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Posted by on Jun 28, 2011

“It Finally Hit Me — I Have to Learn All-New Skills”

It was a pleasant lunch. As usual in this business, the conversation was around leadership, organizations and culture.

The point was made for the umpteenth time in my life that the federal government often promotes people into supervisory positions who are very skilled technically, but not very good in managing people.

I invoked one of my favorite expressions from Dan Goleman, who quoted one person in such a position who said: “It finally hit me – I have to learn all-new skills.”

One of the diners said, “You know, in my life I’ve had to do that several times.”

It was a succinct, yet powerful statement. No one should overlook or underestimate its significance.

The power in this approach to work and life resides in the adaptability, resilience and change-readiness it is based on. It proves an openness, a yielding to the rhythms of life, and a proper location of subject and object. It is also a way to facilitate movement through the stages of adult development. (See Leadership Agility by Bill Joiner for an excellent treatment of this topic.)

It is a stance of behaviorally being able to let go of things that may have worked, even for decades. It means stepping into uncertainty, risk and even fear. What if it doesn’t work? What if you fail?

Yet the circumstances of our work and lives demand sometimes that we change, even when we may not want to, or like what the change represents. It is the difference between, as Viktor Frankl put it, asking what you want out of life versus asking what life wants from you.

There is no need to belabor the point on resistance to change. We see it frequently; much less often in ourselves, where it is so easy to get up each day and pretty much do what we did the day before – no matter that the context and demands of the environment have changed.

I offered that I have experienced more than a few leaders in workshops and coaching who have proclaimed as soon as we started: “I’ve been at this (insert number of) years, know what I’m doing and I’m not changing.” This is often accompanied by a folding of the arms. Resistance, even stubbornness, thinking that since you have a hammer, every problem must be a nail, rigidity – all these characterize the opposite.

Here are some examples of the kind of deep, personal change I’m talking about — which happen to be essential for leadership in most settings:

  • Micromanaging versus granting autonomy
  • Trusting versus not trusting (very hard if you’ve been burned)
  • Learning to look for strengths instead of weaknesses
  • Asking for feedback versus making it clear you are the only one who will give feedback to subordinates
  • Admitting mistakes and weaknesses (and what you learned from them) versus “the need to be right”
  • Thinking of the impact of your actions on others versus just executing tasks
  • Seeing others’ resistance as information versus something that is wrong and to be shut down

Erik Erikson said that during the bulk of our working years, human beings experience either generativity or stagnation. Generativity is creating, giving back, yielding, accepting and living. Stagnation is not knowing what to do when your moves no longer work, when your program is out of gas. It is the state of being stuck.

Are there any all-new skills you need to learn? Hint: Look at the your chronic, recurring, patterned problems. Start there.

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