The Accidental Leader: What to Do When You're Suddenly in Charge


It could happen today. You are called into the office, and the boss tells you that due to unforeseen circumstances, starting today you will be in charge of a team, a project, an office, a committee, or a business unit. Without any warning (or preparation on your part) you've become an accidental leader.

If you have been thrust into a position of sudden responsibility, you need The Accidental Leader. This book is a first aid kit that gives you ...

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It could happen today. You are called into the office, and the boss tells you that due to unforeseen circumstances, starting today you will be in charge of a team, a project, an office, a committee, or a business unit. Without any warning (or preparation on your part) you've become an accidental leader.

If you have been thrust into a position of sudden responsibility, you need The Accidental Leader. This book is a first aid kit that gives you the information and inspiration you need to

  • Know what you bring to the challenge— your pluses and minuses
  • Define success and achieve it
  • Get other people on your side
  • Overcome your natural shortcomings
  • Get organized— right now
  • See through the apparent system to the culture within
  • Direct people and get them to act
The Accidental Leader is your lifeline to leadership success. It is filled with practical answers to the many leadership questions that you will face.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“… many nuggets of wisdom…” (Professional Manager, May 2004)
Soundview Executive Book Summaries
Unexpected leadership can be a daunting task for those suddenly thrown into the fire of an important assignment. To help those faced with an unforeseen responsibility, psychologist and business consultant Harvey Robbins and prolific author and journalist Michael Finley offer a first-aid kit that will help inexperienced leaders succeed in their new role. The Accidental Leader shows readers how they can overcome their shortcomings, get organized, get other people on their side, and get them to act. Copyright © 2004 Soundview Executive Book Summaries
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780787968557
  • Publisher: Wiley
  • Publication date: 10/27/2003
  • Series: J-B US non-Franchise Leadership Series , #210
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 9.06 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Harvey Robbins is a psychologist, business consultant, trainer, and author. He has consulted to numerous organizations including American Express, Allied Signal, General Dynamics, AT&T, 3M, Honeywell, Johnson & Johnson, Nabisco, Target, and US West.
Michael Finley is a prolific author and journalist whose work has appeared in hundreds of publications. He is well known for his writing on technology, and was chosen as one of the "Masters of the Wired World" by the Financial Times. Robbins and Finley have written several books together, including the best-selling Why Teams Don’t Work, which won the Financial Times/Booz-Allen & Hamilton Global Business Award in 1995.

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Table of Contents

Who gets called to accidental leadership? Just about anyone.

Introduction: What’s an Accidental Leader?

Part One: Managing Oneself.

Three ways to cope with leader’s anxiety.

1. Coming to Terms with Responsibility.

Three steps to establish where you are—and where you need to be.

2. The First Day.

Seven things you need to learn about your team members and they need to know about you—and two warnings.

3. Meeting the Team.

Ten ways to feel better about your leadership.

4. Deciding What Kind of Leader to Be.

Eight things you can do to negotiate your own learning curve.

5. Becoming a Quick Study.

Four tough questions you need to ask yourself.

6. The Perfect Person for the Job.

Part Two: Managing the Technical Side.

Five things to spend at least a week learning about.

7. What They Expect You to Know, and What You’d Better Figure Out on Your Own.

Five measures of planning success.

8. Planning to Succeed.

Six stages of bringing an idea to completion.

9. How a Little Orderliness Can Extend Your Shelf Life.

Nine things you can do to bring people into your circle.

10. Who You Can Turn To.

Seven ways to get out of the box, and stay out.

11. Set Fire to Your Credenza.

Six ways to create a learning environment.

12. Leading by Learning.

Part Three: Managing People.

Six things to remember when your team is hovering on the brink of dysfunction,

13. Living with Teams,

Five rules for successful succession,

14. Packing Up Your Predecessor,

Seven truths about effective team process,

15. The Right (and Wrong) Way to Make Up Your Mind,

Ten el-cheapo ways to motivate people.

16. Motivating People.

Five ways to effect change in the face of resistance.

17. Locating the Levers of Change.

Nine ways to break an ice-jam in negotiations.

18. Learning to Negotiate.

Four kinds of people, and how to work with each.

19. Dealing with Other People.

Three ways to give people information so it is real to them.

20. How to Give Feedback.

Three ways to make empowerment work—and make your team bless you.

21. Set Limits to Freedom.

Five rules for dealing with conflict.

22. The Importance of Being Frank.

Five broad characterizations of the working generations.

23. Bridging the Age Gap.

Four of the worst and six of the best ways to communicate bad news.

24. How to Discipline and Fire.

Nine parting shots of managerial wisdom.

25. Confession and Conclusion.

Appendix: Best Books.


