Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Risk taking and other rite of passage leadership challenges and tests

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on August 21, 2011

What makes a leader a leader, and perhaps more importantly what if anything is the defining rite of passage test for proving oneself as a true leader? A number of people have shared their thoughts on this set of issues with me and I find myself thinking through some of the possibilities as I write this posting.

Some people see the first time they have had to fire an employee as their defining test of leadership. I have written in past postings in this blog that I do not share that opinion, at least for simply firing a staff member per se. But a dismissal may become such a test if becomes the right type of learning opportunity.

• Even the most careful and thoughtful manager makes mistakes at least occasionally, and a hiring mistake can be a significant one. If coming to realize that and taking action to correct matters involves a dismissal and if this is taken as a genuine learning opportunity, that can be a watershed event in a manager’s leadership learning curve. Leaders need a depth of tempered judgment that can only come from making mistakes and learning from them, and from moving on from there.
• I will add that making a difficult choice and following through on it with care and thought can be a first non-trivial exercise of leadership authority. As a leader you have to be more than simply just another member of the team. And this particular challenge might be the first circumstance where you have to step forward from the group and take that sort of lead.
• If employee dismissal is only resorted to in order to clean up a difficulty and with nothing learned, as is too often the case, then this cannot be much of a leadership defining test.

I have written that managing your way through your first crisis can be an effective rite of passage test and for some and perhaps many managers this is their first real test. Here, an employee retention or dismissal decision may be your first real challenge and even your first real crisis, but a great many other business contexts can challenge you too and can serve as your rite of passage test. The key here is that you have to take a stand and make a decision, and then act upon it and what ever the nature of the challenge faced.

• Ultimately, I would say that most if not all true rite of passage leadership tests arrive as situations where you have to exercise judgment and take a calculated risk. And as leader, you have to do this on your own in making a final determining decision.

I have written in this blog many times about leadership’s core skill set with a need for good interpersonal and communications skills. I have written about developing and conveying a shared vision, and both as to where the organization is and to where it should be headed – and about how that goal can be reached. This begins before that first rite of passage test, and it all comes into sharp focus when you have to confront your rite of passage as a tested leader.

• The precise nature and details of the rite of passage challenge that you have to face as a new leader may be as individual as you are as a person, as a professional and as a leader.
• The details may and undoubtedly will vary, but the basic requirements of successfully bringing your team and your organization through this challenge holds true for any leader.
• And bottom line, success in passing this test is not going to be seen in you as the leader as much as it will be in those you lead and the organization that the members of your team comprise.

You can find this and related postings in Business Strategy and Operations and also see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development with its series on management and leadership in a career context.

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