Case study: learning to become an excellent People Leader

Introducing Cassie, a leader who understands the value of a learning mentality.

“I have a challenging conversation tomorrow with a colleague,” she said with a big smile. “But I’m so excited about it. I have a plan. Even if it goes off the rails, it will be productive.”

Her enthusiasm was palpable.

Cassie recently completed The Leading People Program™, and she shared this outcome during our private graduation event.

Her confidence was clear, even in the face of an uncomfortable truth of leadership: no amount of practice and preparation can prevent hard conversations from being hard or getting harder. But Cassie was okay with that and felt confident jumping in head first.

Not because she’s a perfect leader but because she’s practiced this move enough.

One of the lies we tell leaders is that they can be good without practice. We imply that the tools and behaviors they need to activate people’s talents are inherent in them, and once they are labeled as a “leader,” should just flow out of them.

Why do we expect leaders to be perfect without practice?

Most of the time, people are promoted from individual contributor roles to leadership roles because they are good at their jobs.

  • The best engineers are promoted to engineering managers.
  • A counselor gets promoted to lead.
  • An awesome teacher gets promoted to assistant principal.
  • A skilled nurse gets promoted to a nurse manager.

And once that promotion is granted, these newly minted People Leaders are expected to lead well, instinctually, and easily.

But there’s no correlation between being good at a skilled job and being a good leader.

Most of the time, these people have spent years refining the skills of their profession and have not studied—or even more importantly—haven’t practiced leading people.

Usually, they discover they’re in deep water quite quickly.

Because these people are naturally hard-working and accustomed to success, they double down.

Perfectionism makes struggling leaders work 5x as hard as they need to.

They cover up their challenges by doing more: solving more problems, taking on more tasks, and efforting or hustling to heroically contribute at a “leader-like” level.

Even in the C-Suite, this happens consistently.

I worked with a hospital director who said, “Moe, I’m trained to cut people, not lead them.” He was a renowned surgeon.

Leaders at every level fake it until they make it, hoping against hope that their expert knowledge and grit will be good enough.

It does not have to be this way.

Leading consists of practical behaviors, mindsets, and skills that can be taught and, more importantly, learned and practiced like any other skill.

It’s not some mystical pseudo-science that only the rare few are gifted to comprehend.

We simply don’t teach leadership skills in business school, nursing school, medical school, trade apprenticeships, technical programs, and more. We expect them to know how to lead people and do it well from the start.

This means companies and organizations are left picking up the slack.

Leaders need to embrace the mindset of “practice.”

Rather than taking on a hero’s mindset that they must know everything, do everything, solve everything, and be good at leading from the get-go, leaders can think of their leadership tenure as one big opportunity to practice.

In other fields, we do not expect the good ones to miraculously show up perfectly.

Famed Cellist Yo-Yo Ma surely made and still makes lots of squawks and squeaks on his cello when he is prepping to play at Carnegie Hall.

Basketball star Michael Jordan, as he has said, has missed more than 9000 shots on the basket in his career and lost 300 games.

Wilbur and Orville Wright survived many serious crashes before their historic first flight.

Less than 25% of new businesses make it longer than 10 years.

The majority of Olympians do not win medals.

So, why do we expect People Leaders not to be learners?

The best place to start is with self-awareness.

Back to Cassie for a minute. When she first connected the dots that her innate personality was oriented towards helpfulness, she developed a keen insight into what was happening in her work relationships.

By over-indexing on taking care of people, she minimized people’s struggles and, at worst, overlooked the brave feedback conversations so critical to helping people bring their best to their job. Leaning on her skills in the emotional intelligence area of empathy and relationships, Cassie experimented with more direct, clear, and focused conversations about accountability than ever before.

The result? She became more skilled at telling the truth about problems and issues without losing her compassion.

The result was higher trust, deeper engagement, and better performance from everyone on her team.

And every time she entered a new difficult conversation, her palms still got sweaty. Not all of them went well, and she had to repair and recalibrate.

But slowly, over time, Cassie is becoming a better People Leader.

If this continues, she will surely be one of the best by the time she retires.

Leaders are learners.

Learners do it imperfectly and make mistakes.

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