How to get through the tough first times in leadership

The first time I went for a run I hated it. We’re talking the level of contempt I hold for personalised licence plates and root canals. “Why do people do this?!” I wheezed. It was difficult, painful and way outside my comfort zone.

But as I trundled and puffed my sorry ass around the block, I knew that if I kept up this torture and turned up again tomorrow, I’d be one step closer to my ultimate goal of running 5km without stopping.

Fundamentally, this pain was good for me.

I’m currently on another version of My First Run. This time, I’m developing an online leadership programme for emerging leaders. And it’s been just as difficult, uncomfortable and challenging as that first run.

Why am I doing it? Because people are so often thrust into roles where they’re leading people without being taught the skills or given the support to do it well. So many leadership programmes are aimed at senior leaders rather than the first time or newish leader. I decided to do something about this, instead of commenting on it from the sidelines.

So here I am creating Elevate. And here I am metaphorically wheezing my way around the block again.

You, too, might be in the midst of your own version of My First Run. A business startup perhaps, or a new job. Maybe you’re working on a ‘new’ innovation that’s sure to disrupt the market, but right now, the only thing it’s disrupting is your sleep. It’s a ‘first’ and you’re finding it hard going. It might be the thing you know will ultimately lead you to a good place, but at the moment, it’s pretty gnarly.

The thing with First Runs is that it’s not as easy as donning on your trainers and hey presto, you’re running the New York Marathon. In fact, you might even be thinking of chucking it all in and taking an easier road. I hear ya.

But before you do, here’s what I’ve learnt from my first time experiences:

  1. You can’t bypass the “Jeepers this is tough” stage if you want to attain anything worthwhile. Consider it a rite of passage, part of the plan. Expect it and embrace it when it arrives. Don’t try and circumvent this part of the hero’s journey – rather, view it as a necessary one. Like the quote attributed to Churchill says, “If you’re going through hell, keep going…”
  2. Know that it usually gets easier the more you do it. In writing my 8-module course for Elevate, I found that the last module I wrote took exactly half the time to complete than the first one. It helped that after each module, I’d review it and reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Practice, in conjunction with reflection, builds performance exponentially.
  3. You don’t have to do it alone. When I first started running, I enlisted the help of my trainer extraordinaire Lucas to give me tips and support. Now it’s the same with Elevate – I’ve sought out a global expert in the online learning space to help me transform my material into something that’s top notch. What resources do you have at your disposal right now to help you navigate the tough ‘first time blues’? Who can be your support crew? Don’t feel like you have to go it alone.
  4. Keep your eye on the prize. Focus on the end game. When I thought my legs would give out on that first run, I pictured my ultimate goal of being able to run 5km without stopping. Right now, when I’m gnashing my teeth, pulling my hair out and completely stuck with Elevate, I go to my vision of sparking better leadership in as many people as I can. I imagine what success will look like and what it will mean for these first time leaders as well as myself. It gives me the necessary “dig deep” grit and determination to keep going.
  5. One. Step. In. Front. Of. The. Other. I’ve never quite understood the saying ‘eat the elephant one bite at a time’, because seriously, who wants to eat an elephant? But the idea fits here. When I was running the block for the first time, it was one step in front of the other. Right now, it’s just show up at my computer and finish one module at a time (sometimes even one paragraph at a time). Just turn up. The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
  6. Feel the fear and do it anyway. So often with first times in leadership, the anxiety to get it right and be good at it, or at least just not fail at it – can be both overwhelming and paralyzing. Add a dose of perfectionism and too higher expectations of yourself and hey presto! – there’s your recipe for deer in the headlights. Anytime you try something for the first time, you’ll be outside your comfort zone. Read my blog post here for why you should notice and tolerate being in the ‘red zone’, get comfortable with discomfort and then soldier on.

These days my run is my happy place. That initial painful run was indeed good for me, and I’ve come out the other side. I might only top 6km and still shuffle more than I scoot. But I love it. It makes me happy and healthy.

And as I finalise Elevate, I know that this particular first time will get me one step closer to my vision of sparking better leadership with as many people as possible – and that this will not only be a superb result for me, it’ll be helpful for others too.

Oh, and if you or someone you know could benefit from Elevate, get in touch to go on the waitlist for the programme and I will keep you posted!

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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