Preparing to be a leader – what you need to know before stepping up

Florian Bay, of Toastmasters International, shares the best ways to prepare yourself for taking on a leadership role

Very often we have unrealistic expectations of what leadership means in practice so, let me share some things I’ve learned on my leadership journey so far that may be helpful for you as you prepare to lead.

Expect to be stretched and tested

Nobody comes to leadership completely unprepared; we bring skills and knowledge to the table – most of which will be useful. For example, if you’re good at communication it will help your ideas to gain traction quickly, if you’re good with numbers, this will help you in making certain decision and, if you’re good with people, it will help you to bond with your team.

However, you may not have all the skills required; it’s likely that, at some point, you’ll need to step-up and embrace new tasks and learn new skills. It’s also likely that, as part of your leadership journey, you’ll learn a few home truths about yourself. For example, my biggest discovery was that I, perhaps, wasn’t as organised or structured as I thought I was – and, as a leader, that was an issue I needed to resolve.

Attitude vs aptitude

You might be great at communicating with others, generating new ideas or developing detailed strategies– but you’ll judged more on your attitude towards your role than on your skills.

Most of us are juggling leadership roles with other areas of our life. We can feel we don’t have time to deal with certain queries, or feel swamped by a ‘problem’. Attitude is about how you tackle these challenges and constraints and how you approach your role and take on its responsibilities.

If your behaviour demonstrates a poor attitude towards your role, then disillusion and disengagement will follow. It’s surprising how quickly people notice that something hasn’t been done when it should have been, or that a request went unanswered.

Throwing yourself into a new role or situation will definitely help you, regardless of your abilities. Nowadays, mountains of information on any subject are readily available, so plug any knowledge gaps you have and find out more about your role and your task right away.

If you chose to lead, make some commitments to yourself and accept the weight of expectations placed upon you.

Understand the detail

The visible parts of leadership are the grand visions, the speeches, meetings with colleagues, inspiring and motivating your team, seeing your vision realised – but behind all this lies many hours work, often spend discussing tiny details.

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In my corporate strategy days I often spent time looking for first-hand sources of information and double-checking it. A colleague would check my work once and reworks almost always followed. The process took time ,and wasn’t always rewarding; however, it was worth it as our senior leadership team could use it to drive the business forward.

Remember, however, that there is a line between too much detail and not focusing on detail at all. You should also avoid trying to reinvent the wheel; try to understand what was done before, and why, before you make wholesale changes.

The cost of leadership

Travelling to meet people in the business allows you to soak up knowledge while inspiring others and passing on key messages. However, being away from home, constantly jumping from train to hotel to train again – and burning the midnight oil to prepare for the follow day’s presentation – can be exhausting.

While the physical cost of leadership can be mitigated by strong personal discipline and good time management, the emotional costs are more difficult to predict. Unintended conflicts, being let down, having to take on extra work to support a colleague – these can all take their toll. Decision-making fatigue is another key problem – sometimes even having to decide what to have for dinner can seem like a decision too far! So, make a commitment to look after yourself – if you allow yourself to get burnt out, you won’t be much use as a leader.

Human relations can be the hardest part of leadership – from disappointing friends to giving difficult feedback. Strong people skills and high emotional intelligence will help, but even this can only do so much. So be prepared for the strains that leadership will inevitably bring.

Before you take on a leadership role prepare as much as you can. This includes thinking about the challenges ahead and mentally preparing to tackle unexpected situations and events.  For many of us becoming a leader will be part of our career journey.  Make the most of the opportunity!

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