I have spent a lot of time thinking about leadership and what it means. I have heard people talk about personal and professional leadership, as if the two subjects require different talents or traits. I believe that they do not.
I believe that the following traits can make you an effective team leader regardless of the size of your team. They will not guarantee success; however, they represent important goals and standards toward which all leaders should strive. In their application, you can increase your effectiveness as a leader.
If you do not have a leadership position, right now, but feel like you would want to have one, these traits will garner attention from those that have the power to give you a team to get more done.
You can have traits to your personality that make leadership easier. I don’t naturally possess them. I tend toward the introverted, toward the introspective, toward the silent. When I want to effectively lead a team, I have to expend energy to do so.
I consider this blog an example of that. Though I like to write, I do not have something to say every day. Not until this BORAX project that I can’t get out of my head. But, in general, I struggle at least once per week with crafting something instructive, educational, or entertaining. But, I know that achieving success with something requires perspiration and the occasional neglect of self-indulgence.
Even worse, leaders get less positive feedback than team members. Companies expect leaders to have thick skins and work without direct praise. You must derive praise from the fact that the company has entrusted you with a team of people to manage. They believe that you can do a good job. You just have to do it, normally in a vacuum of veneration.
So, if you don’t have a Type A personality and compassion, you will have to work on some of these traits to develop them to maturity. And, it will seem hard, at first. But, you have the opportunities every day in almost every setting to hone these skills. Do it consciously and, eventually, they will transition into habits. Then you’ll find leadership easier.
I went to a special school for “gifted children” from 3d through 8th grades. In the lexicon of my home town’s school district, “gifted children” meant kids that could score well on an IQ test. I grew up surrounded by smart and clever children, the leaders of the next generation. Besides the normal subjects that you would expect a grade- or middle-schooler to take, we took instruction on problem solving, social policy, chemistry, mathematics, government, computers, and videography. All-in-all, that was my Camelot of education.
Imagine my surprise when, at the start of high school, I found myself no longer in a meritocracy but a cheerocracy. My freshman year passed in a fog of ennui and apathy. Toward the end of the year, my friends and I sat around a lunch table in the cafeteria, when Jeremy listed the candidates vying for the class presidency: Brandon, Jed, and Elizabeth. I shook my head at the options and announced why I thought each contender unfit for the office. At the conclusion of my tirade, Jeremy looked at me and said, “Why don’t you run, then?” I replied with a hearty, “Fine, I will!” I went to the old biddy that coördinated the school council and stated my interest in the contest. She sneered as she gave me the once over, had me fill out forms, and became the fourth clown in the little car of high school politics.
Not everybody likes me. I know this. I do have a certain charisma, though, that I can use like a weapon. I used it to decimate my opponents. I won with such a large majority that I ran uncontested the following year.
With my presidency, I did nothing. I did not participate in anything but that which took me out of class. I think I may have the infamous honor of the only class president in the history of the school that, after a two-week unexcused absence, lived in suspension for just as long. The crone that sponsored the school government (remember her? she sneered at me.) despised me because I refused to take the position seriously. Yet, I had the popular support.
Again, in hindsight, I recognize that I had learned the fine art of demagoguery. That, I believe, relates to one of the traits of good leadership: a person with the talent to instigate can also inspire. A person that can share her vision can inspire. A person that can push knowledge to his team can inspire.
From a recommendation from a former employee on my LinkedIn profile:
Working under Curtis was akin to being mentored by a whole university of professors. He would put on lunch and learns to spread his knowledge of topics or interest both directly related to work and more broad based.
I expect my boss to inspire me. In a general way. I don’t need atta-boys, just the feeling that I have the chance to participate in someting worthwhile, even if it just lines the coffers of a faceless multinational conglomerate.
For the teamless: You should inspire the people around you. You should inspire your boss. If you can get others excited by your ideas, you will have a better chance for recognition come promotion time.
The U.S. Army has a manual for almost everything. I assume a cadre of writers exist at the Pentagon to churn out the documents, revise them over time, and ensure their distribution. One million monkeys, chattering and typing away.
The third core competency of a leader reads
(3) Leads by example: Leaders are role models for others. They are viewed as the example and must maintain standards and provide examples of effective behaviors. When Army leaders model the Army Values, they provide tangible evidence of desired behaviors and reinforce verbal guidance by demonstrating commitment and action.
Last October, my boss and I decided to make our next project a Web-based application. In and of itself, that should not have posed any problem; I know the Web. However, it meant that we needed to use an internal and immature Web platform to target our company’s proprietary development platform to create our application. After struggling with it for about a month, my minion and I decided that we had had enough. I went to my boss and told him that we needed to write our own platform to do what we envisioned for the strategic evolution of our product. He gave me permission to do it. He also said that our project’s deadline would not change.
