It’s Always “Show Time”

Leaders learn many of their important lessons through trial and error. I was no exception to that. And while learning from mistakes gets a lot of good press, the truth is that much of the time it would be preferable to learn from the experience of someone else instead. So for what it could be worth to you, here is one of the many lessons I learned the hard way: When you are in a leadership role, it is always “show time”.

Moving from an individual contributor to a manager/leader requires a new set of skills and some major shifts in thinking. It also requires a great deal more self awareness. Like it or not, people all over the organization are constantly looking at their leaders. We know that they are looking to us for direction, feedback and encouragement. But in addition to all of that, they are literally looking at us. They are noticing our behaviors, our moods, our action and our lack of action in areas from the important to the mundane. And from these observations, our staff are drawing conclusions about us, about them and about the work we are doing together.

I was newly promoted to a senior leadership role and in the first few months of that job the learning curve was incredibly steep. I was up for the challenge but I was definitely feeling it. So I did what most high achieving people would do: I dug down deep and worked extraordinarily hard from the moment I arrived at the office in the morning until the moment I fell into bed at night. One day one of my senior managers came by my office to share a rumor that concerned her. It was about me. The rumor going around my entire Division, apparently, was that I was arrogant and unapproachable. My senior manager did not experience me that way but she knew that if others in our Division did, that would translate to difficulties for all of us as we worked to achieve our goals. She was, of course, right.

I thanked her for sharing this information and promptly began to fret about it. “Arrogant” and “unapproachable” were the opposite of how I wanted to be experienced by staff. Those descriptions were the opposite of who I actually am and, frankly, they were in direct contradiction to the history of feedback I had received from both direct reports and colleagues. How could people think this about me now? What had changed? It was truly not understandable. . . until I reflected in detail about how I was “showing up” in my new job.

In my efforts to get the work done, meet the challenges and learn all that was necessary in my new role, I had become very focused and “heads down”. I parked somewhere different from most of the staff so that I could reach my office without wasted steps. I went to my computer immediately when I arrived in the morning in an effort to get a jump on the day’s demands. And my interactions with others were largely confined to those in meetings or to those with whom I needed to exchange information. Although none of these behaviors were intended to be a comment in any way about how I viewed my staff, my new job or my role as a leader, they were behaviors that communicated. I was being noticed in ways I had never knew mattered.

Fortunately, correcting this perception was not hard. But it took intentionality on my part about small things like how I entered the building and how I let my own sense of urgency about learning the job affect my hour by hour behavior. I suspect that most leaders would prefer that it were not this way. We would like to be able to have bad moods, slips of the tongue or just the freedom to be unthinking on occasion. But the mantle of leadership does not allow for such things without a price.

As leaders we must act intentionally. We must accept the fact that it is always “show time” and, therefore, even the small things we do or don’t do matter. Self awareness can be tiring but it is essential. So is the keen realization that when you hold a position of power, people watch you.

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