OK, let’s talk about leadership for a second.
Owing to a recent bout of insomnia (thanks Irish summer… and also coffee… and Game of Thrones) I found myself browsing the AskAManager.org website one night looking at emails from people who were suffering the effects of poor leadership at work.
I think most of us have been there – worked with a bad manager. I’ve been reflecting on this quite a bit lately, and recently came to the realisation that while a lot of managers might have more years of experience, not all of them are great leaders.
You yourself might one day be the Lead UX Designer, Lead Developer or Lead Project Manager, and you will have to manage a team. Being a good leader is something that can be learned, and all great leaders have certain qualities in common.
Background To Leadership
Every manager started out the junior in their office, and worked their way up. A lot of managers are promoted because they had enough experience to deem them suitable, and not necessarily have been trained on how to lead a team effectively.
For example, some designers with enough experience are given the “lead designer” role, and the same for developers and programmers. These individuals were trained to be great designers or developers, but not necessarily great leaders.
There are also the business owners who might have decided to set up a design agency – and even with business, sales and marketing skills, many of them are not good leaders.
Qualities of Poor Leaders
Poor leaders are the ones who blame the team for their mistakes. They take full credit for a job well done without recognising the team, they shy away from conflict and they squander resources through lack of planning.
Ultimately the talented designers and developers begin to feel frustrated, and eventually move on. Today’s technology job market is competitive, and the excellent people are being snapped up by companies who understand this. It’s in everyone’s best interested to start paying attention to why good leaders are important, and what we can do about it today.
I’ve rounded up a few qualities that are important in a leader, specifically referencing the technology industry.
So What Makes A Great Leader?
1. Taking Responsibility
Good leaders don’t look to blame other people for the shortcomings of the team – they take responsibility for the team regardless of what happens. They’re not interested in playing the blame game when things go wrong, or projects run over budget. Great leaders are looking for the solution.
The problem with technology is that often there might be weird things that go wrong – browser rendering issues, compatibility problems, server instability… It never helps to point the finger and blame the people who are trying to make things work. It doesn’t help the situation to make a programmer feel worse about a bug – they need your help.
Dan Carnegie has written that the worst quality in leaders is “taking credit when things go well and dishing out blame when things go wrong.”
Take action and work towards a solution. Is there some way to scale back functionality? Or arrange support for the programmer to help them fix the problem? Is there a different framework you could use? Could you pause that feature altogether, and get into the next scrum?
Take accountability for the problems of a project and work towards a solution. It never helps to throw someone under a bus.
2. Showing Integrity
Without a sense of fairness and justice, no leader can command and retain the respect of his followers,” – Napoleon Hill
Being honest, fair, respectful and consistent is essential to building trust with your team.
This is never more important than when deadlines approach and things get tense. It is only when the team is under pressure that the true character of the leader is revealed. It’s natural to want to blame circumstances or individuals, but the best leaders put selfish instincts aside, maintain composure and do what’s right for the team.
I’m sure we’ve all worked for people who had egos. The problem with egos is that they can alienate the rest of the team. Being secure in your own abilities means you can step back and trust in the abilities and talents of your team – only insecure leaders doubt their team. Invite new ideas and suggestions for features or strategies.
Recognising the value in others requires a certain degree of self-confidence. Don’t let your pride get in the way of getting great results. There’s no shame in sharing the credit of a great project.
Delegating tasks is also important. Transferring the power to another key person on the team empowers them to take responsibility for that task, and gives the leader breathing room to focus on other tasks.
This is probably the most practical quality – being able to put together a detailed plan for the next year, 3 years or 5 years will show that you are working toward a much larger goal.
I’ve been told “well, this is online… we don’t know where we’ll be in 5 years” but typically this indicates a leader without a plan. Even a few years after Internet Explorer 8 was released in 2009, I remember experiencing a high volume of traffic from IE6 (released in 2001) in the company I worked for at that time.
“Society tolerates only one change at a time” – The Prestige (Nikola Tesla played by David Bowie FTW)
Technology moves fast, but the market isn’t always as quick to adapt. As the leader you need a goal, and a plan of action to achieve that goal. Being unsure of where technology will be in 5 years is just an excuse. Without goals and a plan, a leader will not know what to ask the members of the team to focus on.
I once worked with a team where an immense amount of work was being done every day, but the results of this work were never measured. Being part of that team felt like being a hamster in a wheel, and creatively it was exhausting. The resources, time and energy were being squandered every day on tasks that were meaningless and returned no value to the company. When I asked why we were working on tasks that provided no real value to the company, I was told that “this is the way it was always done”.
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there”
– Cheshire Cat, Alice In Wonderland
Have goals for the project, and a list of objectives on how to achieve those goals. The team then will at least know what they are doing, and will be able to offer insights on how to better their contribution.
As the digital revolution evolves, the competition for talent is heating up. If you are unable to maintain a great work environment, the talented, creative and excellent people will move on.
When you eventually become a leader, make the effort to develop your leadership skills.