“No, no,” I responded, “this looks familiar I know the college is just around here somewhere. I got it.”
The conversation occurred in 1975 when my wife and I were on our way to Eugene to start our second year of undergraduate work. We had courted the first year out of high school and then married while we both kicked out our first two semesters of our freshman year before transferring to Eugene. I exhibited the seeds of leadership failure we typically call hubris – it is the kind of fierce independence that usually smacks of an equally fierce insecurity. It kills leaders, and it would have killed me except I had married this delightfully independent woman who was not about to be dragged all over Eugene by a man clearly acting like an evolutionary throw back.
“Turn in here,” she shouted as we drove within range of a gasoline station. I complied more out of stunned shock than an admission that I was lost. She jumped out of the car before it stopped and ran inside the station to ask directions. Her recognition of our situation (we were lost) and her ability to connect with a perfect stranger and ask for help expedited our arrival at the campus. The event sticks with me to this day as an illustration of a critical leadership question – am I aware of the transitions I face and do I have the relationships I need to ask for help in facing them?
… transitions are critical times when small differences in your actions can have disproportionate impacts on results. Leaders, regardless of their level, are most vulnerable in their first few months in a new position because they lack detailed knowledge of challenges they will face and what it will take to succeed in meeting them: they also have not developed a network of relationships too sustain them.
Knowing how to ask for directions and recognizing the nature of critical transitions are critical for leadership development. To continue the metaphor for a moment (perhaps to the breaking point) many people drive aimlessly about in life complaining about the lack of road signs or inadequate maps when clarity in their life depends in part on asking for directions.
The ability to rise to the challenge of either voluntary or involuntary transitions instead of collapsing under pressure is a decision. When leaders collapse they disengage. When they disengage they show deteriorating output, aggravation, absenteeism, negativity, toxic aggressiveness, depression and loss of direction.
Great Leaders Watch the Signs of the Road
The fact of the matter is that like road signs indicating a choice of direction, people face transitions that point to the necessity of new choices and decisions that either set a pathway for continued development or derail development.
Transitions are experiences (1) such as trials or tests that corner the person and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them and (2) a point at which a leader faces the necessity of moving to depth in: skills, perspective or self-awareness to continue in and grow in effectiveness. Facing these barriers means that leaders have the opportunity to:
- Bring to closure recent experiences – closure identifies significant lessons and allows the person to move forward.
- Deepen spiritual growth (relationship to God). This is not religious weirdness. Spiritual growth results in a clearer picture of purpose, moral fabric and awareness of others’ current and potential contribution. One of my friends identifies himself as a Christian the other does not. But both describe a deeply spiritual experience in the challenges they faced.
- Expand perspective to see new things – without the challenge of barriers or challenges people often tend to plateau in their growth. Remember the proverbial definition of insanity attributed to Peter Drucker i.e., doing the same activity over and over expecting different results.
- Make decisions that launch a new phase of development – this development extends to everyone within reach of the leader’s influence. The entire organization benefits when leaders successfully navigate the barriers to their personal growth.
Great leaders are masters at asking for direction, watching the signs along the way and making decisions about where they want to end up. The New Year is often a time of transition. Not only do we make resolutions about who we want to be or what we want to do – the month of January is also the time of year when a significant number of people land new jobs. Do you recognize the road signs of your own development? Are you taking responsibility for your own career/life development and growth? Do you ask for directions? What does 2013 hold in store for you?
 Michael Watkins. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2003), xi.