At different stages in their careers, leaders are prone to different behaviors that courageous followers may need to challenge. Leaders who are new to their positions naturally require special help from followers who have been with the organization longer and understand its nuances. Sometimes, however, a special phenomenon can occur that requires both support and challenge early on.
When leaders are suddenly elevated—promoted, appointed, or elected to senior positions—an abrupt change can take place. They are transported into another reality in which they believe they should act and be treated differently. As newly elevated leaders, they have no precedent for this experience and they grope in the recesses of their minds for models to guide their behavior. The model they access may be real, fragmentary, or even illusory. It may be their perception, accurate or not, of how other senior leaders conduct themselves—even leaders with whom they have worked and whose leadership styles they didn’t like. In extreme cases, the model they access may be an image of how an historical figure behaved in an extraordinary situation that was extremely different from the new leader’s current situation. But lacking a more reality-based model, they may unconsciously base their behavior on faulty or inappropriate models.
One newly elected member of the U.S. Congress, for example, was behaving abrasively to his staff. When challenged about this in a leadership development program, he became aware that he was acting like one of his party’s giants who had been in Congress for several decades. Or at least, he was acting how he thought that national figure acted in his office.
Using inappropriate behavior models can create an unsettling atmosphere in which new leaders appear to suddenly change and begin acting very differently, often autocratically. They may become distant even from those who helped them achieve the new position. Power seems to have “gone to their head.”
If this occurs, we need to engage the leader in dialogue as early as possible about who he is using as a role model:
“Which leader do you admire? What do you admire about his leadership style? Do you find that style appropriate here?”
“When you think about leadership, what do you envision? Does that seem consistent with the values you want this organization to have?”
“How do you see your new role? What are you basing that on? Have you observed the reactions you’re getting from others?”
While discussing the role model, the leader can examine the appropriateness and observe the consequences of his actions. Only then can the leader begin to fill the new role appropriately and serve the common purpose well.