In my work with young leaders, we talk a lot about "leadership derailers." Everyone has them, even the best leaders. They are things you do that you may not even be aware of that get in the way of you being a great leader.
They could be things related to how you behave, what you do when business gets rough, or how you relate with people interpersonally. As Ocho co-founder Jourdan Urback discusses, young leaders and entrepreneurs have to work even harder to gain respect simply because they are young.
So what is one of the biggest derailers for young leaders?
It might not be what you think. It's not lack of knowledge. It's not the inability to think strategically. And it's not lack of success in influencing others or inexperience in leading large teams.
It's immaturity. Or restated, its immaturity when confronted with adversity.
As leadership expert and executive coach, John Mattone says:
"Leaders generally derail not because of a character flaw, but rather because they respond immaturely to mounting stress and change."
It's easy to say, "that won't happen to me", but my own real experience with this might shed some light on how this actually happens even to those of us who were well regarded young up-and-coming leaders.
How immaturity almost got me fired
I remember sitting in my boss's office. She was one of the top officers in the company and was fuming. I was one of the youngest Vice Presidents in the company but was pretty sure that I was about to be fired for the first time in my life.
Had I been a bad performer? No. Actually, I had been identified as a high potential leader. Immaturity alone got me to this point.
Since my first day, the company had endured unrelenting change, turmoil, and reactionary big time restructures that had been in the works even before I joined.
On the surface, I had handled it well. My departments were delivering solid results. I had built strong relationships with other VPs and key C-suite executives.
Under the surface, though, I was stressed out. I watched and was part of major strategic and operational conflicts happening as a bunch of smart leaders couldn't come to alignment. I felt hamstrung. I felt pulled in competing directions every day. I felt caught in the middle of political turf wars during the company's re-organization turmoil.
To deal with that, I kept a running journal. This wasn't your ordinary journal. My journal was more akin to a lampoon with cartoon-like caricatures of key members of the leadership team and the entire group (myself and boss included) depicted as a circus act.
The immaturity started with writing it and continued with sharing it with similarly minded peers.
The journal wormed its way through leadership starting with my supporters who viewed it as a manifesto of sorts. I temporarily became some sort of unexpected underground leadership anti-hero for being willing to say that the emperor had no clothes.
Then it found its way into the hands of my boss and the CEO. From that point, conversations about the journal weren't fun for anyone. I was lucky they gave me another chance and didn't fire me even though I'm almost certain they wanted to throw me out the window.
That was nearly a decade ago, and since that time I started a consulting practice focused in part on helping leaders make significant career transitions at key levels.
It's easy to be a leader when things are going well. It takes real courage when things aren't.
When things get crazy, and they often do in the business world, the real question is how you respond.
As an immature leader, I caved when things went badly. My journal debacle was an immature response to business stress.
I caved partly due to immaturity but partly due to my inability to find a more "mature" outlet for the stress. In the absence of any pro-active infrastructure for appropriate ways of talking about the stressful events, I went nuts.
In other words, I needed a mentor with someone who had been around the block a few more times.
The entire experience is far enough in my rear view mirror now where I look back on it with a bit of a smile. But I make it a point to tell everyone I coach about the brief moment in time where stress induced immaturity caused me to temporarily lose my mind and go from high potential leader to loose cannon.
If you've got some young, high potential leaders, get them a coach they feel comfortable with so they have an outlet for the stress of being at that level. It would have saved me a lot of my own anguish, and it might help them, too.