Spoiler Alert: Leadership is a Trait, not a Trade

Over the last two decades I have known several people who were promoted into a management position and then decided to step down.  I want to describe some of the reasons people leave management positions, and then share some ideas if you find yourself in a similar situation.

Leadership is a trait not a trade

Leadership is not a Trade

I described the difference between management and leadership in my earlier blog post, Leadership is not Management.  If you see those two concepts as synonymous, read that post first.  In the Finding Leadership series, I will be deliberate when I use those terms.  

Most people in a management role didn’t get their undergrad degree specifically to manage people.  Granted there are some, but most people go to school for a trade – medical school, nursing, computer science, engineering, teaching, architecture, welding, etc…  Often the individual contributors that are really good at their trade, self-select or get promoted into management.   The problem is that the skills required to manage, for example a team of software developers, is vastly different than the skills required to develop software.

Furthermore, the skills required to provide good leadership to a team are even more complex than just managing time-sheets, budgets, and standards.  People are hard work, and they naturally expect their managers to also be leaders.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that well.

People leave management because…

  1. they aren’t prepared to lead people.  That sounds obvious, but I think a lot of people want to be in management to have more control and more pay.  Spoiler Alert! leadership is hard.  Management without leadership skills is even harder.
  2. their dreams of changing the world are constrained by reality.  A colleague of mine, several years ago, moved from a development role, to a manager role, and then back to development.  I asked him why he didn’t want to remain a manager and his response was, “I found I wasn’t allowed to have the impact I thought I could have.  So the title wasn’t worth it to me.”  
  3. every person on the team is different and requires a unique approach.  Some team members laugh at jokes, while others think jokes are childish.  One team member likes it when you remember their birthday, and another thinks that’s too personal.  Someone on the team might prefer the lights off, while others prefer the lights on.  Yes, lighting does seem to be important to people.  Juggling expectations and finding solutions to impossible problems is not what I went to school for.
  4. conflict is not their forte’.  Managers do performance evaluations and have to communicate merit increases.  That means at least on an annual basis, managers are having tough conversations.  I didn’t go to school for that.
  5. people on other teams are less kind than people on their own team.  Managers are points of escalation, liaisons between teams, and intermediaries between senior leadership and front-line staff.  Depending on where you work, at best these types of conversations are candid and cordial.  At worst they are tense, disparaging, and stressful.
  6. the role can seem monotonous. Budgets, timesheets, and standard work might not light my fire like developing and testing an API.
  7. they are accountable for things that are sometimes out of their control.  You can get in trouble for something one of your team-members do without your even being there.  
  8. people aren’t as good at managing others as they were at the previous job they excelled at.  A lead nurse who is beloved by her patients, her team, and her boss becomes a new manager and is just mediocre.  In my head I just thought “meaty okra”..  I’m not sure what that is, but I can tell that I’m hungry.  Mediocre (now I can’t even say it right) managers get far fewer accolades than high performing nurses.
  9. serving people is hard.  If you want to be a great leader, you have to serve people.  And people are sometimes (yeah, we’ll go with “sometimes”) hard to serve.
  10. people that you work so hard to serve, eventually leave.  I’ll say I’ve been really blessed to lead teams that have had very low attrition.  Some of my hardest days as a manager/director/leader, are when I find out someone is leaving.  It’s always bitter sweet, but I always want their best. 
  11. giving control away works better than keeping control.  Even if you understand this and apply it, it’s still hard to delegate and trust people to do their jobs well.  They may not do it as good as you did – in your humblest of opinions.  If you can’t empower others to do their jobs, you will just be frustrated when you compensate by creating standards and rules that no one seems to follow. 

Knowing the above, the pay for a management job better be good.

Leadership is a Trait

You don’t get paid any more for being a good leader than you do for speaking English, or coming to work on time, or dressing well.  You can, however, differentiate yourself with your leadership skills, and those skills could be the difference between solid career growth and a mediocre reputation.  Below are some practical ways to improve your leadership skills:

  1. Read.  Read, and read some more.  You can take a look at my reading list for ideas or click on one of my suggested readings in the sidebar.  Nothing gives you a different perspective like reading a good book from someone who’s been in your role before.
  2. Ask someone to mentor you.  Find someone you aspire to be like, and ask them if they would spend time with you on a regular basis. 
  3. Ask your team what they think of you…regularly.  If they are afraid of you, you won’t get a straight answer, but keep asking and be kinder if that’s you.
  4. Attend a leadership seminar.  Many of the authors I read up on have conferences or seminars you can attend that are fairly low cost given the potential return.  Dale Carnegie training is a good example.  They have an Executive Leadership Development program that is worth checking into. 
  5. Get comfortable serving.  I think organizations have hierarchies all wrong when they put leadership in a pyramid shape with the “big-wigs” at the top.  The biggest servants in your organization should be the ones with “Chief” in their title.
  6. Related to #5, find a need someone on your team has.  It could be a bit more of a flexible schedule, a free lunch on a busy day, or a note of encouragement.  These opportunities aren’t obvious, so you have to look for them and take initiative.
  7. Increase your transparency.  The level of your transparency is directly corelated with your level of trust and indirectly correlated with your own insecurity.  In other words, if you trust your team, you should be transparent with them.  If you can’t be transparent with your team, perhaps it’s because you are afraid of what you think they will think or do with that information.  Use good judgement, but transparency is almost.. mostly… always a good thing.  
  8. Find a way to change your heart and your perspective.  I find that my faith challenges my thinking on a regular basis.  For example, Proverbs 22:1 teaches that a good name is better than riches.  Wait, you mean my reputation is more important than my paycheck?  James 4:10 says we should humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift us up.  I thought I needed to tell people how great I was to move into leadership.  But nope.  I’ll talk more about why faith matters in an upcoming blog.

Grow Your Leadership Style

If you are a manager thinking about moving out of leadership, start improving your leadership skills and see what happens. You’d be surprised how quickly you can turn your team around. I have found so much joy in just serving the people around me. Don’t get caught up in titles, or flex your authority because your team isn’t doing what you want. Serve them, and I think you will find they are more than willing to partner with you to achieve your vision for the team.

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