Leadership blogs are a dime a dozen, so I will keep this short. I had grown up in the trenches and worked my way into middle management and along the way made a number of observations of meaningful leaders on my path. I have also observed a number of poor leadership choices that have served as good examples of what not to do. I figure my best approach is to put these into writing to help me become a credible leader by example and avoid some pitfalls.
A colleague of mine posted a picture on twitter a while back that caught my attention on a number of levels. It’s a simple graphic illustrating the difference between a boss and a leader. I could put a thousand words around this and not do it justice. In a powerful nutshell, bosses place demands without guidance, whereas a leader sets direction, removes barriers and shares the burden. This is a literal example of a workforce that can get behind its leadership because he/she is showing the way, not yelling from behind. I recall the folks that I considered leaders early in my engineering career. These were the folks that were not afraid to get dirty, carried a toolbox full of well-worn tools and were always teaching their skills through hands-on demonstration. I don’t recall ever being told what to do, more being shown how to do things and empowered to go from there. Keen lesson for a leader here, get dirty and share your skills to build the whole group, don’t protect your knowledge like some power trip.
Second big key for me is to trust your staff, empower your staff, and back your staff. Sounds simple right? The good leaders in my career have shown a direction, provided the tools then granted the latitude to take it from there. Sure, guidance was needed from time to time to ensure I didn’t wander off the path, but for the most part micro-management was not a part of the process. At the time I thought the leaders in my life had all the answers, but from a practical standpoint if the leaders knew exactly what and how things should be done, what the hell would they need me for?
As I have found in the engineering management field, sometimes firm direction does need to be dictated to jump-start a solution or meet a timeline. This is a reality in business and a necessity when tough decisions need to be made. My observations of both good and poor leadership approaches to dictating direction hinge on credibility. I have experienced poor approaches where the staff is given enough rope in the hope that the desired conclusion is made, just to get overruled in the end. I have also experienced effective approaches where the direction is dictated and expectations set upfront. Even if it was not a popular direction, but it was honest and respectable. Keen lesson? Don’t jerk your staff around, trust them, empower them. If direction is needed, be honest and upfront, don’t rely on hope as a strategy.
Lastly, be humble. Simple as that. Treat your staff as you would like to be treated, not because of a title or tenure or as a means to express power. As a manager I expect the staff to be punctual and engaged, in reverse I also need to be held accountable for being punctual and engaged with the staff. This is a basic servant-leadership tactic, but dammit, leaders need to be on time. Of course a CEO’s time is probably in more demand than a design engineer, but if the CEO makes a commitment to meet with an engineer, he had better keep that commitment. If he does, trust will be formed, appreciation will be formed, engagement will be formed, all of which will generate performance as a byproduct. If the CEO blows off the engineer, well, the engineer has friends and bad sentiments spread fast.
What are your thoughts on the memorable leaders in your career? Please leave a comment.