Leaders, Here’s to Not Being Normal

Transitioning from individual contributor to leadership success is not an ordinary road to travel. But successful leaders aren’t normal, and that’s a good thing.

By Peter Langton


co_0413_lead_302This story was one of the most popular on CLOmedia.com for 2016.

Leadership success is about acting and reacting unlike the crowd. Leaders must have direct and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. They must make decisions and not just react or editorialize about others’ decisions. They must walk the walk, talk the talk, and stay above the fray. Leadership is not normal. Those who excel at it are often not normal. Normal people don’t want the stress and responsibility of leadership. Leaders need to remember that people don’t act like them, think like them and work like them.

Pages upon pages of advice have been written to guide and coach the effective manager. A quick Google search of management advice yields too many results to even categorize. The bottom line for managers is that there is no one clear path to management success. Managers must clear their own path by embracing the role of leadership.

Too often, individuals are promoted through the ranks for their subject-matter expertise. These subject-matter experts excel because they are on the front line delivering products and services or making the wheels of an organization turn. They are so good at what they do that they often get promoted and become a supervisor, lead or manager. This concept is often referred to as the “Peter Principle,” formulated by Canadian educator and “hierarchiologist” Laurence J. Peter.

The Peter Principle states that individuals rise to their level of incompetence. When we promote subject-matter experts into leadership roles, we assume the skills that made them the expert are transferable to leadership. An entry-level marketing person uses their creativity, project management skills, and product or service knowledge to position and communicate the advantages and uses of the target product. When that marketing expert is promoted to marketing manager, a new set of skills is necessary. These skills include engaging, motivating, and managing workflow and employees.

Often, time management and organizational skills assist in the transition, but the new challenge will be to change the supervisor’s focus from individual contributor to team contributor and facilitator. Just because someone is creative and organized doesn’t mean they can translate those skills to leadership. Those who are not normal survive the challenge and adapt to the new role and responsibilities; others fail.

Once the new supervisor masters the art of working with others and managing a team, their success may lead to the next promotion: department manager. This new function will require skills to manage managers and communicate up the hierarchical chain and across the organization. The department manager needs greater communication skills and political and organizational savvy, as well as skills for resource allocation, budgeting and the ability to handle new challenges as they arise.

Success will not come to the general population; instead, those who are not normal will succeed. What happens when a supervisor does not transition to director and does not succeed in this new role? According to the Peter Principle, that supervisor stays put — she has risen to her level of incompetence. Essentially, once someone can no longer develop the additional skills needed to be successful in a particular role, no more promotions.

Successful organizations plan and develop leaders. However, it is a rare organization that has the resources and insight to monitor and address the developing leaders’ needs. Success often depends on the rising leader’s motivation and commitment. The “not normal” prevail.

How do we avoid the trap of reaching our level of incompetence? Follow these steps:

  1. Continually work to understand strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has them. Knowing one’s own allows an individual to build a team with varying skill sets that can address blind spots. Never be afraid to admit weaknesses.
  2. Find a mentor. Seek guidance from someone who has successfully made the transition.
  3. Become a mentor. Everyone has something to offer. Often, teaching someone the ropes is the best way to review what skills need sharpening
  4. Read, write, listen. Read articles on management and leadership. Write down goals, successes and failures. Listen to others’ experiences, and to staff, peers and supervisors. Copy what works, and learn from others’ mistakes.

Leadership is not for everyone. The big title and the big chair look good from the outside, but leadership is a difficult task to master, and many leaders fail. Those who are successful at working their craft are not normal.

Be not normal. Be different, be successful.

Peter Langton is an organizational psychologist at Pierce Aluminum. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.