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How I tricked myself into leadership.

Reading time 5 minutes read
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A short story about how I ended up in leadership even though I never wanted to. (And how this space came to life.)

I never wanted to be a leader. The idea I had of leadership was of having to wear starched blouses, sitting alone in an office, and listening to people whine all day long, telling them what to do. In short: like a really bad idea. While I truly admired others doing it, picturing me as a leader only made me think of the things that would kill my joy at work.

First: People suck.

Working with people in the past had rather scared me off. Finding people you can organically work well with was just as hard as finding a perfectly fitting pair of jeans - a once in a million chance. Everybody is talking collaboration, but everyone who has actually worked in a team full of different characters know how annoying it can be at times. 
People are messy, they have feelings that get in the way, destroy my presentation structure, randomly change their opinion without any explanation and secretly change my headlines. So the idea of not only having to focus on working with people but also being responsible for them and their work - no, thanks, I think I'm good.

Secondly, I love my job.

I'm a strategist by training and from the bottom of my heart. There really isn't a job that I would rather be doing (despite not saving people's lives and all the other arguments that make people leave the industry after becoming 50 ;)) I love diving into data, insights, real life, discover unknown territory and building colorful kaleidoscopes of it all to help people make better decisions, reinvent themselves and build a better future. I find it truly meaningful, it gets me excited as kids on christmas day and I'm good at it. 
So yes, I'm definitely a romantic about my profession and if you are one yourself you know how hard it is to let go of it and let other people do it for you. I couldn't fathom not working on real content, doing my own research, writing presentations. The idea of leaving all of this behind for tasks like coordinating people and and doing managerial work seemed like a really bad deal.

Thirdly, I couldn't imagine myself being a leader.

I had very few role models in my career, not a single woman among them. Not meaning that I didn't work for amazing leaders - because I did. There were inspiring ones, very efficient ones, leadership-by-the-book ones, very experienced ones. But I somehow didn't really see anyone who did things in a way that I could see myself doing them. Some of my former bosses suggested even, I would have to completely change who I am, to ever move ahead. (Greetings to that person, thanks for giving me all my energy, just trying to prove you wrong!) 

So, the lesson that I took away was: if you wanna move into leadership, you have to become a completely different person, mostly change everything about you and overall become a human being, you surely won't like. Not really a comforting thought.

Fast forward to 2022.

Until end of last year, I was the managing director of the biggest digital agency in Germany. I was responsible for leading almost 600 people - obviously not me alone, but as part of a team. I hired and let go of people, I build up teams and restructured them, I mastered change in the middle of an ongoing acquisition, I co-led three different disciplines, one (engineering) that I literally had no deep knowledge and no experience whatsoever with. I have to say, writing this still feels strange and unreal. (Hello, impostor syndrome) But mostly I feel confident doing all those things; I even have fun doing them. So apparently, something along the way changed -  I fell in love with leadership.

So WTF happened?

Sounds crazy, but for me to become comfortable with leading, I needed to say NO to three leadership roles and pretending not be a leader. It took letting go of all assumptions and expectations I ever heard and read about. It took me discarding most of the things I heard in trainings and workshops and just deciding it wasn't working for me. 
By pretending not to be leading, I could focus less on myself, my role, and what others would expect from me and more on getting shit done. Instead of playing a weird version of what others see as leadership behavior, I simply continued acting like a normal person. I just started with what I'm really good at - collaborating with others for excellent results. All my energy and my focus shifted to just doing whatever is needed to produce a great outcome within the team. I didn't try to lead people, but rather leading the space around them. Only later did it strike me that this was also form of leadership. Just without the pretense, the expectations and the formalities that usually come with it.
And even now, 5 years later, being in a formal leadership position and having some experience with it, I haven't changed this approach ever again. I still haven't figured everything out and surely never will. I still feel like I don't know what I'm doing half of the time and get caught up in self-doubt and perfectionism. But I also make confident choices, I'm at ease working with others and guiding them, and I just can't get enough of seeing other people thrive. I'm hooked on leadership. That's why I made it my personal mission to encourage and empower as many people as possible trying this out fo themselves. People just like me who don't see themselves as leaders, who fear losing their touch to content and the job that they love and who think they need to wear starched blouses for the rest of their lives. 
For me, it is not about giving polished advice, handing over some super successful science-based secrets on how to lead. I don't know any of these things and I also don't believe that they work. Instead it's about sharing raw experiences, struggles and funny revelations in order for you to make your own out of it. To see yourself in them, to completey ignore them, to question them, or take them with you. In the hope that you can shape your way of how to lead confidently, in a way that allows you to still like yourself. And this is exactly what you can expect from this column/newsletter: My learnings from life-experimenting with humans and where it took me.

Illustration take away box

Key Takeaways

  • Finding your own way into leadership means identifying assumptions and the image of what it looks like to lead and letting go of them. It's ok to start with a fragmented idea of you in that role.
  • Ask yourself: Which assumptions do you have when thinking about leadership and which ones make you queasy? What are things you definitely won't do in the way that you have them seen done?
  • It helps to focus less on the impression you make on people, and instead shift your way to leading the space for people.
  • Ask yourself: What can you do to get shit done and help others in getting their shit done? That's what you should focus on.