Here’s a Thought About . . . First-Level Leadership Development

By Tom Roth, Michael Leimbach, PhD

This is the first installment in Wilson Learning’s “Here’s a Thought About . . .” leadership development series. These brief explorations look at challenges faced by L&D professionals and offer thoughts, trends, and tips for preparing well-equipped leaders to lead organizations forward from a new workplace.

An HR Priorities Survey conducted by Gartner, a global research and advisory firm, identified “Developing current and future leadership bench strength” among the top five initiatives HR leaders selected as most important for their organizations to address in 2020. However, a recent study by Wilson Learning Worldwide and Training magazine indicates that less than half of these organizations are confident that they have this needed bench strength.

If employees are not skilled for the future and organizations are struggling to develop critical talent segments, including our current and future leaders, we are not going to get where we need to go in today’s tumultuously changing times. This is even more acute when people are moving into first-level leadership roles and need skills just to survive.

The Challenge: When Doer Is Promoted to Leader

“Here’s a thought about” the unique needs of first-level leaders. When new leaders are promoted, they leave work one day having been responsible for only their own performance, and then return the next day suddenly responsible for others’ performance.

If new leaders are not prepared for this transition, what is their response? They fix problems through their own job knowledge; they train by “let me show you how it’s done.” This then becomes a habit—fixing problems by stepping in, being heroic, and failing to advance the skills of their employees.

In other words, they lead with their Technical Expertise, not their Leadership Credibility.

Thus, even “experienced” first-level leaders may be on shaky ground because they never received any formal leadership development; rather, they’re on their own, learning by observation and lots of trial and error.

An Insight: When Doer Needs to Become a Leader

First-level leaders without the needed preparation resort to “leading with their technical expertise.” Why? Because transitioning to leadership can mean navigating uncomfortable new territory that may not come naturally. New leaders are under stress and do whatever they can to get by. They revert back to their strengths and what’s worked in the past, relying on what they are most comfortable with—their technical expertise.

The First-Level Leader’s Dilemma

So, this is the first-level leader’s dilemma: How do I keep performance high, while at the same time supporting the learning curve of my employees by not stepping in to “fix things”? We have found there are two critical components:

  1. Adopt a leadership attitude that their job is not to do, but to help others do.
  2. Develop the leadership skills needed to guide, engage, and direct the actions of others.

The challenge for new leaders is to rely less on their functional credibility from their technical expertise and instead begin to establish their credibility as a leader. From the perspective of developing leadership character, new first-level leaders require the wisdom to make leadership their source of credibility.

leadership and technical expertise


Necessary Skills for First-Level Leaders

If we are going to help first-level leaders make that shift, we need to better equip them with the necessary skills to succeed as managers and supervisors of individual contributors—what we refer to as Leadership Survival Skills.

Leadership Survival Skills

  • Motivating employees
  • Communicating effectively
  • Defining tasks and goals
  • Delegating with confidence
  • Observing behavior
  • Providing feedback and coaching
  • Resolving conflict
  • Helping others solve problems

These basic one-to-one survival skills provide first-level leaders with the foundation to move past doing the work themselves to getting the work done through others.

Go Slow to Go Fast

Some organizations assume the best approach is expediency and train their new leaders on the “what to do” and “how to do it,” neglecting to show their leaders “why it is important.”

We do need to be quick. There is an urgency to arm first-level leaders with survival skills. But, if we hurry in an effort to accelerate “speed to proficiency,” we can threaten the quality of their learning.

There is a saying in Greece, loosely translated as, “I am going slowly, because I am in a hurry.” That same sentiment applies to leadership development. If rushed, costly mistakes are made.

Be quick, but don’t hurry.

— John Wooden, Legendary UCLA Basketball Coach

Tom Roth

Tom Roth是Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.(美国)的首席运营官和Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc.(日本)的总裁,他拥有40多年的人力绩效提升解决方案开发和实施的经验,负责Wilson Learnin全球集团的战略方向和业务绩效。此外,他还领导全球营销服务和解决方案研发部门,负责所有解决方案和价值主张白皮书的研发。他在员工敬业度、领导力发展、战略调整和业务转型相关领域,为全球的领导团队提供协助。在担任现任职务之前,他曾担任全球研发和解决方案研发部门总裁,也曾担任Wilson Learning Corporation的总裁。

Tom Roth在开发和实施人力绩效提升解决方案领域拥有丰富的经验。他合著了《如何使企业重新找回活力》(英文原文),《创建高性能团队》(英文)的,并在众多商业出版物上发表过文章。他是一位在国内、国际会议和客户活动上活跃的演讲者,涉及内容广泛,其中包括:领导力、员工参与度、变革和战略实施。

Michael Leimbach, PhD

Michael Leimbach, PhD, is a globally recognized expert in instructional design and leadership development. As Vice President of Global Research and Development for Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc., he has worked with numerous Global 1000 organizations in Australia, England, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and throughout the United States. Over more than 30 years, Dr. Leimbach had developed Wilson Learning’s diagnostic, learning, and performance improvement capabilities, published over 100 professional articles, coauthored four books, been Editor-in-Chief for the highly acclaimed ADHR research journal, and is a frequent speaker at national and global conferences. He also serves on the ISO Technical Committee (TC232) on Quality Standards for Learning Service Providers and on the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development Dean’s Advisory Board.