So, over two months, I wrote a distributed Web application framework in Python. I made sure that my minion received the three weeks of vacation that he had coming to him. My team and I delivered it with two weeks to spare.
I worked 80-hour weeks for seven weeks. I made sure that I took the lion’s share of the work. I made sure that I did more, worked harder, dedicated myself to the success of the project because I truly believe that a leader acts this way. They do not make their lives easier through the hard work of those reporting to them.
In a recommendation on LinkedIn, one of my former employees wrote
Seriously, when was the last time you saw a VP debugging code because his developers were too busy on a very important deadline?!
Conducting yourself in the workplace as an example for others to emulate will implicitly generate respect for you as a leader.
I think that we have the easiest time attaining this aspect of leadership, if you can participate in a little self-sacrifice, in a little modesty. Unfortunately, many people that I’ve met can not participate in either of those because selfishness dominates their personalities and selfish people never make good leaders.
For the teamless: You may have heard the advice “dress for the job that you want.” Living the example follows the same advice. Assuming you have time and energy, assume more responsibility than what you currently have. Think of ways to improve the software, branch the code, implement proofs of concept, and present them to your boss. Show that you have the ability to live the life of a leader.
I started practicing eXtreme Programming back in 2000. The tagline for the first book read “Embrace Change.”
In general, humans don’t like change. I think it has to do with a lack of personal security. I grew up in a fairly tumultuous and chaotic environment, so I have a lower visceral reaction to change than everybody that does not practice Buddhism.
The trait of courage means that you know how to communicate the need for change. I have, more than once, told my team that we had to change a module of code, had to abandon the current base, make it leaner. I have had to fire people because they did not work well in the team. I have had to tell people that they don’t get raises or bonuses. I have had to tell people that they have done a bad job.
These things go against my nature. I seek harmony. Those actions fuck with the status quo.
It takes courage to do that.
It takes courage to do anything that you don’t like to do.
Of course, if you’re the kind of person that likes to fire people, if you like your daily dose of Schadenfruede, then you probably will never end up as a good leader. A scary one, maybe, but that doesn’t work long term.
My wife really helped me with this trait. She has reckless courage. I find her a great inspiration from whom I can learn.
From another of my recommendations on LinkedIn:
The way he put himself on the line to defend the engineering team during difficult development schedules was both moving and inspirational. No one wanted to let Curtis down.
Your displays of courage will allow your team’s members the sense of security that they need to do their job well. They will want to make you look good to preserve that sense of security.
Unless you have more than 100 people reporting to you, you should know the names, marital status, kid status, professional interests and sense of humor for every person on your team. Having that knowledge will help you better understand the personal motivations of the members of your team. Because leadership can be targeted marketing, it must take the form of virtuous manipulation.
That may strike you as pretty cold. Even evil. The word “manipulation” comes with some pretty dark connotations of unscrupulous behavior. I do not mean those.
“Manipulation” means “to control in a skillful manner.” I take that as an alternate definition for “leadership” because a good leader can control her group of team members skillfully (no hurt feelings, little resentment, positive directions) toward a common goal.
You must handle your team with integrity and honesty. You must respect your team members so they can respect you. You must have the decency to know the members of your team. You must concern yourself with their concerns. Give them opportunities in which to succeed and provide feedback.
One of my former employees wrote on LinkedIn:
Curtis was a leader of the engineering organization for DataCert that epitomized the “ride close to the herd” strategy of management. He clearly cared about what people’s [sic] goals were and worked with individuals to mentor them towards achieving such goals.
I didn’t know the phrase “ride close to the herd” until I read his recommendation. It excellently describes my type of leadership. Like a cowboy or shepherd, I stay close to my groups so I can hear, smell, and see in what direction they’ve decided to go.
However, remember they’re not your buddies. I have worked with too many people that encourage after-work activities so they can make “friends” of thier employees. Just accept that as you move up in management, you will get lonelier.
To counteract the occasional bout of low morale that every team endures, you need to build the esprit de corps of the team, the “feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group.” When a team has a high degree of esprit de corps, then they tend to manage from within, leaving you the opportunity to manage the big problems. If you have a fractured team, then you will end up living the melodrama of a cable reality TV show and you and your team will accomplish nothing.
For now, I’ve exhausted this subject. I hope you’ve found it somewhat enlightening, inspirational, or helpful. If you have any questions or further recommendations on topics that I did not cover in this article, feel free to leave them in the comments below.