Three Roadblocks on the Path to Leadership


June 27, 2016

The wicked leader is he whom the people revile.
The good leader is he whom the people revere.
The great leader is he of whom the people say, “We did it ourselves."

–Lao Tzu

Congratulations: You just moved up in the world! Because you’re recognized as a strong contributor, you’ve been asked to lead. Now what?

Oftentimes, a move up is because you’re seen as one of the best at what you do and people revere you for your skills. In your new role, it’s natural to then assume to keep doing what you do, but more so. But great skills and simply doing more don’t translate into great leadership.

Leadership is like any other learned skill and you need to know what’s wrong in order to get it right. After experiencing this transition myself and mentoring numerous others over the years, I’ve observed that the biggest challenge is the ability to transfer the focus from “me” to “we.”  With that in mind, be aware of the three mental roadblocks that you are guaranteed to face on your path to leadership.



Roadblock #1: I’m Better Than Them

This is the most common reaction I hear from newly minted leaders and it’s understandable. In a leadership role, you’re more exposed to the work of others. It’s a natural response to think “I can do better” and proceed to take over. This is a fast path to resentment and represents a misunderstanding of your new role. Your responsibility now is to help others improve their skills, which doesn’t happen by doing the work for them. Completing their work “the right way” only proves to demotivate initiative and inhibit learning. Instead, provide team members with the mental tools that are needed to think through problems the best way. They may not write code or create designs as well as you, but that’s ok! There are times when you need to let go in order for people to develop their own skills. Remember, a great football coach doesn’t go out on the field and run all the plays himself.

Roadblock #2: The Team Won’t Finish On Time Without Me

This thought leads to one of two inadequate results: 1) Either you abandon your higher level leadership responsibilities to take on more hands-on assignments; or 2) you try to do too much, put in the extra hours, and everything suffers! Not only are these approaches unsustainable, this behavior sends a powerful message to your team: “I don’t trust you to finish without me.” This apparent lack of trust creates resentment and an absence of commitment amongst team members. If you shift your thinking to “the team won’t finish without me guiding them” you’re on a better track. Tread cautiously and show teams the way without taking away their ownership.

Roadblock #3: The Team Wants Me to Be a Hero

No they don’t. You want to be a hero. They want to be a team. Sure there are the occasional team members who want to be carried, but in general everybody wants to be part of a success, and ultimately they feel better if they do it themselves. People don’t want to sit on the sidelines and watch someone else do all the work and get all the glory. While this approach can get you through a critical deadline, it’s demotivating and bad for building teams. Be a hero by helping everyone else be better. Think of your team as your extended hands and work through them, not over them.

Take heed and bypass those hazardous roadblocks. Building leadership skills isn’t always easy, but building competent, energized, and motivated team members is one of the most rewarding jobs you’ll find. Once you are able to surrender some of the workload, allow people to make their own mistakes, and generously share the credit, you are ready to embody Tzu’s idea of a great leader: “We did it ourselves!”