly earning it.
The Test of Failure
One of the gravest tests a leader faces is the test of failure. If you are any good, you're going to make mistakes, and not just once. Each time you goof, it will be on a slightly larger scale, with slightly larger consequences. The test of failure is three-fold.
First, how do you handle the actual crisis? In particular, what do you do to minimize the damage your misjudgments have inflicted on the people around you? When the crisis comes, you're either going to gain immeasurable amounts of organizational capital, or you're going to lose it and never get it back.
Second, what are you going to learn from your failure? Think about John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. When he came into the White House, plans for an invasion of Cuba were well underway, in spite mounting evidence that it wouldn't be successful. The process had all the hallmarks of classic group think, including a lack of diversity of inputs; Bobby Kennedy took the tough guy role of quelling dissent, precisely so his brother wouldn't hear things he didn't want to hear. And, as events proved, the naysayers were right; the invasion was a debacle.
A couple of years later came the Cuban Missile Crisis. In this case, the president learned to protect his dissenter, Adlai Stevenson. Kennedy's other men were saying, "Get this pacifist out of the room," but in the end the policies Kennedy adopted grew out of Stevenson's thinking. So Kennedy protected dissent, made sure he had a diverse team, did not move too quickly to make up his mindâ€”and showed he had learned from his earlier mistake.
The last part of the failure test is whether you make a comeback. As Jeff Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward put it, you have got to rediscover your heroic mission. That is the stage of saying, "I screwed up, but I'm not done yet." You can still prove your mettle to yourself and the world.
The Test of Reinvention
When you apply for a job, you've usually got a plan, with maybe 10 things on a to-do list. You come in saying, "I know exactly what we're going to do; I know exactly how this asset is underutilized." Three or four years later, you've done five of those items on your list; you tried to do two other things and failed; and three of them are no longer relevant, because the world changed. Now what?
One of the most difficult tests for a leader is the act of reinvention. There's a reason why people have a seven-year itch. In the Episcopal Church, if you've been a rector of a parish for seven years, they send you off to a special retreat where you learn how to be a long-lived leader.
That kind of reinvention is extraordinarily difficult, because it involves a certain amount of stepping outside yourself. At the same time, leaders are always being watched. Everything you do sends a message. There's a joke at GE, that if the CEO asks for a cup of coffee, somebody might go out and buy Brazil. It's hard to say, "I have a crazy idea." In a way reinvention is the hardest test: Can you run a leadership marathon rather than just a leadership sprint?
Questions for the Mirror
At the end of the day, you come to the test that only a leader can put to him or herself: Can you tell yourself the truth? As Robert Kaplan, former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs, points out, the higher you get in an organization, the harder it is to hear the truth. So you have to be able to tell it to yourself. The leader needs to be able to look in the mirror and ask:
o What are my visions and priorities? Do I have a vision? Do I communicate it? How do I manage my time? What is the cognitive dissonance between my vision and my Outlook?
o Feedback: Do I do it well, or is it messy? Do I have several people around me who will tell me the truth or do I live in a bubble?
o Have I identified my successors? If so, have I done anything about it? Am I building them up? Does anyone else know my plan?
o If I were starting this company from scratch, would I organize it the way it is now? What would the clean sheet of paper look like?
o How do I react to stress? Do I bully? Do I quail? Do I go out and have a drink?
o Staying true to myself: When I get to the office, do I feel like I have to zip my lip and be politically correct all the time? Am I the person I want to be?
That's the ultimate test of the leader: whether or not a leader can look at him or herself and see authenticity there. Because that's what's communicated to others and that's what makes organizations work.
Copyright 2007 Harvard Business School Publishing. Reprinted by permission.
Author's Note: Thomas Stewart is the editor and managing director of the Harvard Business Review and author of Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations and The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the Twenty-First-Century Organization.
ALSO FROM THE LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE: Knowledge@Wharton reported on the presentation at the Wharton Leadership Conference of Tim O'Toole, the managing director and chief executive of the London Underground, "Turning Around the London Subway System: From Terrorism to the Olympics," Knowledge@Wharton, June 27, 2007