The Accidental Leader

Recently I was sitting with a group of leaders who get together once a month a week prior to their next Safe Leadership class to discuss their challenges and hurdles that they have experienced  over the past 3-4 weeks.  One of the members who was feeling a little down said “Sometimes my days are just frustrating, dealing with people’s problems all the time, sucking up my time, stopping me getting my own $h!t done, this isn’t why I created my own business, it was so much simpler when it was just me!”

Empathising with this member I replied “Ah yes, us business owners are almost always accidental leaders, we started our business because we love what we do, not so we can become leaders and look after lots of employees, that just happened because we were good at what we did!”.

Several in the group agreed and then we spent some time talking about the “accidental leader”, how we transitioned into this place and why it causes us so much stress and most importantly how could we adapt to this role quicker than what we may have done.

The Expert

Most  business owners took the plunge and decided to start their own business, fired up with a passion to do things their way, do it better than the places they used to work for, take better care of their clients and get paid more for the effort.  That passion drives their success in the early months and years, keeping them motivated and full of energy, the happy clients that are generated come back for more, further exciting and giving the business owner the energy to continue.  Life is reasonably simple, doing what they love doing and providing for clients that appreciate and love what they do, life is great.

Toll of Success

With a successful business owner, the window of a successful utopia is limited.  Their customers, happy with the goods and service they are receiving start raving to their friends and work colleagues.  Those friends or colleagues also come and purchase from the business.  Revenue starts to grow, its a struggle to keep up, clients are having to wait longer for their goods, then some of them get their goods the quality is not that good and have to return them.  Now the business owner, under pressure to deliver their usual high standard, starts to falter, they are running out of time to do everything, their attention to detail slips and now they have their first unhappy customer, their world is collapsing around them or so they think.  Suffering from their own success they do the next logical thing, go to their community and find someone to help them, they now have their first employee and find themselves on the first rung of the accidental leader ladder.

The Transition

You can’t lead someone your don’t like, you can’t truly like someone until you know them; the key to any leader’s success is their ability to get to know the people they lead and what makes them tick.  This is the problem that arises as a small business (under 20 employees) grows beyond this, by the time a business get to 40 or more staff it’s almost impossible for the leader to interact with everyone everyday which makes it more challenging to really get to know everyone, so how does a leader make the transition from the small business that has a great family feel to a bigger business that maintains a great family feel?

  1. Be clear on the purpose of the business: This may sound obvious but still way too many companies have this clear.  Give everyone in the business something to strive towards that is bigger than themselves and their area within the business.  This needs to tug on the heart strings of everyone, they need to WANT to be part of the journey the leader is taking the business on and the impact the business is trying to make.  A clear sense of belonging will bring like minded people together and allow them to stay together.
  2. Never settle for mediocrity: Make sure there is only ever one standard in the business.  Resist letting the people who have been there from the start get away with things that more recent employees would not.  When a leader has double standards that means their own standards have dropped to the lowest one, effectively settling for mediocrity.  When they first started the business, never would they have settled for anything less than perfect.  Settling for mediocrity also sets the stage for a “them and us” culture, effectively dividing the team into two groups, those who must achieve and those who don’t and accidentally killing the “family feel” to the business.  In an environment like that, the high achievers wont stick around, they will find somewhere else that appreciates their high standard of work.
  3. Hold everyone accountable: When I was researching employee engagement and burnout one of the biggest issues employees had with their leaders was their lack of job clarity and what success looked like to them at any given time.  As a business grows, roles within the business get created, merged and on occasions disestablished, over time this can lead to people doing roles that are so far removed from their position description its laughable.  It’s these scenarios that creep up on the accidental leader and they don’t notice until things go wrong and no one is putting their hand up to fix it because the problem lands in nobody’s role.  When a leader creates positions that have very clear accountabilities (where the buck stops) and measures the outcomes of those, then whoever is in the role will understand clearly what is asked of them and more importantly what success looks like for them each day.  This is one of the ways we remove the likely hood of double standards.
  4. Lead by example:  Leaders are called leaders for a reason, they lead, they go first, they show the way and protect their followers.  This is the area that most leaders struggle with, they don’t teach this at university, they don’t teach this during an apprenticeship and because they literally get thrown into a leaders role (because they are technically great) they don’t get time to study and learn through other effective leaders (ok, some of us have had the privilege but most of us haven’t, according the to research I did that I published in the book Safe Leadership).  I run by one simple rule in my life “never ask anyone to do something that I am not prepared to do myself”.  To live this rule as a leader you first must prove your willingness and competence to do any job that you ask of others.  This is one way to earn the respect of the followers and it is also a key way of teaching others and setting your high standards.
  5. Hold a safe and calm demeanor:  Be a “safe leader” one that creates an environment where people can share ideas, criticisms and even make mistakes free of ridicule and persecution.  If a leader wants to be like this they must hold that calm space, they must be in control of their emotions and be the person people can come to when they are stressed and looking for support.  This can be the hardest transition a leader has to make, especially if they have a tendency to get angry when stressed.  This takes a lot of self awareness and practice and is something that everyone can do.

As you are reading this, are you thinking, this is me, are you struggling in any of the 5 areas above?  If you are, you are definitely not alone, if you want any help to transition from an accidental leader to a deliberate and safe leader reach out to Dave and have a chat.