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New Leaders and Bulls in China Shops

Not everyone will know what “bull in a China shop” means, yet it is a saying my mother used all the time. Her lessons were mostly about grace and slowing down, but the lesson extends to leadership, especially new leaders. The dictionary definition for this idiom is a person who breaks things or who often makes mistakes or causes damage in situations that require careful thinking or behavior.


New leaders are often filled with excitement, the desire to make a great first impression, and set out to change things quickly. While there are many reasons for warp speed changes, it is important to take heed and approach things more thoughtfully and carefully.


Self-motivation, inherent organizational challenges, and senior leader expectations all set the stage for leaders who act like “bulls in China shops.”

New leaders are excited to get started and want to do a good job. Whether promoted internally or hired externally, new leaders want to make great first impressions. Often, they equate success to making changes.


Too many changes made too fast can overwhelm the team and portray the leader as too strong or overbearing. Even worse, coming in to a new role and changing everything, might leave the team thinking the new leader does not care, respect, or understand their work.

Leaders are often natural problem solvers and technically astute in their role as an individual contributor. Internal hires might have watched from the sidelines as their own bosses either would not or could not address important issues and inefficiencies. External hires might also come into the role with fresh eyes and experience in another organization where things were done differently, also leading to a strong drive to make improvements.


Even during the hiring process, interview questions might point to the need for change. Candidates are asked for their ninety-day plan or strategic vision for the new role. Expectations for change are set for the leader before they even start in the role. Faced with this organizational pressure, new leaders might struggle. Simply being aware of the challenge can help everyone create more realistic expectations.


New leaders should be aware that success does not equate, in most cases, to the number of rapid changes, even while many improvement opportunities exist.

Senior leaders should also provide support and guidance to new leaders to create an improvement plan that is measured and prioritized. Slowing down and approaching the new role with careful planning, thoughtful conversations, and active listening is the best plan to avoid being a “bull in the leadership shop” and setting the leader up for success.




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