As organisations and companies evolve they will be more aware of the need to support the development of in-house leadership skills so that there is an internal flow of employees who are equipped to assume leadership roles when the opportunities arise. At every level within an organisation there are leaders who need support and skills development so that they can be their very best in their leadership roles. Good organisations will prioritise the development of leadership skills so that there is a future supply of good leaders internal to the organisation, who can assume more responsibility, armed with the necessary skills and support.
Yet there are many situations where this is not the case and newly appointed leaders occupy their leadership roles without the necessary training or support. Such accidental leaders find themselves in leadership positions because of particular circumstances or because they have excelled in a particular functional specialty. But leadership requires a completely different skill set that needs to be nurtured and developed. Indeed, people with specialist skills may want more responsibility and seek a leadership title for which they have little training. Reality bites hard for such accidental leaders who may endure a baptism of fire in their newly acquired leadership roles. In essence, they have a title and role for which they have been given little training. Functional expertise is not equivalent to good leadership ability.
Research indicates that poor management and leadership skills have been identified as the chief reason for high failure rates among SMEs. While agencies and training authorities are increasingly providing training support to SMEs and regularly intervene with learning and training opportunities focusing on the skills for good leadership, the lack of support is still an issue, particularly for smaller entities. Often this arises because of the blindness of some accidental leaders to their own deficiencies.
Leadership is not about a title, status, or being in charge. It’s about having and implementing a guiding vision for an organisation and this cannot be achieved alone. Leaders need teams and dedicated followers, so caring for others is widely regarded as a core responsibility for all good leaders. Leadership is not about being in charge; it’s about taking charge of those in your care. Clearly, leadership roles involve a range of emotional intelligence complexities demanding flexibility and dexterity.
Accidental leaders need to act fast and know what leadership success looks like. Good leaders have foresight, vision, and goals; they have good communication skills to enlist support by inspiring others to collaborate with their development strategy; they are divergent thinkers with courage and insight; they focus on direction and transformational change; they need resilience and focus but also empathy and emotional intelligence; they need to delegate to others, influence them and inspire them towards success. All this requires both aptitude and innate skills to manage people and occasionally manage difficult conversations, and situations. Be careful what you wish for! Know what is expected of you before you accidentally fall into a leadership role.
Yet some of us may, without notice, be assigned to lead a team, a project, a committee, or a business initiative. There may be no prior warning and no time to nurture management and leadership skills. There may also be no training, mentoring, or preparation-just an expectation that you will get on with it. For you, the accidental leader, it’s a case of sink or swim.
As Albert Einstein once said: Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. Accidental leaders’ first port of call for survival tips should be a suitable mentor, one with knowledge and a track record of success. Don’t be a stand-in hero enamoured by your new title; rather be the apprentice who knows the challenge and seeks advice about the best route to success. Older people with relevant experience have accumulated the knowledge and insights to make better decisions. With age comes wisdom declared Oscar Wilde and it is no accident that most mentors are those who have already travelled the road that you now face in your leadership role.
Even if you find that you have been thrown into the deep end of the pool you need to make lifelong learning part of your life and career, from the very outset. The advice of Richard Branson is worth noting: Every success story is a tale of constant adaption, revision and change. What you sow is what you reap so take advice early and often. Adapt and change and know that you can enhance your future leadership career by changing your attitude and acting decisively. The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change (their) future by merely changing (their) attitude – Oprah Winfrey.