Views expressed in the Executive Corner category may not reflect the official positions or thoughts of the Washington Association of Conservation Districts. We share various thoughts to help stimulate thinking and discussion within our conservation community.

My Transition from Management to Leadership

Building Better logoThis post is about how knowing yourself and improving yourself relates to transitioning from management to leadership. This comes from comments I prepared for the first Building Better Learning and Management Community webinar.

I will use storytelling to reflect on how I went about improving myself. Since it’s a story, there might be a few surprises along the way. For background on the differences between leadership and management, check out this Harvard Business School article: LEADERSHIP VS. MANAGEMENT: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Management works in the system; Leadership works on the system.Stephen R. Covey

Many conservation district managers came from our technical ranks, with specific knowledge of one field and awareness of other specialties. That was certainly my path. I started as a district technician and soon found myself with new business cards that said “district manager.” My educational background is geology which is essentially the field application of all of the natural sciences. That broad background made it much easier for me to dive into the conservation district’s projects about water quality, erosion, and habitat restoration.

As I assumed more and more managerial duties over time, I did not always feel well prepared for those responsibilities. I could manage multiple projects, but managing people seemed a bit mysterious to me. Rocks weren’t hard but people sure were, at least for me! Once I recognized that I needed to know more, I signed up for management and leadership workshops. In most of those, I found that the information came too fast to really sink in. It was presented quickly and densely. I suppose that this was supposed to provide good value for the money spent, but most of that content didn’t penetrate my brain or get retained.

Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.Stephen R. Covey

What I needed was a different way of learning new information. What worked best for me was investing time over weeks and months in improving myself. I found that I needed time to absorb new information and ideas, and to compare them against my own inclinations. Over several years, I read many books by popular business authors of the time, including these impactful titles and authors:

Later came books by:

Every one of those authors gifted me with gems of wisdom that added to the foundation I was building toward developing my own style of leadership.

But I kept running into a barrier and that barrier was me. I have never felt leadership came naturally to me like it seemed to for some people. I discovered that I associated leadership with extroverted people. I’m not an extrovert; I’m an introvert. I recharge by spending time in quiet, wild spaces. When I worked as a geologist, I spent most of my days utterly alone, communing with rocks and geologic structures instead of working with people.

And then I began hearing about introverted leaders. If leadership is about solving problems and making decisions, introverts can be great leaders:

  • Introverts are motivated by productivity, not ambition.
  • They build deeper, more meaningful connections.
  • They don’t get easily distracted.
  • They solve problems thoroughly rather than hastily.
I believe in a quiet, strong, grounded leadership. I think some of the best leaders are those whose work is widely known and respected but who, themselves, are relatively unknown.Rachael Chong

Still, I felt more like a manager than a leader…until one day, a board member asked me to do something that fell outside my own moral code. Suddenly I was faced with a choice: take the easy path and comply with the request, or stand up for my own principles and say no?

The path I chose was to stand up for my own principles, knowing full well that I might be putting my job on the line. I couldn’t stomach the thought of betraying the values I had been trying to build in our organization by simply complying with the inappropriate request. That is not the kind of person I want to follow and so I chose to act in a way that would reinforce the values I had been working on for several years with my board and staff. I declined to proceed as graciously as I could while still saying no. It turned out that most of the people in the room were relieved that I didn’t cave in, interpreting my action as standing up for myself and for them.

Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex moral relationship between people based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good.Joanne Ciulla
Tom Salzer
Tom Salzer

That was the moment when I felt the world shift under my feet. It was a tectonic change from thinking of myself as a manager — someone who follows and enforces the rules — to a leader — someone who questions the rules, lives by core principles, and helps others focus on what is most important and succeed. It also changed the way my board interacted with me. Apparently, standing up for my principles served to build more trust and credibility with my board.

Your path will certainly be different than my path. Your trail toward leadership will be different because you are different than anyone else. My suggestion is to people you admire and emulate what you find in them that is good and effective. Look, too, at people you don’t admire and choose to not act that way. Learn where you are strong and where you are weak. Invest in strengthening your strong points and shoring up the weak spots.

As you learn about yourself and “build yourself better,” I think you will find it easier to relate to the rich tapestry of unique people we work with, and that will help you become a better manager and a better leader.

I’ll leave you with this inspirational quote from Seth Godin:

The secret of leadership is simple: do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.Seth Godin

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director