From Manager to Leader: Breaking Free from the Struggle

May 18, 2024

This week, let's dive into a topic that hits home for many professionals: the struggle to transition from being a manager operating on the limit of their energy and capability to a high-performance leader. We'll unpack the essence of leadership, moving beyond traditional management roles, and explore why many of us struggle to make this transition.

At its core, being a manager is about control and execution—ensuring tasks are completed, processes are followed, and daily operations run smoothly. Leadership, however, operates on a different level. It's about setting a vision, inspiring a team, and thinking strategically about the future. It’s not just about being experts in what we do and how we do it, but also in why we do it and how it aligns with our bigger goals. Imagine the difference between being the person who changes the wheels on an F1 car versus the person who runs the team.

The Cognitive Load of Pretending

Dr. Laura Empson, in her book "Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas," notes that many people essentially have two jobs: the one they’re hired to do and the one where they pretend to be more capable and confident than they actually are. This pretending can consume more than 50% of your cognitive energy, making you more risk-averse and less likely to try new things. We tend to focus more on avoiding failure than striving for success, which limits your ability to lead into the unknown.

Creating an environment where it's safe to admit what we don’t know and seek help can eliminate this second job of pretending. If you are doing it, chances are your team is too. This shift allows us to focus on genuine growth and improvement, rather than just maintaining appearances.

Overwhelm and Overwork

A crucial aspect of leadership development is recognising the cognitive load managers face. You juggle multiple tasks and responsibilities, often leading to burnout and decreased performance. The expectations on managers keep growing as businesses thin out headcounts and strip away layers. Today's manager deals with more complexity and larger teams than ever before.

Many managers also face unreasonable pressures from leadership, often due to poor prioritisation and lack of support from above. A recent Gallup survey revealed that managers suffer from the highest burnout, lowest engagement, and feel least cared for across all employment groups.

The "Missing Middle" - Leaders Left in Limbo

Globally, organisations invest billions in leadership development, yet the quality of leadership often doesn't improve proportionally. Despite these investments, the number one reason people leave their jobs is still because of their manager. Leadership development consistently appears as a priority in business performance, indicating a fundamental flaw in traditional leadership training methodologies—most programs actually teach management skills, not leadership.

In most companies, new managers start with Management 101, learning essential skills like delegation and prioritization. At the other end of the spectrum, there's executive coaching for top-tier leaders. But what about the vast middle ground? This "missing middle" leaves many mid-level managers in a developmental void, with limited resources to bridge the gap between basic management and high-level leadership.

Without the necessary tools and frameworks, managers often learn through trial and error, which can be inefficient and demoralizing for them and their teams. To build a strong leadership pipeline, continuous development programs that support managers in their particular context at every stage are essential.

Leadership Training is Broken

Many leadership training programs are generic and fail to address the specific challenges and contexts of each business. They often take an intense, short-term approach rather than the extended journey we know works. For me, leadership development is not just about training. Training is one piece of the puzzle, but it needs to be underpinned by a deep understanding of its purpose and a framework that’s simple to use. Not necessarily easy, but simple—these people already have full minds and full days.

In many organisations, leadership development involves taking managers away from their teams for several days. They get bombarded with information about how to do X, Y, and Z. They return to work with great ideas and intentions, but reality quickly hits: a day full of meetings, a backlog of emails, and pressing team needs. The chance to reflect on and apply what they learned diminishes as they dive back into their daily tasks.

Imagine Leadership Development as a Military Wargame

Imagine if we approached leadership development like a military wargame, followed by an after-action review. Instead of merely delivering PowerPoint presentations on leadership principles, we should immerse managers in real-world challenges where they can practice new skills in a supportive environment. Like a military wargame, development should navigate complex situations with their peers, learning to lead under pressure.

The after-action review is crucial. Here, managers can reflect on their experiences, receive continuous feedback, and discuss strategies for improvement. This method allows for the integration of new skills in real-time, leading to more effective and lasting development. Running Connect and Reflect sessions is an integral part of our programs. Just as soldiers emerge from wargames better prepared for combat, managers will become more resilient and capable leaders, ready to tackle today's dynamic business environment.

Leadership is a Team Sport

Another crucial aspect of leadership development is having people to bounce ideas off. During our Global Leadership Mastermind sessions, participants from multiple countries and industries shared that they often felt isolated in their challenges. This peer learning and support network is often missing in traditional leadership programs.

Managers might look around and think everyone else has it all figured out. This isolation can be crippling, making it difficult to seek help or admit uncertainties. A peer community provides a safe space to share struggles and solutions. It frees up mental energy by reducing the need to pretend and allows for authentic growth and learning.

The Reality of AI in Leadership Development

With the rise of artificial intelligence, many organizations are turning to AI tools for leadership development. However, most of these tools are little more than fancy e-learning platforms dressed up as AI. True AI-driven leadership development support should go beyond automated assessments and generic feedback. It should provide real-time, contextualised support, helping leaders navigate complex situations and make informed decisions in the moment.

Imagine an AI tool that acts as a personal leadership coach, offering tailored advice, can react to your progress, and provide feedback or debrief you on how things went. By integrating advanced AI tools that offer real intelligence and adaptability, organisations can transform their leadership development programs.

Our approach not only supports mid-level managers in their transition to leadership but also ensures a more dynamic, responsive development process that aligns with the ever-evolving demands of the business world. Our "Aiden" platform is becoming integral to our programs, doing exactly this.

Meet Aiden our AI Coach

The journey from manager to leader is complex and requires a multifaceted approach that addresses the unique challenges at every level. By rethinking leadership development, creating more supportive environments, and leveraging true AI capabilities, we can help managers transition effectively and achieve the recognition, rewards, and results they deserve.

If you'd like to know more about how we're doing this, why not sign up for our free training coming up soon and we can tell you all about it.

This is the link to the free training link: 

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