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10 Tips on successfully handling the transition from manager to leader

William Bridge's thoughts on moving from being a manager to a leader

10 Tips on successfully handling the transition from manager to leader


We originally released this blog a few years ago. Written for Go Mad Thinking by William Bridges  who is the author of ten books, including the best-selling Transition, Managing Transition and The Way of Transition. William has since sadly passed away. However, his work remains his legacy and is as relevant today as it has always been. 


For the past 30 years, I’ve been helping people to deal better with, and even capitalize on, the process of transition. As I use that term, it doesn’t mean the same thing as change. Change is a situational shift, often an event. Moving to a new city, getting married, being promoted, losing a parent… those are changes. Transition is the reorientation and renewal process that you go through when you encounter a change.


Change is external, transition is internal.

Whole organizations go through transition. They do so in response to big organizational changes, like mergers, shifts in strategy, new technology, or new leadership. Such changes succeed only if the organization makes a successful transition.

A change simply creates a new situation; it is the transition that brings people out of the situation with a new behavior, a new outlook, and a new identity. And if they don’t have those things, the change is still-born.

One of the changes where the transition is most often overlooked is triggered off by the promotion of a manager to an executive position. Overlooking that transition guarantees that the individual will fail as a leader because he or she is just a manager in leader’s clothing. Like any transition, this one must go through three predictable phases:


1. First, the manager must let go of the old ways of doing and being. Managers who can’t do that may occupy a new position, but they’ll be holding on to the ways of doing things that were appropriate to their old position.

2. Second, the manager must get through a confusing in-between time (‘the neutral zone’) when things aren’t the old way anymore, but haven’t become an identifiable and comfortable new way yet either.

3. Then, third, the manager must become the new person – ‘a leader’ – that the new situation demands.


Ending, neutral zone, new beginning: this three-part process must occur if the change is to work, whether it is the individual result of a promotion or the collective product of a new leadership development initiative designed to get all ‘managers’ thinking and acting like ‘leaders’.


Here are 10 tips for making the transition more likely to occur and less confusing:


1. Begin by distinguishing between the change – defined by the details of the new position – and the transition, which represents the three-phase process of coming to terms with the new position and the demands that it makes on the person. The change starts with something new, but the transition starts with letting go of the old way of handling situations and the old identity that came from that way.

2. Decide just what you have to let go of. Otherwise you – or whoever is in transition – will drag old and no longer relevant ways of doing things into the new situation. One of the roles that a leader has is to help people by articulating just what it is time to let go of in this particular transition. That not only gets the transition going; it also assures that people let go of the right things. Without such guidance, some will let go of too much and some not enough.

3. Don’t be surprised to find yourself discouraged or depressed as you start to come to terms with your new (and probably long-anticipated) leadership role. The ending of your old role is going to trigger off a sense of loss, no matter how much you want the new role. This is the product of the transition you are in, not a sign that the new role isn’t right for you. (Because people think in terms of change rather than transition, however, they are likely to think the problem is with the new role.)

4. Although it is important to focus on what it’s time to let go of, it is also important to understand what you don’t have to let go of. The continuities may be less obvious than the change in your first reaction to the losses, but they are important elements in your on-going sense of identity and purpose when so much is changing.

5. Although the change may happen quickly – one day you’re a manager, the next you’re a leader – the transition will take much longer. Much of that time will be spent in what I call the neutral zone, a sort of no-man’s land between the old outlook and the new one. Whilst it’s a good idea to keep the change moving along quickly, you mustn’t rush through the neutral zone because that is where the real transformation of ‘manager’ into ‘leader’ takes place.

6. During the neutral zone, you’re going to have an ‘opportunity’ and a ‘need’. The opportunity is that the neutral zone is a fluid and creative time: it’s a good time to try out new things, to challenge your own existing assumptions, to rethink your own future. The need during this time is to keep the uncertainties of the neutral zone from blotting out your creativity. Do this with temporary arrangements, agreements, and procedures that you set up to ‘hold things together’ while you are in the neutral zone.

7. Most people look back at the neutral zones of their lives – though they seldom call them by that name – as the times when (almost without their awareness) something new and important was starting to take shape. This process can be helped along. Ask yourself how your sense of purpose is changing. Are your values the same as they always were or are they changing in subtle ways? The neutral time is the natural time for stock-taking, for realistic self-assessment, and for updating the once-useful but now outmoded assumptions, dreams, and beliefs in your life.

8. Throughout the transition – but especially in the neutral zone – make sure your goals and output expectations are realistic. When you are in transition, nothing sinks you faster than expecting yourself to turn out huge amounts of work when your energy and your effectiveness are compromised by what you are going through. You don’t have to give up on either the quality or quantity of what you do – just don’t promise things that you can’t deliver.

9. Create for yourself a personal checklist of the actual behaviors and the attitudes that you want to demonstrate in your new role as a ‘leader’. Too often, leadership becomes a cliché for a mysterious quality that makes things happen. Demystify it. Cut it up into specific, bite-size chunks. Get it into a form where you can check how you are doing with the specifics of the new role every week – or even every day. Enlist others’ help by asking them to give you feedback on whether you are demonstrating these newly important behaviors and attitudes.

10. Build yourself a record of this transition. (Maybe now’s the time to start keeping a journal.) The idea is to learn from what you are going through. If you don’t profit from all this stress you are in now, you’ve made a bad bargain with life. Besides, this isn’t the last transition you are going to go through in your career. So keep track of what you are learning: what helped you and what hindered you in this transition? What would you do differently another time? Understanding those things will make future transitions much easier.


If you can follow these 10 tips, your chances of making the critical transition from manager to leader will increase considerably. Otherwise, people will say, “I guess that they just weren’t leadership material.” But that won’t be the case. You just didn’t know how to get through such a big transition.


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