The scariest thing about becoming a leader

By Jo Miller

Imagine if you had the chance to develop one critical leadership skill long before you needed it, knowing it could prevent you from possibly failing in a future role. Which skill would you choose?

A human resources manager approached me after a conference keynote, asking, “What is the scariest thing about becoming a leader that most people only find out once they are in a position of leadership?” She wanted to anticipate that challenge, and prepare for it by developing the skills before she needed them.

From having had many conversations with women who have made it into the ranks of senior leadership, I was able to share with her that the scariest thing about becoming a leader is making the leap from doing to leading.

This means letting go of being the hands-on expert at what you do, letting go of being in control, and of being the one to “just do it.”

In short, this means realizing that it’s not about you anymore. It’s all about the team.

So what can make this an easier, less scary transition to navigate? Here are three ways to do just that:

1 Learn from the best

For starters, find a few leaders who do this well, and watch how they conduct themselves, how they treat their people, how they delegate authority and how they trust others to get work done. Watch how they respond to situations where you might be tempted to dive in and fix things yourself.

Liz Brenner, vice president of human resources with SAP, says, “My best managers trusted me to get my work done. They didn’t come knocking each day to check my work or make sure I was at my desk during certain hours. Trust your people — unless they give you reason not to.”

2 Build a circle of trust

And whatever level you’re currently at in your career, go out of your way to surround yourself with great people. Find people whose strengths complement your own, who you feel supportive of and who you can lean on in a pinch.

Experience what it’s like to be a part of a team of high performers where there’s high trust.

It’s easy to be intimidated by a super-smart employee or co-worker, and feel like you’ve got to compete with them for recognition, the best assignments and your manager’s attention. But instead of trying to compete with them, identify the strengths you have that could complement theirs. Become an asset to that person, and become a powerhouse team.

3 Get comfortable leading from the sidelines

Finally, learn to lead from a distance. As Hallmark’s corporate culture adviser, Tara Jaye Frank has observed that the best leaders know when to let go. Frank says, “ Leading from the sidelines has its place. If we want to enable meaningful contributions from all and maximize our talent, it’s important we find that place and learn to occupy it gracefully.”

So what’s the scariest thing about becoming a leader? It’s letting go of control, and letting others do what they do best.

So let go of the fear, trust others, dare them to go for it and get energized by what you can create together.

l Jo Miller is founding editor of and CEO of Women’s Leadership Coaching Inc.; @jo_miller

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