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February 08, 2020

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Being a leader, in any field or organization (professional or otherwise) is challenging.

Leadership is over-glorified in film and literature. Heads of state or captains of sports teams are most often made out to be messiah-like figures whose only capacity for error exists to further a plot. Deep down we know this. Why else would we tend to adore the scoundrels and brigands that exhibit leadership qualities? We can relate to them.

Leadership is most commonly associated with responsibility, especially in critical moments where the impact of a bad decision is much greater than it would otherwise be under normal circumstances. Again, if we turn to the silver screen or published works, leaders are often depicted as the bearer of the decisions that shape the path of the story. Some stories demonstrate a seasoned leader, passing the torch (often via their own demise), to a young maverick built from youthful naivety and bursting with as-of-yet unshaped potential.

Somehow, in a matter of several hundred pages or two hours of time, this rising star transcends the realistic years of experience, failure and hardening to emerge as the new leader. While this is entertaining, romantic and even inspiring, it isn’t the reality.

Leadership isn’t necessarily a measure of age. There are many examples of great leadership in youth. Leadership is challenging. It is about providing value to far more than just yourself, your desires and your direction. You have to think of every team member.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the universe wastes nothing. When we accomplish a task as a team, it can be said that the efforts of the weakest link of that team are just as valuable as the efforts of the strongest, if those efforts are greater than the distance beyond which we have crossed the line of achievement.

Leadership is challenging.

It is far more than hard decisions that guide direction and limit blast radius. Leadership is about guiding the direction of each part of the whole. We have to accommodate the experience and conviction of veteran members of our teams as well as accommodate the deer-like novelty of junior members. We have to accommodate strong personalities and timid alike, finding a way to balance their statements, actions and opinions to carry equal weight amongst their peers. We have to strive for fairness to build camaraderie. We have to understand and respect differences or boundaries to build trust and respect. Yet, even harder, we sometimes have to toe the line of those boundaries to provide a challenge, to motivate and to yield results.

We must find humility in our own mistakes. We have to admit them quickly, and deliver atonement with greater visibility than those who we coach or manage. We are a proxy for our success, passing it on to each of our team members. Conversely, we are a filter for failure, placing accountability on our shoulders, while allowing through only the care and feeding necessary for our teams to grow and learn.

And yet more challenges exist.

When disagreements occur, we have to swallow our pride and hold our emotions at bay. We must find a way to deliver a message with the proper tone of intent, yet in a respectful and open manner. We have to find ways to manage conflicts so that difference of opinions and ideas can become strengths rather than internal strife. We should foster multi-dimensionality and healthy discussion versus extinguishing flames that likewise dissipates creativity and passion.

We must approach the beginning of each day as the potential for growth, accomplishment and meeting new challenges. If we wake to rain, then let us seek an opportunity to evade its drops rather than worry about how wet it will make us. We must end each day with a pause to our efforts rather than flight, as if to vow to the day’s challenges “we shall meet again tomorrow!“.

Leadership is about more than just bearing the weight of your team. If we perform all of the work, horde all of the challenges, we are robbing them of their growth and exposures. While we may be the first to ride towards a challenge, it is critical that we find ways to inspire all of them to follow and experience the challenge together. When a member stumbles, it is our responsibility to help them back up.

Leadership is also about loss. There will be times when we have to make sacrifices to bring our efforts across the line to completion. We are the first ones to make those sacrifices. We are the ones who stay after hours, come in on weekends, put vacations on hold in order to make sure that i’s are dotted, t’s are crossed and the required end result is provided. There will be times when we have to answer for loss or failure. Our responsibility to our team comes at a loss to our personal lives at times. In many cases, we are likewise a part of a team, and we must answer for the failures and loss within our team. We have to ensure that we hold ourselves accountable.

The hardest of moments are those when we recognize that a member of our team, for whatever reason, is incapable of contributing in a consistent way to allow our team to meet our requirements. We have to let these team members go with compassion and dignity. No matter what the terms of the separation are, we have to find a way to approach the circumstance with a silver lining. People change. They are fully capable of improving skill sets, becoming more mature, and most of all, evolving into contributing members of a team. We are only defined by our mistakes if we allow it.

Leadership is also about recognizing talent. It is about being able to distinguish between the potential of candidates. Not only do we have to recognize when a particular candidate has the relevant skills to fuel the engine of productivity we strive to be, but we have to determine if they also possess useful soft skills and personality characteristics to drive growth and improvement. How well will they communicate? Are they so similar to the rest of the team members that they will be redundant? Are they so different from the rest of the team members that it will result in considerable conflict? Are either of these scenarios of value? Does the team need the stability that would come with the first case? Or does it need to be shaken up by the latter?

The reality of leadership is that it often doesn’t come with the glory that is portrayed in books and movies. Good leaders find solace and accomplishment in the productivity and fellowship of their teams, leaving the glory to fuel its members.

I debated this once with a colleague. He analogized leadership as a chess match, where leaders deserved the fanfare for deftly leveraging the skills and capabilities of each chess piece. I agree with the responsibilities of the leader to manage and leverage the characteristics of a team, but my response remains the same today:

Without the pieces, we have no game.


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Written by Ed Mangini
A Technology Blog about useful stuff.