Leadership: Ready or not

Carl Apple portrait photo
Carl Apple

By Carl Apple, Director of Communications, George R. Brown School of Engineering, Rice University

Transitioning into a leadership position can be tough. When I say that, I’m not just referring to the tasks and decisions of the job—sometimes first making the decision is the hardest part.

Whether you’re being asked to coach a little league team, lead a church group or run a committee at work, sometimes it can be harrowing to just say “hey, I’ll do it.” 

When I decided to leave the TV news business, I envisioned an entry-level gig. After all, I didn’t have any tangible experience in public relations and marketing. Was I in for a shock? I got a position leading communications for a relatively large, high profile nonprofit, representing a large chunk of the state.

Great news, right?

The problem is that I was so thrilled with landing the job, I never really processed what I was getting myself into. What the heck does “director of communications” actually mean? They won’t actually expect that I’ll know what I’m doing? 

One of my staff members asked me if my last office had windows. I told her, “Yes, there were a bunch of windows and they were always moving.” Get it? Because I was a TV reporter. Let’s move on.

Leading a staff; coordinating a campaign; organizing events; providing guidance in a crisis—I had a lot to learn. What the heck is a “calendar invite?” 

Many of you probably had the luxury to grow into your roles, but there was probably a moment when you had to dive in. I’m certainly not here to provide leadership coaching—there are people who have dedicated their careers to that. What I will say is that when you have an opportunity to step up, there’s usually a reason. Whether it’s the PTA or the School of Engineering, it’s usually because you’re needed and someone thinks you’re ready.

However, I would suggest asking yourself a few questions before jumping into management. 

  • Do you like solving problems? Actually, do you like solving other people’s problems?
  • Are you OK with giving up some control?
  • Are you able to, occasionally, fight for something on behalf of others?
  • Are you OK with delegating things (seriously, some people can’t do it)?
  • Can you let a little thing go so that you get a victory with the bigger thing?

I’m sure some of our other managers in higher ed could add to this list. Regardless, sometimes the best way to find out is to take advantage when the right opportunity comes along.

As for the job at that nonprofit? Things worked out pretty well. I did a lot of stupid things. I asked for a lot of help. But we did a lot of great work, too. And you know what? After that, my next leadership role wasn’t so scary.