Taking Command – Your Turn at the Helm

Every leader experiences that first adrenalin rush – tinged with a bit of uncertainty – when we first take command of a department, a company, or a military unit.

Part of the mixed emotions we experience can be linked to the very real feeling that we have finally achieved a career ambition – we are in command – or, as the Navy calls it, we have taken the helm.  And when we take the helm it is our job to make it our own, using our experience, knowledge, and leadership capabilities to the utmost for the benefit of our team members and our organization.

In speaking with clients new to leadership, they often open up about what they are experiencing, feeling constraints they might not have anticipated and freedom of choice that can sometimes be almost unnerving.

“You mean, I can actually DO that?” one client said to me the other day as we discussed decision-making as a leader.  My follow-on question, “If not you, then who?”  A nod of understanding and agreement reached back to me as the answer.

In coaching, we join with clients through inquiry and curiosity, posing powerful questions that leaders might not have the time or perspective to ask themselves.  We seek to evoke what is inside of the individual – the idea that they already have the knowledge and the capabilities to be a leader – if they take the time to slow down and recognize the value of awareness-building in any situation.  It is vital to our development.  I often remind myself, colleagues, clients, and friends: “Awareness before action.”

I was speaking with a client the other day who faced an issue that can often happen in companies.  Namely, someone who had been in a senior leadership position previously was now in the client’s direct reporting chain.  The former leader was now their subordinate.  I should note that in the military, after a “change of command,” the former leader leaves the unit and seldom returns.  This can’t always happen in civilian organizations.

This person who had served as a sort of mentor and teacher for my client was no doubt himself experiencing a dilemma as he confronted a new reality.  Combine this with my client, who was straddling a fence, wanting to use the perspective that the former mentor could provide, while knowing that those resources in some ways might infringe upon leadership decision-making.    As we talked, it also became apparent to the new leader that the former teacher/ mentor also had a different style and was effectively arguing against the approaches my client had mapped out – oftentimes to third parties through what we call triangulation.

“Who is the boss now?” I asked.   “And the responsibility for decisions – tell me how they are shared – or are they yours alone?” I added.

The client knew the answers and began to consider and then talk about how the roles had shifted and how the ground upon which they previously walked had effectively changed when the leadership role had been assigned.

“It’s my job now and I’m the boss,” the client emphasized.   “I can seek advice from others and ensure that all opinions are heard, but at the end of the day, it’s my command and I’m at the helm.”

It was then that I knew the client’s perspective had shifted – realizing that the new role was theirs – and understanding that the way they would do the job might well be different from the mentor or any previous department heads –but would be equally powerful and likely even more effective.

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Dave Bushy
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