Transitioning from Born Doer to Born Leader

How Doers Can Lead Effectively

You often hear about “natural born leaders” and, at the same time, you hear about people who simply “get sh*t done.” People in the latter category are known as doers — and sometimes they find themselves promoted into leadership positions. The problem is that doing and leading require two different skill sets, so the best doers don’t always make the best leaders. In this article, we take a look at how doers can lead effectively.

Doers vs. Leaders

Before we get into specific strategies for transitioning from born doer to born leader, let’s get a better understanding of both roles.

Doers complete tasks. They are known for being able to focus and take care of whatever is on their to-do list. Born doers are often inherently good organizers who become efficient masters of their work; many are specialists within their area of expertise.

Leaders tend to be more generalists than specialists in that they engage in broader work that spans more subject areas, people and roles. Leaders invent the future. They are visionaries who can communicate their vision with others, influence, compel and persuade. They also set standards and initiate abrupt change and disruption as needed.

The Typical Career Path

Nearly all of us start our careers as doers. We are hired to fill a position to accomplish some specific, defined set of tasks. We kick off our careers in roles like marketing coordinator, engineering associate, sales rep, nurse, teacher, construction worker or software developer. As we gain experience and learn our chosen roles, most of us get better at them. The best doers become competent, efficient and effective at their jobs, and work assignments that once seemed challenging or even overwhelming become almost routine to complete.

Then we are given more to do, including more challenging tasks. Most of us keep getting better as the level of difficulty of what we are asked to do ratchets upward.

Eventually, the best doers get noticed by management for their high-quality work, and some are invited to step into new leadership roles. Think of the marketing coordinator who works her way up first to marketing manager then to vice president of marketing; the construction worker who becomes a project manager and then later a general contractor; or the teacher who is tapped to become an administrator before ultimately being named school principal.

Unfortunately, being a great doer doesn’t always translate into being a great leader. That’s because the success of a leader isn’t only dependent on what you do. It depends on what your team does, which means their success is really all about how doers can lead effectively.

Where Doers Get Stuck as Leaders

The most successful doers tend to get things done by seeing problems and immediately taking them upon themselves to solve. That strategy can work well enough if you are responsible only for your own reasonable number of tasks.

Once in a leadership role, however, you are suddenly responsible not only for your own tasks but also those of other people who may or may not be as good at doing as you have been. It’s tempting to born doers to just take more and more of the others’ tasks on themselves but trying to do it all will lead to feeling stressed and burned out. A good leader has to let go of some of the doing and focus on the leading.

So, what happens to doers who can’t figure that out? They don’t make it as leaders. Career-wise, they step off or get pushed off the career ladder into a sidetrack where they occupy non-leadership roles as super-specialized experts with little or no management responsibilities. Depending on your personality and career aspirations, this could be a good thing. But it could also be a bad thing, which would require taking steps to increase your leadership capacity.

How Doers Can Lead Effectively

As you work on your own transition into a leadership role, we suggest the following tips for how doers can lead effectively:

1.  Think Big Picture.

Leading a group of people requires the ability to step back and focus on the big picture. As a leader, stop the day-to-day doing to free up time for strategic thinking and goal setting. Your job as a leader is to come up with (and consistently refine) a vision that you use to guide those you’re leading.

2.  Communicate.

You can have the best vision ever, but it’s useless if you don’t tell anyone what it is. Make time to share not only the what but also the why behind your strategy. People are more motivated when they know why they are doing what they’re doing and what difference it makes.

3.  Listen.

Communication is not one-way. Be open-minded, treat everyone with dignity and respect, and take time to listen to what others have to say and what ideas they share. Consider their emotions and aspirations. That doesn’t mean doing everything that others ask. As the leader, you have to think critically and figure out when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”

4.  Delegate.

Remember, you can’t do it all yourself. Let others take care of day-to-day tasks. It’s okay if they don’t do things exactly the way you would. There are almost always multiple ways to successfully complete most tasks and solve most problems.

5.  Teach.

Encourage the growth of others by showing them how or empower them to learn from others (this is also delegating!). Yes, it will take more time initially to teach someone instead of doing it yourself, but the investment you make in others will pay off as they, too, grow into their new responsibilities.

6.  Trust.

Elevate those you lead by encouraging them to find good solutions, but do NOT micromanage them. Respect their fundamental judgement and skills and let them come to you when they want input or run into a problem they can’t solve.

7.  Don’t Just Answer Questions, Ask Questions.

Empower others to answer their own questions to figure out solutions, and constructively ask questions to push people to gain new perspectives.

8.  Create Growth Opportunities for Others.

Leaders take people to the edge of their comfort zone, allowing them to experience discomfort, conflict, struggle and, sometimes, even failure. Don’t always shield and shelter others. Letting them learn from mistakes can ultimately lead to more success for everyone.

9.  Learn How to Provide Feedback.

It’s your job as a leader to hold people accountable. The best leaders are skilled at not only delivering good news and bad news, but also giving positive and negative feedback, ideally in a way that supports the personal and professional growth of those who are receiving it. Remember, though, that not everyone will have the same motivations as you.

10. Avoid Attending Too Many Meetings.

Don’t get sucked into every meeting. Only go to the most essential meetings so that you’re more productive and get the necessary time to develop your vision and to demonstrate your leadership skills. Send others to meetings on your behalf.

Feeling Overwhelmed? Try a Mentor

If all of this sounds like too much to master on your own, consider getting a mentor. Even the best leaders didn’t become great overnight, and most have benefited from the advice of others along the way, no matter how much natural leadership talent they may appear to have.

Part of the process of becoming a born leader is gaining self-awareness. Look for a mentor who has already figured out firsthand how doers can lead effectively and made the transition from born doer to born leader. Your mentor should give you honest feedback about what you are and aren’t doing well.

Leading as a Lifelong Journey

Jumping into being a leader isn’t easy, but the discomfort won’t last forever. Just as you got better at “doing” with practice, you will also come to know your strengths and weaknesses and get better at being a leader. Be patient and mindful, and you will eventually figure out how doers can lead effectively.

In reality, the transition from born doer to born leader is often a gradual one, and for many, leadership is not, and will never be, a full-time role. You may even find yourself switching back and forth between born doer and born leader in different aspects of your life. In fact, what born leaders really do know best is not only what to do themselves but also when and how to ask for help.

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Cobalt-60 is the name of our blog, an online digest dedicated to the art and science of communications. (It’s also an isotope of the element cobalt.)

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