I’m deep in my own leadership evolution. While I’m an active, engaged leader with all the traditional leadership markers — I oversee a team, I manage workflows, I make key decisions — I’m still, in many ways, an emerging leader. And underscoring it all, I’m heavily focused on developing new leaders within my team and my organization.
Having this immediate and broad-reaching perspective has given me greater clarity when it comes to my own path as well as the paths I’m actively creating for other aspiring leaders. And what I’ve noticed over and over again is that, while every leader and aspiring leader is unique, and all follow paths as diverse as they are, they all seem to operate on a spectrum that runs from “Reluctant Rising Star” to “Expectant Executive.”
Understanding the nuances of these leadership jumping-off points helps me as a manager drive these team members towards the right training and support they need to excel. And, equally importantly, understanding these nuances has made me a better, more adept, and adaptable leader.
Reluctant Rising Stars
Unpacking this leadership spectrum means understanding two critical qualities: the desire to achieve and confidence. On one end of the spectrum is the Reluctant Rising Star, a classic overachieving individual contributor who has a palpable leadership spark. The challenge? They don’t necessarily recognize their potential or, simply, lack the confidence to take action and step into the leadership light.
Often, this employee is very good at their job and has the hard skills needed to transition into a more supervisory role. As the leader, supervisor, or mentor of a Reluctant Rising Star, it’s your job to recognize this talent. From there, don’t simply relegate this would-be leader to “work horse” or even “star player” status, as tempting as it may be — and as easily as they may seem to embrace the role. Instead, help this employee realize their innate abilities and work with them to overcome whatever confidence hurdles are standing in their way of becoming a leader.
On the other side of the spectrum is the Expectant Executive. As the name suggests, this person is confident — overconfident, even — and sees management as their destiny. Often younger or more junior in their careers, these would-be executives crave leadership. They want to lead because they want to lead, period, though they aren’t necessarily aware of what stepping into that role entails. Their only focus is that top rung and, as a result, they’re highly competitive, results-oriented, and often rise in the ranks very quickly.
The Expectant Executive isn’t lacking as an individual contributor. The very best Expectant Executives aren’t smoke and mirrors but, instead, highly skilled, highly influential, and highly committed employees who work hard to achieve success. In their mind, that’s part of the journey — if they keep pushing and keep excelling, they’ll be assigned to successful teams and, from there, be able to assume their rightful leadership role.
Managing to leadership type
Having worked with both Rising Stars and Executives and people who fall somewhere in between, it’s clear they can be extremely effective, extremely successful leaders. However, just as with any other skill, if they are to effectively step into these roles they need acknowledgment, training, and targeted support to overcome their individual shortcomings.
For example, the less confident Rising Star needs to recognize their potential and gain tangible leadership skills from a trusted mentor, colleague, or coach. They need encouragement. They need support. They need a little nudge here and there.
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To the Rising Star evolving into a leader —and stepping out of their comfort zone — is a process. Your goal as their leader is to ensure they stay the course and don’t slide back into their old overachieving, individual contributor habits. If you can do that, if you can provide the support and skills training, even the most reluctant of the Reluctant Rising Stars can be an incredibly effective leader.
Expectant Executives expect success — and they aren’t afraid to work for it. To be an effective leader, though, these professionals need to focus on strategies for bringing others along. Beyond that, though, Expectant Executives need to shift their mindset and learn to adapt to these “others” and their opinions and experiences.
Often, in their quest to reach the top, Expectant Executives forget that not everyone does things exactly the way they do. This simple realization can be frustrating given the success they’ve achieved as individual contributors. But, at the same time, bringing others to the table is critical to successful, long-term leadership, and Expectant Executives need to both learn and deeply embrace that notion.
Overall, managing Expectant Executives means helping evolve their empathy and emotional intelligence. The hard skills and the drive are there, and they certainly don’t need a confidence boost. But to transform into effective leaders, Expectant Executives need to listen, empathize, and understand there’s lots to be gained by enabling others to share the spotlight. Show them the way — and help them really believe it — and they’ll take it from there.
Seeing this spectrum take shape in my own department has been eye-opening. It’s also made me see the commonalities in all leaders, no matter how diverse their approaches, their achievements, and their confidence. Good leaders have a pervasive and almost infectious optimism that spreads within their immediate reporting structure and beyond. They’re hopeful, they’re forward looking and forward thinking and, even if they aren’t outwardly cheerful, there’s a positivity to their approach, their communication, and their engagement. And, as they evolve, great leaders also come to terms with the fact that, in these heightened roles, they’ll need to do things differently to excel. What makes a great individual contributor doesn’t make a great leader.
Ultimately, though, empowering potential leaders and honing yourself as a leader all comes down to one thing: a commitment to learning and growing, wherever you fall on the spectrum and wherever you are in your journey. To me, these are two essential pieces of the human experience that transcend leadership. To me, if you aren’t constantly learning and growing, you aren’t just lacking leadership qualities, you’re also lacking an essential piece of the human experience.