“I’m not sure I’m ready to lead a team. It’s a lot of pressure. I’m not ready for the responsibility. If I mess up, everyone will know!”
Have you had similar thoughts about taking up a leadership role, especially if you’re a first-time manager? You are not alone. When I was first tasked to lead a team of 15—having only managed one officer previously—I felt so inadequate that I asked to delay my appointment, so that I could understudy my predecessor.
It’s worth remembering that managing yourself is different from managing others. Experts point out that leaders must navigate different transitions as they take on greater responsibilities in organisations. The first is the shift from being an individual contributor to being a manager of others.1
All too often, rookie managers make the mistake of thinking that success as a manager comes from doing more of what they have been doing—instead of doing different things.
What are some different things successful leaders do? There is no one-size-fits-all answer—most leaders develop their own personal leadership style or philosophy.
Here are three principles (or “leadership heuristics”) I use, that you may find helpful.
1. “Leadership is multiplicative, not additive.”
The larger the team you lead, the more you should allocate your energy to facilitating the work of those that report to you. Unless absolutely necessary, you should not get drawn into the day-to-day work of the team.
I think of this as multiplying the work that your team produces, rather than simply adding to it.
If you can help everyone in your team be just 10% more effective, the net impact will be far greater than simply focusing on the task at hand. Think of this as a shift in focus from working in the team, to working on the team. In more concrete terms, this could mean focusing on:
a. Clarifying work objectives for your staff in order to avoid abortive work;
b. Creating routines or structures to aid information sharing within teams;
c. Engaging in foresight, planning and direction-setting activities;
d. Building a positive working culture; or
e. Cultivating relationships with internal and external stakeholders to support the team’s work.
Action Step: Take stock of the work activities you engage in on a regular basis. If you are spending too much time in additive mode (doing the work yourself), or are constantly fighting fires, consider being more deliberate about allocating time to multiplicative activities (supporting others to do the work).
2. “Have one objective, not five.”
Mr J Y Pillay, former chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisors and former chairman of Singapore Airlines once said, “Whenever you embark on anything, please tell me what is your object. And there must be one. I don’t want five.”2 In public service, we often find ourselves balancing difficult trade-offs. For example, a grant scheme with a budget constraint has to choose between scale (helping more people) and impact (providing more assistance per person). Trying to have one’s cake and eat it can sometimes work. But if you are not careful, or if the objectives are not clearly defined, incoherence can result. When the time comes to implement the proposal, officers up and down the line may project their own interpretation of how these trade-offs are to be decided.
To avoid taking a position on these hard trade-offs is to abdicate a core responsibility of leadership: which is to help their teams make sense of the complexity that surrounds them and clarify the direction that should be taken.
Action Step: When embarking on a new project with multiple goals or stakeholders, be clear about what is absolutely necessary for success, and what is a good-to-have. Communicate this regularly to your team.
3. “Use your zone of indifference to empower teams.”
One of the hardest things to do as a manager is to know when to let go and how to delegate. Taking everything on by yourself, and insisting on having a say on every issue, just makes it more likely that you become a chokepoint for decisions. It also denies your reports the opportunity to exercise their judgment and to develop their own managerial potential.
In my teams, I use the idea of a “zone of indifference” to tell my team when my trust in their judgment exceeds the benefit of my being directly involved in refining the decision or recommendation to the n-th degree. It creates a simple, shared vocabulary to describe situations where a good enough answer will suffice, and where there is more organisational learning from my reports being empowered to make a decision that I promise to support, after the fact.
Action Step: Don’t get hung up about wanting to own every piece of work that your team does. Find opportunities to give your direct reports more opportunities to exercise their judgment. They will feel that their views are valued, and you will have more time to value-add elsewhere.
Communicate Your Priorities
What each of these heuristics has in common is the need to be deliberate and have criteria for prioritising:
a. what types of behaviours you will engage in as a leader;
b. what goals you will apply yourself and your team to; and
c. when to develop staff.
Additionally, each of these heuristics call for clear, continual communication of these priorities with your team.
Enjoy the Ride
Finally, know that your feelings of self-doubt are an asset—not a liability. Studies suggest that the most self-critical leaders tend to be the best performing leaders.3 This is because they are also the most aware of their shortcomings.
Leadership is not a destination but a journey. So long as self-doubt does not paralyse you, it can be a powerful motivation to keep improving.
I am reminded of the saying, “I am not young enough to know everything.” This is particularly true for leadership— the more experience you gain, the more conscious of your shortcomings you become. This should translate into an ever growing determination to succeed by working through and with those around you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Bay is completing a management degree at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. Prior to his studies, he headed the Industry, Economic Regulation, and International Strategy units at the Ministry of Communications and Information. Jason has also served as Special Assistant to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, and has had stints with the Ministry of Law, Strategic Policy Office (now Centre for Strategic Futures), and Ministry of Defence. A recovering engineer turned policymaker, his interests lie at the intersection of technology and governance.
- Ram Charan, Steve Drotter, and Jim Noel, The Leadership Pipeline: How to Build the Leadership-Powered Company (Jossey-Bass, 2001), Chapter 1, “Six Leadership Passages: An Overview”.
- Andrea Hamilton, “J.Y. Pillay: Pioneer Stock”, Asiaweek, October 16, 1998, accessed April 17, 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/ASIANOW/asiaweek/98/1016/cs8c.html.
- Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, “We Like Leaders Who Underrate Themselves”, Harvard Business Review, November 10, 2015, accessed April 17, 2019, https://hbr.org/2015/11/we-like-leaders-who-underrate-themselves.