It’s that day. It’s the end of my tenure as the Interim Leader of the team to which I am currently assigned. It’s been 201 days and for the first time in my career, I am more than good with passing the baton to someone else. The main reason I am pleased to turn over the reins is that I have been the leader I believed this team needed and not the leader that I wanted to be. Having held many leadership positions over the course of my career, I have learned that it is the leader’s job to adapt to the team’s needs, especially when the tenure of leadership is expected to be a short one. Personally, I found that being an Interim Leader is very different than being a Permanent Leader and I wanted to share some of what I have learned:

  1. Be a Short Term Thinker. The most effective leaders are those who lead with the long view. They have a vision they are helping the team realize and they have behaviors they are attempting to shape across the team. In essence, they unify effort and build culture. They are not defining success for the day, week, or even month. They are leading each day with a vision for next year and sometimes the next decade in the back of their mind. Interim Leaders don’t have the luxury of doing much of that. They must define success in the short term without giving much, if any, regard to the long-term vision. That’s difficult to do, especially for those of us who are wired to lead strategically. Personally, I spent a great deal of time writing a strategy with the team, building processes with the team, attempting to shape behavior across the team, and making disciplined decision-making more commonplace. I learned that I am not a short-term thinker. If you enjoy leading strategically, you will find interim leadership far from fulfilling. Be prepared to leave your strategic lens in your pocket.
  2. Be Empathetic (to Your Successor). The Interim Leader’s job is not to make a case for himself to be the  Permanent Leader but to set the conditions for his successor to succeed. It’s much easier to do when you know who your successor will be and can bounce ideas off of them, but when that is not the case the most responsible approach is to act as if you were going to be the Permanent Leader. During the last seven months, there have been many decisions that I wanted to make but stopped short of deciding because I believed they were decisions the Permanent Leader deserved the opportunity to own. Decide what you must, defer what you should, and put yourself in your successor’s shoes at any and every opportunity.
  3. Be Inclusive (of Your Teammates). I have always been an inclusive leader and knowing that I would eventually be reintegrating back into this team made relationships and inclusiveness even more vital. Though I was the Interim Leader, I firmly believed we were leading together and wanted as many people as possible to both inform and own the decisions we were making during this interim period. At the same time, there were many genuine conversations between direct reports that needed to happen. Yes, interim or not, the leader is the leader. And, you must remember that your direct reports are Interim Followers, some of whom are extremely anxious for the interim period to be over. Accountability is challenging and direction is often disregarded during such a period. Therefore, inclusivity and shared ownership are paramount. Involve your teammates, leverage their expertise, hold them accountable, and be prepared for some to wait you out.
  4. Be (Prepared to Be) Gone. Being an Interim Leader changes relationships with your teammates and changes how you are viewed by the team. It also can potentially make some people uncomfortable should the new Permanent Leader decide to chart a different course upon arrival and in your presence. I leave my ego behind each day before I go to work, so I personally have no problem with that, but that’s not always the case. As is customary in most leadership transitions, it may be best for you to leave the team once the Permanent Leader is in place. When asked to be an Interim Leader think about what you will do when it’s over and be prepared to leave the team altogether, if necessary

I remain grateful for the opportunity to be the Interim Leader of the team to which I continue to belong. I learned a great deal about myself, about my teammates, and about the challenges of having to be a different kind of leader than I was able to be in the past. The biggest thing I learned is that I have no desire to be an Interim Leader again. Those of us in uniform have a responsibility to lead whomever we are asked, wherever we are needed, however we believe is best. And as I think about leadership opportunities in my civilian life, I will assess whether or not I want to be the leader they need before agreeing to rise to the occasion.

  • Have you ever been an Interim Leader? If so, what did you learn?
  • What type of leader does your team need right now?
  • What type of leader do you enjoy being? How do you account for any delta?