The Authors.


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First Chapter

The Accidental Leader

What to Do When You're Suddenly in Charge
By Harvey Robbins Michael Finley

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-7879-6855-2

Chapter One

Coming to Terms with Responsibility

I couldn't believe how I acted," said Beverly, who was promoted from clerk to third shift supervisor at a Denver check clearinghouse. "I got the news. I went home. I scarfed down a half-gallon of butter pecan ice cream."

Or Joshua, tagged to become assistant manager at a Bangor, Maine, convenience store: "I freaked. I'm still a student. I like having a job where I can just go through the motions. As soon as they told me, my mind started flashing the word failure."

Bev and Josh flipped out when they got the call to become leaders. To them it immediately represented frightening change. It's like their personalities rebelled against the notion of leadership:

"I've never led anything in my life."

"Great, now everyone will know how incompetent I am."

"What funny papers have these people been reading?"

Is panic useful or good in any way? Not in this situation. When we lived in caves and a saber-toothed tiger wandered in the door, it was useful to experience an adrenaline rush. It shut down other systems-thinking, for instance-and narrowed our options to two, each highly demanding of our bodies, fleeing or fighting.

Adrenaline helps us run fast, and it helps us summon the courage to hurl ourselves at a physical assailant. Butit is of zero use to us in the workplace. There is nothing a leader can do with it. Indeed, "nerves" are something every new leader gets, and must learn to overcome.

What can you do when you experience the adrenaline rush?

First, have an emotional strategy. Make up your mind that you will show only those emotions that advance your cause, or that don't torpedo it. You don't want to giggle at a funeral or show kindness to a bear cub in the wild. Neither can you show fear in the workplace.

Sure, terror is what you are feeling, in the pit of your stomach. But gnashing your teeth or wailing with closed eyes won't win people to your side.

When in doubt, smile. At least people will know you're trying to reassure them, which in turn makes it possible for them to reassure you. And it has the side benefit of reassuring you. If you're tough enough to put up a strong public face, you're probably tough enough to handle the new responsibility.

Take it up with your significant other. That's what mates and close friends are for-to tell your most horrible thoughts to, so no one else ever finds out about them.

Jesse, a retired professional athlete in Champlin, Minnesota, ran for statewide office as a lark, hoping to boost his public image and get a few things off his chest. To his astonishment (and chagrin), he was elected in a "perfect storm" of strange electoral conditions.

"I walked around in a daze for two weeks," he told a TV interviewer a year later. "I didn't know how to head a government. All I knew was how to growl at people and be a meatball."

Luckily, he said, "I had good people around me to help me sort it out. Best of all, my wife, Terri, was with me. I poured my heart out that night to her. How was I going to do this without making the world's biggest ass of myself?

"This is what she said to me: 'Jesse, I believe in you.' A simple thing, but it made a world of difference. But even if she'd said nothing, she was still invaluable, because I told my worst thoughts to her, not to my associates."

Head for the hills. Not right away. It doesn't look good to take a vacation as soon as you get promoted. It looks as if you're avoiding the challenge.

Instead, use a vacation as a way to ease your sense of crisis. Make a deal with yourself right now that, six months hence, you'll be going to Aruba. Make that your goal: six months of success, then a straw in a coconut.

Maybe you're not freaked. That's cool-truly cool. Not everyone responds to the call with panic. A healthy alternative is "Yippee!"

Jim, who was an orphan, worked humbly for a suburban Nashville construction firm for six months as a house painter. But his supervisors saw that he was intelligent and serious-minded, and they named him to head up an entire crew. Within a year he became head of training for the company citywide. Jim never flipped, never freaked. He expected good things to happen, because that was his nature. He did not regard advancement as a punishment from the gods.

Jim kept his cool, and that allowed his transition to leader to go smoothly.

Keep your powder dry. Here's a story showing what happens when you lose it in front of people.

Hank, an American history teacher at a high school in northern Ohio, was elevated to principal in an adjoining district in mid-year. Hank was a great admirer of Robert Kennedy, and when he was unsure of himself, tended to lapse into a bit of imitation. The night before he was to be introduced to the school assembly, he went over and over his speech, punching the air with two fingers to make his points. Unfortunately, when the assembly began, the kids didn't think it was as important an event as Hank did, and they were doing the usual-paper airplanes, spitballs, de-pantsing. Hank struggled through his remarks, then melted down in front of eight hundred students when he said:

"This constant fooling has got to stop around!"

You could have heard a pin drop. Then all eight hundred kids erupted in howls of derision. A simple matter of inverting the word order was enough to undo his career plan. Next semester, Hank was back at his former school, discussing the War of 1812.

