Making A Transition to Leadership

When people first take up the reins of leadership in their organizations, a number of changes take place.  Among them is a change in how the leader relates to those who report to him or her.  I call this the Relationship Shift…not very original but there it is.

For instance, as individual contributors, we often develop relationships with our co-workers, many of whom may actually become our friends.  We tend to pick and choose the people with whom we become close.  We become involved in their lives.  They become involved in ours.  And the balance of power between us tends to remain reasonably level.

Promotion to a leadership role changes all that. In fact, a promotion to a leadership role demands the establishment of a professional distance between the leader and those who work under his or her supervision if it is going to be effective.

If you are a new leader, this does not mean that you must isolate yourself from the people who work with you, far from it.  It does mean though that the relationships you develop must transcend your personal feelings about the people in your work group and expand to include an impartiality that allows you to make appropriate decisions and get the work done.

This shift in relationships is not a one-way street.  With promotion to a leadership role comes a change in the balance of power.  People who were once peers become, (organizationally speaking), subordinates and that means that you will have some influence over areas of their working life that you previously did not.   They will be looking for evidence that they can trust you with that.  And they will expect you to be fair about it.  So, you may not be invited to lunch as you once were.  And if you are, you should consider the wisdom of accepting.

The up side to this (and there’s always an up-side) is that as a boss, you will have opportunities to build new relationships with not only those who work for you but with a new set of peers.  One of the crucial roles of a leader is to build relationships across a variety of lines of work.  This allows for easier communication, collaboration between and among people and an opportunity to learn new things from a variety of perspectives.  And that’s a good thing.

So while you may initially feel the loss of your previous working relationships, there is a bigger world out there for you to explore.

In 1989, a movie was made about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, a Civil War regiment comprised of all African American men.   The movie is called Glory, a wonderful, often heart wrenching, sometimes graphic film. It is also the story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his experience in making a significant relationship shift of his own.

Here’s a clip.

So, when you first became a leader, how did your relationships change?  What did you have to get used to?  What surprised you?  If you are a leadership veteran, what advice would you give new leaders?

If you looked at the clip, what did you notice about the relationship between Colonel Shaw and his second in command? Between Colonel Shaw and his friend Thomas?

What else did you see?



Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, communication, Leadership Development, Leadership Shift

6 responses to “Making A Transition to Leadership

  1. Gwyn,
    Wonderful, thought-provoking post that resonates with me. I remember about 2000 years ago, when I was going to law school, I was a law clerk for a firm I eventually became associated with. During my clerk and associate years, I had a wonderful relationship with all the secretaries and office staff.

    Then, the big boom. I accepted an offer of a partnership, and everything changed…On the secretary and office staff part. I was no longer privy to the water cooler conversations; and when I requested certain work be done, there was a definite chill in the air. Who is this nouvelle partner? We knew him when.

    After about one year, my former crew realized I was still Larry B, but came with a different label. The lesson I stumbled across was don’t change your core, candor, and humility. It is not you that has to adapt; its your former crew.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Larry, an important message I get from your comment is that when we become leaders, we must do it authentically, meaning that leadership does not ask us to pretend to be someone we are not.
      I think too, that when we move up to leadership in a group or company that sees us in another way, there is adjustment in perspective required on the part of both the new leader and the new followers. You had to get used to not being privy to “water-cooler” conversation and they had to get used to taking direction from you.
      Thank you for sharing your story!

  2. I found the use of the clip makes a great example of how one struggles with the changes in relationships because of the changing roles of responsibility. One of my earlier experiences in becoming a leader and supervisor was during my career in the Air Force. Particularly, I remember the transition from the ranks of Airman to the rank of Sergeant. I learned three important points from those experiences. One, when one accepts the role of a leader or increased responsibility, it will change the relationship dynamics irregardless. Two, people will have a reaction to this changed dynamic. Either they will react negatively with jealousy, discontent, or anger when they learn they can not leverage the friendship for their advantage (kind of like the friend asking to speak in private in the video but being reminded of the proper protocol), or they will need time to transition to the new dynamics. Thirdly, it is important to be clear of the structure of the relationship from the beginning, and that mutual respect will be part of that structure.



  3. Gwyn Teatro

    Dale, I think your third point about being clear about the structure of the relationship from the beginning is particularly critical to making a smooth transition to leadership. I suspect we often skip that step, perhaps because there is always that tendency to make assumptions about how things are going to be.
    The clip, of course, points out a very solid leadership structure and protocol, and for good reason. In situations where lives are in the balance, an authoritative style of leadership is often called for.
    In other circumstances though, such authority can be misplaced. So, often the task of a new leader, when making the relationship shift is to not only change his/her approach to former peers but also determine how much change is required and what shape it will take. Nobody said it was easy 🙂
    Thank you for sharing your experiences here and for making me think a little more about this.

    • One of the first leadership models I was taught in the various leadership classes that the Air Force provided was “Situational Leadership.” It was useful to me in order to understand the necessity or situations where an authoritative style may be necessary in life and death or emergency situations, but it also taught me the importance of developing those you had responsibility for. I came to learn that the more you vested and engaged your people, as well as a clear cut structure, made the necessity of being authoritative less applicable because they were already doing what is necessary.

      You are welcome and enjoyed the opportunity to share…


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