Imagine having your team go from five people to 80 in an instant. That’s what happened to Mike Calihan, a senior executive with Aldridge Electric Inc., a national infrastructure construction company based in Chicago.
He had been a project manager, managing relatively small electrical projects. He had been involved in crafting a response to a bid put out by the Illinois Department of Transportation. As he tells it, “It was a longshot, because we hadn’t managed a project for this type of work at the scale specified in the bid.” Calihan had a big-gulp moment when the bid was opened and he saw that Aldridge had won the contract. He was tapped to lead the behemoth project, which meant leading a team that was 16 times larger than he had ever led before.
As he explains it, “At first, I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I was in way over my head, and scared as hell.” When asked how he went from being a manager of five people to a leader of eighty, he replied, “Sometimes you have to fake it till you make it. You don’t start with the skills; you develop them along the way.”
A lot of leadership and organizational development books have started to underscore the importance of authenticity. When you’re a leader, the people you’re leading want to know that the power that accompanies your leadership hasn’t gone to your head. They want to know that you “get” that leadership is a privilege, not an entitlement, and that you still pull up your own britches, just like they do. People want to know that you remember your roots and that you haven’t forgotten where you came from. In short, they want to know that you’re real.
It’s important to remember, though, that leadership is not just a way of being and behaving, it’s a role. And when you’re in the role of leader, you have to perform that role. What you display to others sometimes has to be based on what the role calls for, and what others’ need, versus what you may actually be feeling.
For example, if people are freaking out about a large new acquisition the organization is making, you’ll only get them more upset if you freak out, too, even if you quietly are. What you portray and what you’re actually feeling may sometimes be at odds. But you don’t lead people according to where they are, you lead them according to where they need to go.
Often that means that your leadership demeanor needs to be compensatory to your followers’ demeanor. When people are freaking out, you need to portray confidence and resolve. When people are complacent and apathetic, you need to portray worry and concern. This may not exactly be authentic, but it’s what people need and what the role of leader calls for you to portray.
You, authentically inauthentic
The trick is not to be so caught up in your leadership role that you look like a histrionic Shakespearean thespian. You’ve still got to be real and unpretentious. When you don’t know something, you still have to be honest about it. It’s just that you also have to cloak your true feelings every now and then. When you do, you’ll often start out with one set of feelings and end with another anyway. At the start of a big hairy project, you may be full of knee-knocking fear — and keeping your anxiety under wraps will serve the project better than if you inject it into everyone else. The more you get into the project, the more the fear will start to lift and confidence will start to grow. Yes, as Calihan suggested, after faking it you start to make it.
By the way, feeling like you’re faking it will be a predominant feeling throughout your career. It’s normal and natural for leaders to have a nagging feeling that this is the day I’ll be found out. No leader has all the answers to every problem, so it takes a lot of improvisation. You’ll be making up a lot of stuff as you go along. As you do, people still need to see you as competent. They don’t expect you to have all the answers, they just expect you to not shrink from the questions. You were selected to the role of leader for a reason, to perform. That performance goes beyond delivering results. It includes portraying that you know what you’re doing, even though you sometimes don’t. Here are some tips for being a Genuine Faker:
- Let ’em see you: People need to know that you have a life outside of work, just like them. They need to see your non-work identity. Occasionally share stories from your family life. Let people know what you like to do for fun outside of work. Include pictures from your outside-of-work life in your workspace. Show people who you really are when you step outside of the role of leader.
- Plumb your unconfident past: Think about moments in your career when you felt in over your head. What was the situation/opportunity, and how did it come about? How did you deal with your lack of confidence? How did your confidence evolve as the situation/opportunity progressed? How transparent was what you were experiencing to others around you? How might the lessons from that situation/opportunity be used as a reference point when you feel over your head in future situations?
- Clarify Point B: Leadership often involves moving people from Point A to Point B. The behaviors required to be successful at Point B are usually different than those at Point A. As a leader, you have to practice the behaviors that the future requires before others will catch on. People take cues from you. Draw a line down a piece of paper and create two headers: Point A and Point B. Differentiate between the behaviors that make a person successful today (Point A) versus the behaviors that will make a person successful after they’ve moved to Point B. Acting as the leader means adopting the Point B behaviors before others do.
Bill Treasurer is the chief encouragement officer of Giant Leap Consulting, Inc. He is the author of four books, including “Leaders Open Doors: A Radically Simple Leadership Approach to Lift People, Profits, and Performance” (TD Press, 2014). For over two decades, Treasurer and his company has developed leaders in such renowned organizations as NASA, Accenture, Spanx, UBS Bank, Lenovo, Walsh Construction, CNN, Children’s Miracle Network, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Learn more at GiantLeapConsulting.com.
If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.