Making the Leap From Star Teammate to Great Leader

Businessman jumping over gap

LinkedIn – What do you do if you’re suddenly put in charge of a team, a project, a division – or even a company?

Having been an exceptional team member in the past doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be a great captain – in fact, what made you a star performer could actually get in your way. If your individual success hinged on doing superior work, for instance, you may need to overcome a pitfall familiar to straight-A students who end up doing all the work themselves when participating in group projects.

Suddenly accountable for people you can’t control, for work you can’t do on your own and maybe even for the output of people you’ve never met, you might panic. Many new leaders do. But realizing that not even the world’s most spectacular track star can beat the time of a just-average relay team may help you realize that the power of a team can outstrip your own performance, even if it’s world class. That’s a good starting point for getting out of your own way. Consider some of the following advice, as well.

1. Visualize “winning.” To do this, you’ll need to project all the way to the finish line. Create powerful images in your mind, and then express these objectives in ways everyone will remember – from the boardroom to the shop. It’s important to turn rudimentary wishes into specific goals; to go from earning a profit to earning $1 per share, to go from having happy customers to having a net promoter score of over 75, to go from being socially responsible to setting up 20 scholarships for employees’ kids.

Establishing quantifiable measures and time-frames turns wishes into goals. Goals then transform capable individuals into powerful teams. Unified teams lead to world-class performance. And articulating, measuring and celebrating meaningful goals means attracting highly qualified employees.

2. Build a great team. If you hire talented people and put their interests ahead of your own, good things will happen. Your own commitment to serving your team will spur them to become stewards for clients, vendors, shareholders, other employees – and anyone else who has a stake in achieving shared goals. Once the right team is on the field, your own tasks are simply to make sure they have the resources they need and to clear any obstacles out of their way.

3. Don’t play the popularity game. You may be tempted to be popular, and to that end, you might use the proverbial carrot or another type of enticement to garner support. But don’t give outsized bonuses or spackle over real issues with any sort of “free lunch.” If you build fake esprit de corps by giving stuff away, it means you’re failing as a leader, because in actuality, there are no free lunches. Everything comes at a cost. And as leader, you’re accountable for the yet-to-be-reckoned expense of keeping people in line with bribes. You’ll find that not only do their appetites return, but you’ll eventually need to pay for the “food.”

4. Do play the long game. On a related note, only yield to pressures to fix things in the short run if you’re sure your solutions won’t have negative ramifications in the long run. If you keep an eye on the full array of short-, medium- and long-term consequences, not only will your team come to trust you – even though they won’t always agree with you – but so will the market.

5. Be ready to pivot. New problems will flow from every decision you make, so pick solutions that generate a next set of problems suited to your management abilities. You’re not solving a puzzle where finding the perfect piece will complete the picture; you’re dealing in ever-changing probabilities. So adapt, adjust, iterate until you find a good-enough course of action. Then, carry out your plan as if your life depended on it – it’s more reasonable to strive for perfection in execution than in decision-making.

6. Don’t pass the buck. In private enterprise, power can shift from manufacturer to distributor to retailer to customer, and back again. It all depends on an ever-changing balance between supply and demand. In government, politicians calculate how taking from one generation to give to another may keep them in office – until the wheels of society fall off. As a business leader, you’re a steward, not a politician, so resist the temptation to simply shift burdens. Success rooted in inequity spawns instability and strife, whereas applying fairness, durability and equity will pay dividends over time.

7. Listen to your team. Listening is an important part of your job, so be sure to ask for input. But also remember that the most popular ideas are often the least feasible, so don’t base your decisions on popular opinion or politics alone. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best: “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” Build the personal capital that allows you to make tough, unpopular calls – then make them. Explain your reasoning to your team, and if you’ve listened well to them, they’ll listen to you when you make the tough calls.

8. Pass the baton. If you insist on making every single decision, you’ll have a less-innovative, less-energized and less-committed team. So decentralize decision-making where possible; empower those closest to the facts and then make them accountable.

9. Know that sometimes, there actually is an “I” in team. People are naturally self-interested. Don’t be surprised by this, and don’t punish them for it. Instead, reward those who have enlightened self-interest – who take into account the long view, who consider the concerns of the community in which they’ve chosen to live and who work for the many non-financial interests other people have. Expecting others simply to deny self-interest altogether for an objective you’ve set will merely unleash instability – and can even destroy your organization.

10.Acknowledge your bloopers. Embracing feedback, particularly the negative kind, is one key to recognizing mistakes. Be humble, vulnerable and willing to learn. If you are, your whole team will learn from its mistakes, too.

Leadership is not about being the best producer, or about being liked, or about making speeches – it is, at its very core, about getting the best all-things-considered results. Incorporating the above tweaks into your already well-established pattern of great individual performance will put you on your way to transforming yourself from manager to leader.

As management-consulting pioneer Peter Drucker noted, “Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.” In my experience, doing the right things the right way is the mark of a great leader.

By Joel Peterson