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The Accidental Leader - Tips from Leadership Specialists

Updated: Jan 25, 2023

The Accidental Leader, written by Dr Paul Donovan, Emeritus Associate Professor, and Aoife Donovan Lee, Organisational Leadership Specialist and Executive Coach

You have been appointed as a manager for many reasons. One of the most likely reasons is that you excelled as an operator. You may not even have looked for this role aggressively but by doing well as an individual contributor, you’ve come to the attention of your management. As a result, someone decided to give you a chance at a higher level, making you an ‘accidental leader’.

You might have mixed feelings about this sudden elevation. You’ll certainly miss the comfort of your old role – a place where you knew where everything was and where you were confident you could handle anything. The new role will be a whole new ball game and it feels like you’re starting from scratch all over again. But this time you are not at all sure of the ground rules.

Maybe you have the added responsibility of having to supervise your old teammates or even folk who are older and a bit more experienced than you are. This brings a new set of complications into the mix. Will you still be able to be friends with the team; go for drinks or a meal? Or will you have to step away and be aloof from them? How about getting people to perform? Most of them are great at their jobs. But there are a few people that are ‘problem children’ and are a strain on the team. The challenge now is that they will soon become your ‘problem children’.

Here are five key areas to focus on to help you handle these challenging situations:

1. Learn what your new role is

Great leaders and managers get results through other people. Once you fully understand this you can spot the difference between your work and their work. After that, it’s a matter of engaging in activities that will gel the team together and help you develop a performance ethic around the place. It will take work, but you’ve never been afraid of that. That’s the reason why you have been chosen for this responsibility.

2. Listen

You need to learn how to listen better. You may be a great listener at present and you may pride yourself on your skills in this area but you are going to have to become an even greater one. Good listeners attract people. Good listeners calm people. Good listeners gain the confidence of people. If you can attract the confidence and the best ideas from your group, you are halfway to success as a boss.

3. Develop the team

You must learn how to talk to people about their development. People feel secure with a leader who cares about their career. From the outset, you have to listen to the needs, wants and desires of the team. You must use your new power and reach as their boss to show them how you will support their dreams and their aspirations. In turn, they will support yours.

4. Situational leadership

Match your leader approach with the needs of the team or of each individual. A single leadership approach that is applied to every situation and every person just won’t work. We know that a teenage recruit from school needs a different approach to your highly experienced star performer. Treating them the same from a leadership perspective would cause chaos. As we often say, ‘there is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals’. This means that the leader must match the approach to where the team or individual is at that moment and on this particular task.

5. Performance management

You need to learn how to zero in on performance in the group that you like and that you don’t like. Good leaders respond to good performance, not by ignoring it but by doling out the strokes and praise – the kind that makes us all feel good and want to repeat the performance. But great leaders also pay attention to the things they don’t like and want to disappear. Here, they can deliver a nudge or a light reprimand that lets the receiver know where they went wrong and why it’s important to get things right. In doing so skilfully, good leaders manage to keep the relationship strong.

If you are looking for more support with your toughest leadership challenges, Donovan Learning is launching a brand new online leadership programme, called ‘The Accidental Leader,’ just for you. In the Accidental Leader, we’ll help you deal skilfully with all your ‘difficult conversations’, ones that might cause you to stress or lose some sleep. We’ll show you how to turn around performance that is dropping persistently. We’ll even show you how to deliver discipline. We work with you to help you understand how to motivate the disgruntled, deal with complaints, and manage that boss of yours. Now, what could be better?

If you’d like more information, you can contact Aoife Donovan Lee:

Written by Aoife Donovan Lee, Organisational Leadership Specialist, & Dr Paul Donovan, Emeritus Associate Professor at Maynooth University.

Aoife Donovan Lee is also an Executive Coach with expertise in the areas of technostress, leadership, and building emotional capital. Aoife has over 15 years of experience in leadership, learning and development, coaching and consultancy roles. During that time, she has gained a wealth of experience as a business owner and has worked for tech multinational organizations, namely eBay and Vodafone.

Dr Paul Donovan has also served as Head of School and Director of Teaching and Learning. Paul was also Adjunct Lecturer at the School of Business since 2017. There he lectures and supervises research on the FTMBA and MSc HRM. His research interests include effective teaching in higher education and learning transfer in corporate education.


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