The Unexpected Leader

Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Jay-Z , Mark Zuckerberg, Barney Frank, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton- what do these people have in common? They are national examples of the Unexpected Leader®.

These leaders burst on the scene shaking things up and no one sees them coming. Their emergence as leaders is frequently met with shock, disbelief and a lot of “it is not supposed to be your turn” energy and commentary!

I’ve been intrigued by this Unexpected Leader® concept for years, in part because I am often experienced as the Unexpected Leader. Watching a number of these leaders emerge inspired me to study the special challenges these individuals face. Often what makes the leader unexpected is race, gender, age, physical ability or sexual orientation. Unexpectedness is also connected to geography, leadership style, communication style, or where a leader worked organizationally prior to moving into a new leadership role.

Unexpected Leaders emerge in organizations that historically would not have chosen them or simply never saw their way of leading as the “right fit” for the organization. However there are these amazing moments when this type of leader breaks through and makes a difference. Sound familiar?

Are you the Unexpected Leader®?

If you are, I have a few tips for you.

Being the “first & only”

Prepare to pass the “first and only test.” Being the “first and only” is an honor. But it comes with challenges you must prepare to face. I liken this experience to being the new exotic animal at the zoo. Everyone wants to see you because they’ve never seen a leader like you before. If you are the Unexpected Leader® people will be curious about you. The Unexpected Leader must strategically introduce her/himself to the organization. It is important to honor the history of those who led before you. Connect to this leadership by sharing what you have in common with former leaders. Let people get to know you by sharing your communication style, beliefs and values. Invite questions and respond to them openly and respectfully. Listen to and tap down fears about you.

Normalize your leadership early in your new position and then be consistent. Word deed alignment really matters when you are the Unexpected Leader®.

Sustaining Credibility

Unexpected Leaders struggle to gain and sustain credibility. This struggle is seldom about qualifications. Each Unexpected Leader® arrives in the position with the confidence, competence, courage, and calm to lead. However, when you are the Unexpected Leader® people question your legitimacy, because in their minds it was not supposed to be you. Your ideas and decisions will be challenged. Your intellect and ability to lead will be suspect to some. You may even be blatantly disrespected. Try not to take any of this personally. The challenge to the Unexpected Leader’s credibility is often the manifestation of people’s emotional reactions to change. New leadership always frightens people. When the new leader is the Unexpected Leader, this escalates normal amounts of fear to near terror for those who struggle believing it is your turn to lead.

Establishing credibility requires you to sustain a high level of composure even when the emotions of change are hurtful or angering. Be very good in your new leadership position. Strive for excellence in both the technical and relational aspects of your work. In all due time, as you prove to non-believers you can get the job done, they will believe in you too.

Paying it Forward

Unexpected Leaders are concerned about paying success forward to emerging “Unexpecteds.” These leaders recognize their success or lack thereof will be used to gauge whether someone like them emerges as a leader again. Keep your eye on others in the organizations who demonstrate leadership ability that may not be seen. Take these people under your wing and mentor them. Do not forget where you came from. Make sure your legacy of leadership includes preparing the next generation of Unexpected Leaders to walk in your shoes. We recognize how traditions of leadership prevent certain people from being seen as leadership material. We are committed to elevating this talent pool wherever we work. It is our hope the new energy and style of Unexpected Leaders adds value to the communities, organizations, and companies we serve

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