Leaders rarely specifically train to be one. Instead, they evolve slowly through a variety of iterations and experiences, until one day they look back and realise they’re a leader now. There are many ways to develop people into leaders but here I’m going to talk about a single tactic that had the most profound effect on me and I now deploy myself.
A long time ago, in a digital agency far, far away…
I was working in a small digital agency as a Digital Project Manager that also did the front-end development on projects. I also was line managing for the first time and generally operated at a senior level on a day-to-day basis.
One day, the Managing Director informed me and another senior person that he was going on a big holiday to Australia for six weeks in a few months. He also informed us that while away, we would take over running the agency.
At the time, I recall feeling flattered and also thinking that was quite cool and not much more. It turns out, that’s because I hadn’t really grasped the full nature of this responsibility.
The shock of the dress rehearsal
It was around six weeks until the MD’s big trip and since informing us about it, nothing much had changed. Then one day, I had something to go and ask him for a decision on something. I don’t remember what it was but asking him for advice or a decision was a regular occurrence.
I approached his desk, explained the context, asked for a decision and then he hit me with it. He simply looked at me, smiled and said “I’m not here.” I was perplexed by this answer and replied “Eh?” Again he said he wasn’t there. For a moment I began to consider the possibility that he’d lost his mind but he then followed up with a line that is the quick hack to develop leaders.
From now until I go away on my trip, you’re going to act as if I’m not here. As far as you’re concerned, I’ve already left and you’re in charge. You’re going to make decisions like this yourself without asking me for guidance.My old Managing Director
That was when the gravity of the responsibility first hit me. I suddenly realised one of the big differences between just being senior and truly leading. When you truly lead, there is a risk because you’re often out in front with no guide rails.
Whatever it was I was asking for a decision on, I’d never made without approval before and it hit me, I’d always had a safety net. Well my MD was now removing that safety net and I admit it, I was absolutely terrified.
As I stood at his desk with this new daunting reality enveloping me, I was lost for words. I managed a nervous smile but also a nod of the head, in recognition of the pure genius of this method. It felt like I’d just been chucked in the deep end for my own good.
But was it really the deep end?
In the deep end but with armbands
Over the next week or so, I realised that I’d have to make decisions but that my MD was still around, hearing and seeing the thinking behind the decisions before they were made i.e. in reality, my safety net was still there and he’d support me if needed.
In reality, I’d been chucked into the deep end but I had armbands on.
However, the initial shock I felt when being told I had to make a decision that had associated risk, without being able to get validation first, sobered me up to the fact that when my boss is away, that would be my new reality. It made me realise that this was a time to practice making decisions with less risk than when alone.
So that’s what I did, I started making decisions on my own and before I knew it, the day had come when my boss left for his trip. That first Monday of being in charge was surreal. The agency and everyone at it continued to operate just has it had on the previous Friday. The activity was the same and the sounds were the same but one thing was different and that was me.
I felt the weight of the responsibility and suddenly I was watching and listening to everything going on with newfound alertness.
What happened over the next six weeks both shaped me and surprised me and will go down as one of the most valuable experiences of my career to date.
What six weeks leading taught me
At some point during those six weeks, I had to make my first decision alone.
It was so long ago, I don’t recall what it was but I do remember how scared I was. I also remember that when everyone in the office was looking at me, awaiting my decision, I made it, almost as if I was on autopilot.
Inside, I’d just done a huge thing and felt equal amounts of fear and elation but to others, it was just another mundane decision that had been made and they now knew which direction to go in. It felt strange, having people trust you completely.
This was my first leadership lesson. The realisation that no leaders have a crystal ball and know how things will pan out. I learnt there and then that leaders are just people with all the same insecurities and flaws as anyone else. They just happen to be in a position where they have to use their best judgement and experience to make decisions and hope they turn out to be correct more often than not.
This lesson resulted in me never again seeing leaders as almighty omnipotent scary beings but simply as fellow humans trying to do their best.
From that day on, I felt at complete ease when talking to any leaders and was able to empathise with them in a big way. You’d be surprised how much this helps during a career, especially when trying to influence senior stakeholders that many are intimidated by.
As the weeks rolled on, I also noticed how quickly I became more and more comfortable making decisions alone.
When you make a decision alone and the world doesn’t implode, your confidence increases and the more you do it, the less you fear it, which is true of almost all scary things.
As I made decisions, I also noticed a strange shift in how people were treating me. They started to treat me like a leader. They also started to think I now owned the phantom leadership crystal ball that meant I could predict the future. We still had chats and laughs as we did before but there was just a subtle shift not only in how people viewed me but also how I felt within myself.
I was becoming a leader.
Deploying this tactic to create leaders
Since this experience, the effect it had on me and the lessons I learnt, I’ve deployed this tactic many times to begin to create future leaders.
The optimal time to use this is when you have someone that has good experience, great instincts, is ready to move to the next level but has become a little too comfortable having a safety net and hasn’t taken your hints and advice to begin to believe in themselves and start to make decisions.
You start by telling them this story, weeks or maybe months before you plan to drop them in the deep end with armbands on.
Then, at some point, when they come to you for a decision, you feel the time is right, the decision is not too critical and knowing you’ll be there to support them initially before backing away, you simply say “I’m not here.“