Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen.
— Alan Keith, Genentech
I’ve always liked computers: you tell them precisely what to do and they obey without wondering whether your command is appropriate. Working with many leaders, I feel like some would also want their team members to be more like a computer. Provide input -> execute instructions -> supply output. Unfortunately (or luckily, depending on who you ask), IT professionals are not big fans of mindlessly executing instructions.
Especially younger generations have a complete disregard for top-down command. Instead, leaders must find alternative paths for engagement. So, how should you act if you’re the ScrumMaster, team leader or manager in order to get great results together with your team?
This post is part of a series that tries to answer that question. I believe that in order to be successful as a technical leader, there are five duties you should perform: demonstrate character, clarify direction, solve problems, increase motivation and develop others. In this post I will cover the first one — demonstrating character.
Because we first connect on a human level, before doing it as professionals, it’s really important to become a person others can respect and appreciate. In order to do that, a leader must expose and embody his values, communicate properly, have a positive attitude and be disciplined.
Expose and embody values
Think about a person you might consider a leader worthy of being followed. Maybe Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Steve Jobs or Julian Assange come to mind. Each and every one of them is memorable because they represented a certain way of thinking, a certain set of values that became publicly known. Equality, tolerance, quality and transparency, respectively. As a technical leader, you also need to find your inner voice and make it public. Perhaps you want modern architectures, timely deliveries, team learning or mutual respect — make sure everybody knows that. And on every possible occasion, act accordingly.
What do you really care about? Transparency, performance, innovation, predictability? Take a minute and list the 3 values that are most important for you as a professional. Now ask your colleagues what they believe are your top 3 values. Do they match? If yes, congratulations, you have successfully conveyed to your team what is important for you. If no, you might have some work to do.
How do you usually feel when discussing with others? Comfortable, angry or simply annoyed? In my past, there were several moments when conversations with colleagues seemed more like a Russian scientist arguing with a German baby a fine point about particle physics. In Chinese. Which neither of them knew.
It turns out that there are a lot of different ways to communicate and only some of them are effective. To build a respectable character, you need to learn how to be assertive. Assertive leaders understand what they think, need and feel and make sure everybody understands it. They can get their message across without raising their voice and without resorting to bribery or pleading. In a conversation they listen attentively, not with the purpose of responding, but with the purpose of understanding.
In order to have rich conversations, good communicators also prefer open-ended questions (Describe what you think happened, How can using that solution solve our problem?) instead of closed questions (Is that a good idea?, Which solution would you choose?). This way, they can explore with their conversation partners many more ideas that will generally lead to superior solutions.
Have a positive attitude
Kouzes and Posner, the authors of the bestselling leadership book The Leadership Challenge, run a study where they ask people what they look for the most in their leaders. Number two on that list (after “honesty”), is “forward-looking”.
In today’s world, all companies are stretched to the limit. I have yet to encounter a top firm where people work four hours a day, without stress. More often, the opposite is true. People put in heroic efforts and twelve-hour workdays, so that their projects are successful. Under this amount of pressure, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and just give up in face of the next minor challenge — the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Leaders can help in this type of situation by keeping their calm and expressing their unshaken confidence in the success of the team. Psychologists have run numerous studies that show how an optimist perspective has a positive impact on our work results. By keeping an optimistic outlook on things, you can both increase morale and get better results at the same time.
I’ve sometimes been scolded by managers when I arrived late at a meeting or wrote an unclear email. That’s why I found it odd when the same managers wouldn’t show up at my meetings, saying things like “I’m really behind creating a report for our director”. Or when they sent me an email that had no punctuation and was written all in lowercase, because OBVIOUSLY they were so busy.
To get respect from people around you, you should be the first to do whatever it is you are asking them to do. Arrive at meetings on time. Always review your emails, reports and other documents for clarity and correctness. Don’t be the last person to arrive at the office. Use a friendly, yet polite language. Keep your desk clean.
Everybody notices these little details. I know I am.
Of all the five duties, demonstrating character might be the one that takes the most effort. That’s because it requires continuous attention to how you think and act in public. But it’s a necessary-to-perform duty because it lays the foundation for the other four. People won’t follow you unless they know they can trust you. By working on your values, communication skills, attitude and discipline, you can become the trustworthy leader others will want to follow.
Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/iV2kJP