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6 Essential Rules for New Leaders

How to succeed for young (and not so young) leaders.

A number of my friends who are in professional positions have, at one time or another, found themselves thrust into positions of leadership. That includes a faculty member, with no leadership experience, who was suddenly appointed interim president of a university.

Most leaders move up the ladder, from lower-level to higher-level leadership positions. But, it is that first transition, from non-leader to leader, that can be the most challenging. Here are some basic rules for new (and not so new) leaders:

1. Understand What Leadership Means. People come to positions of leadership with pre-existing ideas about what leadership means. Young leaders, in particular, have only vague, not well-formed, notions of leadership. All too often, they think of the leader as the “person in charge” who tells people what to do and makes decisions. Yet, good leadership is complex. Leaders don’t do leadership. Instead, leadership is co-created by leaders and followers working together. The sooner a new leader understands that, the sooner that leader will be on the right path.

2. Maintain Self-Image. It is critically important not only to look and act like a leader but to also be a positive role model. A good leader would never say one thing but do another. And, it goes without saying that the leader must model ethicality – always strive to do the right thing for the group or collective.

3. Focus on Positives. There is considerable evidence that leaders who are upbeat and exude positive emotions are more effective. Express confidence and a “can-do” attitude. In addition, focus on positive performance and reward others for their good work. Positive reinforcement is a critical leader strategy for fostering good performance. Avoid using punishment as a motivational tool.

4. Don’t Be a Fireman. What does this mean? A good leader is proactive, not reactive. Anticipate problems to prevent them from occurring rather than waiting around to “put out the fires.”

5. Be a Coach. The key to effective leadership is to engage followers and allow them to share in the leadership. Work on developing good coaching relationships with each and every team member. Learn their strengths and limitations, and challenge them to go above and beyond.

6. Learn from Mistakes. Leaders learn more from their failures than from their successes. Reflect on why things went wrong and try to learn from errors. The very best leaders are constantly striving to improve because they know that they can always learn and be better at what they do.

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Bass, B.M., & Riggio, R.E. (2006). Transformational leadership (2nd ed). New York: Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

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