Leading from Behind to Leading from the Helm

As the world continues to be faced with unprecedented change, leaders are adapting their agenda to deal with challenges and obstacles to tackle the top issues of the day. For over 25 years, I functioned as an Executive or Special assistant to someone. I was comfortable being a courageous follower and leading from behind. In April of 2021, I began my journey of leading from the helm.  I was pretty stoked out about my promotion. On the other hand, to be honest, I was terrified. Terrified about overseeing several staff, all of whom I used to work side-by-side with, now reporting to me. I went from a Special Assistant to an Assistant Deputy Commissioner over a training division! Great, right? Yes, but the question I asked myself was “am I up for the challenge?”

As organizations become more agile, managers are asked to handle greater responsibilities in their roles. In this role, managers need to learn how to maintain independence while also learning how to collaborate with their team and others. When a person takes on a new position, it’s important to know that there won’t always be successes. Taking charge is no easy feat. There will be failures. No one is perfect. However, as a leader we must learn and accept that failure could be a positive thing most new managers face. There’s failure in taking charge. According to an article in Harvard Business Review, the taking charge process has been characterized by five phases.

Taking Hold, Immersion, Reshaping, Consolidation, and Refinement

Taking Hold – In using the term taking charge, I am referring to the process of learning and taking action that a manager goes through until he (or she) has mastered a new assignment in sufficient depth to be running the organization/division. The process can be long. Taking hold is a period of intense action and learning. If the new assignment is a big promotion or change, the individual may at times feel overwhelmed. In the 5 months that I’ve been in my new position, I can’t count the many times I felt overwhelmed as I acclimated myself to the role and team.

Immersion – The immersion period is quiet. A lull between bursts of activity. Immersion is a very significant time, however, during which leaders acquire a greater understanding of their new situations. During immersion, new managers run the organization/division in a more informed fashion. Consequently, by the end of this stage, they have developed a new concept or at least have greatly revised their ideas of what they need to do. More focused learning happens during this period because managers immerse themselves in running the organization/division and learn from the interactions and conflicts they deal with day-to-day.

Reshaping – This is where a burst of activity takes place. Learning continues but in a more diminished and routine fashion. In the reshaping period, new managers direct their attention toward reconfiguring one or more aspects of the organization/division to implement the concept they developed. It involves a great deal of organizational change. The reshaping-stage changes may involve altering processes as well as making major structural shifts. The nice part of this is that everyone will know what needs to be done, and they’ll have ownership of the changes we decide to make.

Consolidation – Much of new managers’ learning and action focuses on consolidating and following through on the changes they made. The process is evaluative; for example, new managers and their key subordinates judge the consequences of the actions they took and take corrective measures. A second set of issues evolves from unanticipated problems resulting from changes made during the reshaping stage. Much of the consolidation period’s extraordinary activity involves diagnosing and studying these problems, then correcting them. 

Refinement – The refinement stage is a period of little organizational change. By this point, leaders have taken charge, and their learning and actions tend to focus either on refining operations or on looking for opportunities in other areas. For me, the increase in training demands especially since Covid, makes it more challenging to meet the needs of requests using the same methods used pre-Covid. My team had to come up with more innovative and engaging ways to enhance curriculum development and training delivery. 

When New is no Longer New

A time comes when managers can no longer be considered new. They no longer feel new, nor do their subordinates perceive or speak of them as new. Whatever the problems the leaders now face, they do not result from newness. By now, they have either established credibility and a power base, or they have not. They have had enough time to shape their situations, and they will be judged by the results of their actions. If they are still uncomfortable, usually it is because of pressing business problems such as emergency changes to procedures and processes. Refinement is a calm period. From this stage onward, learning becomes more incremental and routine. For better or worse, I have taken charge.

Building Relationships

I pride myself in building effective and long-lasting relationships both personally and professionally. How managers build relationships with their subordinates can be a challenging transition in and of itself. Yes, I value the friendships developed pre-manager, but as a high-level manager, I must make sure everyone on my team, my direct reports and those that report to my direct reports views me as being fair and consistent. So, our relationship was going to change. A shift had to occur.

Relationship shifts means not participating in “happy hours and lunch dates without creating feelings of distrust and false perceptions from your team – others are happy for me, but at times, there is an awkwardness and sense of resentfulness. Was this or is this shift a difficult change for me? Yes, because I never formally managed others. This shift is crucial. My performance is tied to the performance of my team. If the team fails, I fail. If they succeed, the credit is shared with the rest of the group so they will be willing to perform a great job in the future.

I had to begin to change my focus. The reality about my new position is, it’s not about me anymore. Before the promotion, my attention was on accomplishing my tasks. Now, my priority is to help my team accomplish their tasks in an outstanding way. I must strive for the good of my team. I do this by becoming the most extreme version of myself and operating at the edge of my potential where my limits can expand and by building highly collaborative, focused, and successful teams. By doing so, I am able to bring out the extreme in others where their potential is enriched.

Now What?

As I stated before, there will be failures. Make failure your fuel – fuel growth in a rapidly changing environment. Breed an innovative culture where mind-shifts happen, innovative thinking occurs that drive success in the age of disruption. Dr. Jonah Berger, author of The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone\’s Mind, wrote, It’s not about pushing harder or exerting more energy, but rather removing barriers and lowering hurdles to action.

So, as I go through this new journey in my career, from follower to leader, here is what I have and continue to learn:

  • To seek out management tools, resources, and courses offered by my Agency
  • Learn about those I’m managing – their past performance and goals
  • Make it my personal mission to learn everything I can about the program they oversee
  • I had to take time to understand my team and their needs, strengths, their roles, challenges, and ideas
  • Address relationship shifts
  • I Manage up -keeping my manager in the loop and report on progress – it’s important to make sure that the goals I outline for my team are ultimately tied to my supervisor’s. And lastly,
  • Be on model behavior

Being a leader and manager is an ongoing learning experience and it may never be easy – but I continue to upskill myself, set expectations, and shift my focus from the beginning. This way I’m off to a good start. I can now confidently lead from the helm.


Burke, R.J. and McKeen, C.A. (1994), \”Facilitating the New Manager Transition: Part I\”, Executive Development, Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 16-18. https://doi.org/10.1108/09533239410055010




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