When to Step Up and When to Step Back

Knowing what’s needed is a critical leadership skill.

Some leaders think that they need to be out front and leading at every moment. They simply can’t help themselves, feeling the need to overwhelm and dazzle everyone with their leadership prowess. Others hold back, staying quiet and never really stepping up to their own brilliance as leaders.

You should be agile enough to be both, based on what is needed under the circumstances at hand. Your decision can make or break your career. The trick is to be intentional and recognize the times that ask you to step up or step back as a leader.

You need to step up when:

There is a vacuum that must be filled: There are times when nobody else is leading, and you intuitively know that it is a situation requiring someone to step up and you know that you are capable. These occurrences are rare, but may happen when there are emergencies or other times when the consequences of a lack of leadership are ominous and someone like you needs to lead the way forward.

Ethical or moral codes are being compromised: This is not the time for being a sheep, following along with the rest of the pack. If you know that things are not as they should be, this is when you need to lead strongly to put things right. The world needs more leaders with a moral code who are willing to speak up.

The truth needs to be heard: You know that elephant in the room everyone else is ignoring? Well, so did those who ignored the warning signs before the launch of the Challenger Space Shuttle, killing several and imperiling the NASA’s mission. The elephant in your room may not lead to consequences quite so horrifying, but nonetheless, you should listen to your conscience and be the one who speaks up.

You need to step back from leading when:

Someone else deserves the spotlight: You know that quietly amazing employee who is behind the scenes making things happen? Or the peer who has done the work of two people? They need you to step back and allow them to come forward so that they can be recognized for their accomplishments and have their turn at leading.

You need to be an equal: Organizational and social hierarchies can sometimes be anti-equality, making you feel like you always need to be at the forefront. Yet if you watch and listen closely, you’ll notice that there are times when you need to be on the same level as those around you: true collaboration and coaching work best when you are on equal footing with others.

You’ve done all you can: Often leaders can be overly-persistent in trying to get others to buy into their ideas. This behavior can run the gamut from being annoying to putting you into jeopardy of consequences you don’t want. Knowing when the fight is no longer worth it is a competency you may not have heard of, but it’s important to back off before others turn against you.

Being self-aware and observant of what goes on around you can tell you when it’s time to step up to leadership or to step back.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a former corporate executive who has spent the past 16 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC.