Communication skills turning managers into leaders

The Leader Mentality vs. ‘Leadership Fear’

I just completed a workshop for a class of middle managers who were committed (I thought) to becoming leaders in their organization.  The focus was on motivation.

We talked about the factors that typically motivate employees like making their work meaningful, helping them understand the big picture, and having consistent work policies that energize people.

Then a couple of these managers began harping about their bosses and how they won’t let the managers experiment with flex-time and work-from-home policies for their specific units.

I asked if they’d ever discussed these policies with their bosses and proposed some workable strategies to shift them a bit.  Most shook their heads no, and claimed such conversations probably wouldn’t be successful.

At that point I stopped the conversation and asked, “Do you hear yourselves?  Are you telling me you’re afraid to step up and have a conversation with your boss about policies impacting productivity in your unit?”

They all sort of just looked at each other.  The answer was yes, they were afraid.  These managers were waiting to be told what to do!


“ ‘Leadership Fear’… is an unwillingness to raise an important issue… Such a fearful manager sees a problem and hides behind the untested assumption that the boss won’t be open to change.”



This is a classic symptom of ‘Leadership Fear.’  The first sign is an unwillingness to raise an important issue with upper management.  Such a fearful manager (not a leader) sees a problem and then hides behind the untested assumption that the boss won’t be open to change.

“I just know she won’t get it or care,” said one manager.

Psychologists tell us that creating excuses to avoid leadership conversations is called the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error.’

When deciding whether to confront a potentially difficult conversation we often look for good excuses to justify avoiding it.  The excuse is typically that the other person has some personal flaw that prevents him or her from understanding.

In other words, we are attributing blame to the other person and not to ourselves.  That’s the Fundamental Attribution Error.  We take the easy way out and fail to challenge ourselves to take on tough conversations.

Leadership always lives outside of our comfort zones.  Managers are excellent an insulating themselves from challenges.

How many times have you heard a manager say things like, “That’s above my pay grade” or “Take that upstairs.”  In some cases, managers feel untrained to take on difficult conversations.  They feel the issues before them are outside of their technical expertise and definitely beyond their comfort zones!

The faulty part of that logic is that everything is outside of our expertise when we first start learning our jobs.  Then gradually, we seek out and get some training and learn on the job.

But leadership takes training too!

For example, in having a conversation with the boss about experimenting with a work-from-home policy, it would be important to do some background research to prepare for the conversation.  What do other companies do—what makes these policies successful?  When you feel prepared, critical conversations are much less stressful.

The moral of the story is:  Put aside the fear, take a risk, but be prepared.  That’s leadership!

The Big Reveal!

Have you ever heard the phrase: “No good deed goes unpunished?” The same concept applies to assuming a position of leadership.

We might rephrase this old adage for leaders in the following way: “No leader with good intentions goes unpunished.”

The last blog introducing this series referenced a 2016 article by Cynthia Carver in the Journal of Research on Leadership Education, which made the case that leadership begins by embracing a leader identity.  People must be willing to shed the manager identity and move forward with a leader identity before others will invest in the individual making the transition.


“People must be willing to shed the manager identity and move forward with a leader identity before others will invest in the individual making the transition.”


The article explains clearly why many individuals are unwilling, on the face of the idea, to embrace a leadership role.  Dr. Carver points out that individuals assuming leadership roles encounter resistance and isolation from their peers, even though they used to be “good friends.”  So, when leaders try to make even subtle changes, all with good intentions, they are punished by their former friends.  Leaders often report a rise in internal conflict as their role expands in the job.

What then is the transformation process; how do individuals persist through these challenges?  The process outlined in the article starts with the individual coming face-to-face with a critical incident or persistent, hard-to-ignore dilemma.

I’ve worked with many attendees in my seminars who assumed leadership positions because a relative died and they had to take over the company.  Or the family expanded and the leadership job paid better than the manager job.  Or the organization was failing and someone had to do something—a real dilemma presented itself.

In my book Critical Conversations as Leadership I reference a story about a small business owner’s son who suddenly had to take over the business after his father died.  His dad had never given him the mentoring or leadership opportunities he needed to make a smooth transition into the head slot.

As dad’s son, he was around the staff playing more of a Friend Card never having to play a Leader Card.  Predictably, the son reported that when he had to take over he was scared—afraid of the rejection and isolation, which certainly happened.

He needed to earn his way into the role and develop the self-confidence needed to succeed.

This son made the smart move of connecting with other young leaders in his community who faced the same challenges.  Together they strategized about how to win over the troops and build both competence and the self-confidence needed to overcome fear of rejection.

This can be a steep learning curve, or it can be more gradual and thoughtful.  But, at some point, your leadership will experience the “big reveal” in the sense that you will be revealing your role transformation.  Your nonverbals, your confidence, your knowledge, and your refined communication skills will reveal your leadership.

Yes, it will be tough, but the transformation is truly life changing.

Beginning the Trek

For more than 30 years, I’ve been teaching managers to become leaders.

The one lesson I’ve learned over these many decades is that this is a tough sell for most people.  Sure, the participants in my workshops go through the motions by completing the exercises and attending to the concepts.

But, in their heart of hearts, the transition from manager to leader is just too much of a stretch for some reason.

I’m beginning this blog because I’m looking for another medium to help individuals like you make this important transition.  Where are you now professionally, and how do you take the next step to be a leader who makes an impact?

Most of my workshops focus on how to communicate like a leader.  First, I always ask participants via structured exercises to reflect on their communication style and explore whether it enables them to make the transition.

My most recent business book, Critical Conversations as Leadership probes the far reaches of the reader’s communication skills.

Don’t get me wrong.  I firmly believe that a person must communicate like a leader to convince colleagues that he or she can do the job.  But the ability to go from theory to practice—to actually jump into the leader role and play the Leader Card – rests on one simple assumption: The person wants to be a leader and has embraced the leader identity.

“The ability to go from theory to practice … rests on one simple assumption:  The person wants to be a leader and has embraced the leader identity.”

While I have long known that becoming a leader rests first and foremost on embracing the leader identity, it became even clearer when I read a recent study on the subject.

In a 2016 article in the Journal of Research in Leadership Education, Cynthia Carver found that teachers won’t make the move to become leaders unless they learn to transform their entire professional identity and see themselves as leaders.  Her research found that the transformation required a two-year period of intensive study and reflection.

The point of this important research is that personal and professional growth in becoming a leader requires first seeing one’s self as a leader.  It means embracing the identity.

People can take all the courses they want and learn the important skills.  But unless we WANT to see ourselves as leaders, and accept all the risks and potential rewards of that huge transformation, it just won’t happen.

Over the next several months I’ll explore the full range of issues related to making this transition from manager to leader.  We’ll focus on such topics as the Leadership Identity, Leadership Thinking Styles, and Developing the Leader Card.

I hope you’ll enjoy reading these posts as much as I will enjoy writing them.

Bill Donohue, September, 2018