What Do We Do Now?: A Lesson for New Leaders

“Marvin….what do we do now?”

So ends the 1972 film “The Candidate” starring Robert Redford as neophyte Senate candidate Bill McKay, a man fully expected to lose the election to a highly experienced, powerful incumbent. Because his candidacy is thought of as a whim, McKay finds himself free to say what he wants to say, eventually becoming an electoral bottle rocket that shoots its way to an impossible win. As the reality of gaining political power begins to sink in, McKay turns to campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) and asks the frightening question, “What do we do now?”

And thus here we are, inching closer to the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States.

The parallel I’m drawing between the fictional McKay and Trump is not exact but rather, as I like to say, directional. The excited competitive nature of a campaign suits a man like Trump. Running for higher office can be distilled to a game of winning or losing. But that’s like focusing on the wedding more than the marriage. A wedding is a point in time; marriage is a long-term and consequential proposition.

While the President-Elect finds himself occupied with the furious work of building a new White House administration, I’m thinking about how any leader should approach a new role, particularly one that is far more powerful and complex than any he or she has encountered.

Amy Gallo, writing in Harvard Business Review in May 2013, advises acting like a leader pre-emptively to ensure a good transition. Of course, if you’ve never even held a job remotely similar to the one you’ve just landed, it might be a little challenging. Gallo, nonetheless, makes a fair argument – nothing prepares one better than experience, no matter its form or nature. Yet the best advice I’ve seen comes from leadership development expert Michael D. Watkins. Back in 2009, Watkins outlined seven steps in Forbes for new leaders, ranging from leveraging the transition period, securing early wins and building alliances. His last “rule” is managing oneself. In other words, ensure you are protecting your physical self while acting from your highest emotional self. Lots of things come at new leaders, and fast. Knowing how to remain professional, even keeled and strategic can make the difference between appearing in command or appearing unmoored.

Taken in whole though, I suggest another, more profound characteristic that a new leader must possess: humility. Holding a modest opinion of one’s skills in a new venture and tamping down an over-exaggerated estimation of one’s importance is what I’m speaking of here. Yes, your skills and talents brought you very far and you should be proud of them. But each successive increase in scope and responsibility is like starting a new semester in college. If you chose your courses properly, to provide challenge rather than certainty, you’d be a fool to think you knew the course content better than the professor. Go ahead, argue with the prof that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. That her “theoretical” knowledge is useless in the real world. Keep saying that when your GPA plummets and years later you realize you could use some of that Advanced Economic Systems knowledge to land your dream job at the Federal Reserve.

No leader, no matter how skilled or talented or successful, ever truly knows a new role until they have lived in its skin for a while. Assumptions and suppositions can be useful to prepare for a transition, to a point. Humility, however, gives a new leader latitude to ask questions, to act curious, to build trust in others because she does not assume she is the expert before proven to be. And humility conveys to those under the new leader’s charge that the impact of the job on others is more important than the gains that accrue to the person behind the desk.

What do we do now? We hope the new leader places humility above hubris, curiosity above certainty, and openness above opacity.

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