Two years ago, I woke up with no job.
It was my first day post-Apple. The first day without an office to go to. The first day where I had to fill the agenda of my day.
No parent, no teacher, no boss… for the first time in my life, there was no one else telling me what to do.
I was thrilled. But I was also disoriented.
It was new experience for me because for the first 45 years of my life, there was a clear path to follow: high school, college, first job, MBA, promotion, climbing the ladder. I followed a traditional path, always knowing what I needed to do to be successful. There was always a goal and a path set in front of me.
Then suddenly, I was the one setting the path.
I’ve been thinking about this experience recently as I consider the true definition of leadership.
Webster’s Dictionary defines leadership as providing direction or guidance. With that definition, it is tempting to think of leadership relative to positions of authority at work. You may even assume that you can’t be a leader until you have the appropriate title or people who report to you.
I propose a much broader understanding of leadership.
Leadership is creating action that otherwise would not have occurred.
You do this every day in all aspects of your life. As a parent, a spouse, a friend, even in your own life—you create or initiate action daily.
Rarely, however, do you have an empty page in front of you as I did two years ago.
Having that empty space in front of me forced me to think about what I really wanted. It forced me to prioritize my activities. It forced me to decide how I wanted to pursue my goals
And having to make those decisions myself, I realized how much I had relied on others to guide me until that point. Unwittingly, I had followed the A-track through life, the predictable path that leads from college to a stable, safe, predictable job. But starting my own business required a new level of leadership. It was one I wasn’t used to.
Following the A-track inside a big company for so many years is like driving the car, but relying on someone else to navigate. My boss, and the management structure above her, would set the direction. I was in charge of getting there. At times I had input on the direction, but it was always in the context of the organization, always with my boss providing input and sign-off.
The disorienting feeling I felt two years ago was the loss of my navigator. Over night, there was no one else to sign-off on my new directions, to provide context, stability, or review my decisions. It was all on me.
For A-players who have always operated in an organization, who know how to deliver value, who know how to exceed expectations, being the driver is familiar. Being the navigator is a new experience.
This is one way that A-players get stuck in a leadership A-trap: by waiting for the navigator. They are waiting on a clear direction, sign-off, or approval before driving. They have operated in a context where that has always existed: parents, teachers, professors, boss, mentors. When more of that responsibility falls on their shoulders, it is unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
The truth is that it takes courage to be the navigator. You can never be sure the direction you’re heading is the right one, that you’ll end up where you want to be. Looking back on my entrepreneurial journey, it has been full of wrong turns, changes of direction, and U-turns. As an A-player, that has been a challenge. I wanted the most efficient path to my destination. I wanted to do it right. I had to learn how to trust myself, take action, and adjust along the way.
For my fellow A-players, watch out for the A-trap. It’s that place where you rely too much on someone else to navigate. You have the opportunity to be the navigator, but you’re not quite sure you should step into it. You may be hesitant, cautious, or waiting for direction before you get moving. It’s an unfamiliar place, and you don’t want to step on toes or stretch beyond your pay grade.
That is exactly where you need to be. It is an opportunity to creat action that otherwise would not have occurred. It is an opportunity to upgrade your leadership.
In my case, I forced my hand. I created an environment where I had to navigate. There was no one else.
But if you’re in a business environment, it falls on you to find the courage to take new and different action. It’s too easy to rely on others to navigate. Don’t do it. It will be uncomfortable to be in front, to set the direction, to assume the risk of being wrong. You may be nervous about how others will react.
Remember that anything new is uncomfortable. It’s the price of growth.