Cheer up. After all, getting to be the leader is, for most people, not like being asked to walk the plank in a pirate movie. It's actually a pretty wonderful thing. It's a tremendous compliment. It means people know you've been doing a good job. It means higher status, higher pay, and greater satisfaction.

Many people, like Jim, are ready for this elevation, even if they have not consciously pined for a promotion. Some are "oldest children," so they are trained to have a sense of responsibility. Jim was not adopted until he was nine. That seminal experience taught him the value of patience and steady performance.

Xiaoping, a claims adjuster for a large Seattle financial services firm, was not surprised to be asked to lead a reengineering team charged with improving the claims processes. She had never set out to lead anything, but her colleagues knew she was sharp and that she cared about doing things right. She was a natural choice to lead this group, and she eagerly accepted.

The difference between Jim and Xiaoping and Josh and Bev is that leadership did not conflict with Jim's or Xiaoping's sense of themselves, their identities. Rather, it fulfilled them. Whereas, for Josh and Bev, promotion meant a major identity clash. Bev dove headfirst into a barrel of Haagen-Dazs. Josh seriously considered packing his duffel and leaving town for sunny Newfoundland.

How badly can the identity thing go? Consider the real-life story of Donald, hardware store owner in Winona, Minnesota. Donald was happy running a Coast to Coast hardware store, managing the cash register himself. But the company suggested he open a second store, and his wife, Sheila, insisted he accept the challenge.

So what did Donald do? He hired a man to murder Sheila. His sense of himself was that he shouldn't be a hardware tycoon with a raft of stores. He saw himself as being more the kind of fellow who greets customers and rings up purchases -a non-leader. Rather than go up against his sense of his own identity, he had his spouse murdered. If that sounds like the plot of the movie Fargo, it's because the movie was based on that story.

Now, few of us are going to reject the call to leadership as violently as Donald. But it underscores the power of how we think about ourselves, and how we let that power hold us back. We've described two kinds of people-those who fear leadership like Bev and Josh (and Donald) and those like Jim and Xiaoping who enthusiastically embrace leadership.

But there's a third way to react, and it's actually the way most people react-it's a combination of self-doubt and delight. In all likelihood, it's the way you reacted when you first heard of your promotion to leader: pleased to be picked, but worried about succeeding.

Why are we making a big fuss about identity? Not because it is the most important issue you will face as a leader. It isn't. Issues of managerial competence, communication skills, turf warfare, and group process will all dwarf concerns about your identity.

But the identity issue is the first crisis you are likely to face as a new leader, because it hits you right away like a banana cream pie to the proboscis. For many, it can be paralyzing. For the great majority, it keeps coming back at intervals-usually in the middle of a crisis-and haunting us:

"Am I cut out for this leadership deal?"

"When will they find out what an imposter I am?"

It is a supremely irrational moment, and nothing we can say rationally will soothe your panicking nervous system down, guaranteed. You are having a case of the sweats, and you may just have to sweat it out.

But here's one idea: Slow down. No one can sustain panic for more than a few hours. The endocrine system runs out of adrenaline, and then you relax. So give yourself time to respond to this challenge. With the passage of a few days, what originally seemed unthinkable will look right up your power alley.

Here's something else you can do until the adrenaline pump runs dry.

Make a list of your proudest accomplishments.

Tape the list next to your monitor or phone.

From time to time, look at the list and remember-you're pretty good at what you do.

Finally, when in doubt, remember this truth. People aren't idiots, no matter what you read in "Dilbert." You were picked for this challenge because someone who is not an idiot not only thought that you could handle it but that you were the best person for it.

Now is the moment to take a few deep breaths and balance the bad news with the good. No, you don't know everything you need to know to be successful with this new challenge. No new leader ever does.

But people who may know more about this than you do think you are able to learn the skills and attitudes that will ensure success.

We agree, and the following chapters will bring you closer to that success.


Excerpted from The Accidental Leader by Harvey Robbins Michael Finley Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2004


    Say the boss drops dead and suddenly you¿re the acting boss. Or the company reorganizes, everyone above you is fired and guess who¿s in charge. Imagine that your career suddenly becomes one of those movies where the plane starts to go down and some poor, benighted sap finds himself in the pilot¿s chair trying to land a 747 on a stormy night on what is either a landing strip or just a long, broad swath of plankton in the water. Can you land it? What do you do? You¿re responsible. Suddenly people look at you in a different way. Your friends no longer completely trust you, your enemies are working actively to undercut you and your ability to come to terms with accidental leadership will make or break your career. It is full of little motivational tips, kind words and straight talk covering everything from managing complex and difficult teams to firing people (tip: avoid Christmas Eve). The book is thin, a quick read and a good one.

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