Ten Lessons for New Leaders

This is the season when new leaders are found for the next school year, after a series of interviews, group assessments, and the like. Nothing in that process prepares a new leader for the job, however. I spent a lot of time mentoring new leaders during my more than 40 years in the business. It didn’t seem to make a lot of difference whether they were highly trained or just thrown into the job: they always seemed to make the same mistakes. While there’s no room for an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts in this short column, let me lay out a few things I learned the hard way that might be useful to you.

First of all, understand that you are the new germ being introduced into an old body. You are the invader, and no matter how well-intentioned you are, the organization sees you as a potential threat. Even those who wanted a new leader will feel this way. They wanted to see other people change in the organization, and didn’t envision that you might come in and make them change too. And it doesn’t matter if you happen to have been promoted from within the organization. Others will have a hard time seeing you in the new role and will be resistant. They will not understand why the old relationships have changed, and they will resent you for it. So, lesson one: prepare to be resisted.

Whatever those who hired you told you they want you to do, you should cut that in half. They don’t really want you to turn everything upside-down. They just wanted some improvement. I had a friend who was named superintendent in an urban district. He promptly cleaned out the central office and the board promptly fired him. He was confused. He told me the board had wanted him to clean out the central office. I reminded him that they didn’t really want everyone fired-just the people they didn’t like. Boards and superintendents tend to exaggerate what they want from the new leader. Lesson two: be judicious in your change efforts.

Like any new driver, you will have a tendency to over-steer. When I first learned to drive and turned a corner, I tended to turn the wheel too much. I wanted to make sure I made the turn, but often ended up on the curb. Remember that no matter what you have done before, it didn’t really prepare you to be in charge. You need to keep a light hand on the steering wheel until you get a feel for the car. Lesson three: drive with caution.

You are the headlight for the organization. You need to be the one who sheds light on what is out there. You need to help the organization find its vision and see what lies ahead. But you are also the mirror. You have to help everyone see what they are doing and how they look. To pull this off, you have to be a reflective thinker. You have to remember that you can’t move forward without stepping back. Lesson four: all the pressures of the job will push you toward reacting-stay reflective.

Next, you must use your zoom lens. You have to keep moving your lens back and forth between extreme close-up and distance viewing. You have to see the dangers under your feet, but you have to look into the distance to set the course for the organization. Lesson five: use all the settings on your zoom lens.

Likewise, you need to use all the gears in the car. Certainly, you want to use drive much of the time. That will get you where you need to go. But it is good to remember that most cars have several drive gears-some are good for the open highway, and some are lower and give you more power. Sometimes reverse is appropriate. If you encounter a wall in front of you, the appropriate response is not to step on the gas and drive faster. You will just wreck the car, explode the airbags, and still have a wall in front of you. Sometimes you have to back up and drive around the obstacle. And there is also a need for neutral. That is the time when you reflect, check the map, and figure out where you are headed. Lesson six: use all your gears.

As the leader, people will come to you for help, support, encouragement, energy, ideas, etc. They want something from you, and it is your job to give it to them. They have to dip their bucket in your well. But if you aren’t careful, you will find yourself depleted from all the outflow. You’ll end up with a dry well. Keep your well full by maintaining balance in your life. You have a life too, and you need encouragement and support and new ideas. Read, rest, and relax with your family. Lesson seven: don’t forget to keep your well filled.

Everything you do and say will be magnified beyond your intention. You must choose your symbolism carefully and understand that what you attend to, others will attend to. To quote the old Sting song: every word you say and every move you make, they’ll be watching you. Lesson eight: for leaders, symbols are cymbals.

It is good to keep moving between the floors that house your head and your heart. A leader’s soul is as important as her mind. It is not enough to do the right things-you have to do them for the right reasons. You are the symbolic soul of the organization. Lesson nine: use all your tools, your head, your heart, and your soul.

Keep it simple, stupid. As the new leader, you should focus on a few easy-to-understand initiatives to move the organization. People can only handle so much at a time. You will be full of ideas and energy. Cool your jets a bit. Lesson ten: the organization didn’t get the way it is in a year, and you aren’t going to change it in a year.

Leadership is an art and a science, and a new leader must work to grasp the artistry of the job as well as its rubrics. Good luck, and be careful out there.