Stepping into a leadership vacuum shows initiative

Take charge of your career by stepping into a vacuum and taking ownership of it. Jay Rollins discusses potential pitfalls you may encounter and explains why confidence is key in this leadership role.

Take charge of your career by stepping into a vacuum and taking ownership of it. Jay Rollins discusses potential pitfalls you may encounter and explains why confidence is key in this leadership role.


One of the interesting things associated with working in a small or a midsize company is the presence of vacuums. The simple definition is: As a company grows, more things must get done, and there are not enough people to do them, hence a vacuum is created. With small and midsize companies, the number of vacuums increases at an accelerated rate.

Vacuums present a perfect opportunity for leaders to step in and take ownership. Everyone has their own idea of what they are supposed to do, and they stick with it. They don't venture out into things that make them feel uncomfortable. The base reaction is, "I know it needs to be done. Someone will take care of it. I don't have to." This reaction comes from fear and a lack of feeling empowered. So many employees won't do anything until they are told to do it for both of these reasons.

You always hear about the CEO looking for a "take charge" employee to get things done. Well, stepping into a vacuum, taking ownership, and excelling at the job is what they are talking about. So if you plan to step up, how do you identify the right vacuum? There are always things that need to be done, but you have to watch out for and avoid the easy ones. Look at the task and try to picture what it will be like in three years; then ask yourself: Is it repetitive? Does it contribute value to the company? How close to the transaction does this duty or responsibility lie? Is it strategic or tactical?

Once you demonstrate a knack for something, you can get pigeonholed into doing it for a very long time. Breaking a label once it has been stamped clearly on your forehead is very difficult to wash off, so you need to choose carefully.

Another element to watch for as you expand your job description is that the task you pick up has enough value that you are allowed to be distracted from your day job — the job you were hired to do in the first place. Some of these tasks can take up a significant amount of time, and if the value of what you are doing is not clear to management, you have to make sure that your day job comes first.

One key area I have seen opportunities to step up came from observing indecisiveness around product development. I ran into this twice. As a team, we were able to come up with some great ideas for a product, but there wasn't anyone providing direction. When you can sense this waffling behavior, this is a leadership vacuum ripe for stepping into. I found that employees with even more experience than me just wanted to be told what to do. If you approach the situation with enough confidence and intelligence, you can step in and become the group leader. When the group looks to you for answers and direction, management will also look to you.

On the flip side, if you don't feel confident about stepping into a vacuum, don't do it. Feeling uncomfortable is okay and expected, but confidence is the key. Although there may be early acceptance of you, be prepared for your leadership position to be tested constantly in the beginning. Leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. If you are not ready, don't take on that role; it will do more harm than good. To determine if you're ready, you should:

  • Know and understand the difference between confidence and overconfidence. Confidence will help you stay on track, while over confidence can bury you.
  • Know and understand the difference between feeling uncomfortable and not feeling confident. These are different and at times that difference is subtle. If you are lacking confidence, you may want to back out, but if you are just feeling uncomfortable, suck it up and trudge forward.
  • Know what you are doing. If you don't, you won't get the respect of the group, and your confidence will deteriorate very quickly. In hindsight, you will realize that this was an issue with overconfidence (see the first bulletpoint).
  • Rely heavily on common sense; it can save your bacon.

Stepping into a vacuum and taking ownership of it is an important way for you to take charge of your career. Waiting for your boss to give you opportunities when she thinks you are ready is a waste of time. You know when you are ready better than she does and, in SMBs, there are many opportunities for you to step into the spotlight.

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