Seven lessons in leadership, learned the hard way
- A leader can be wrong, but never indecisive or weak. A designated leader who cannot make a decision to save his life is not worthy of the name, full stop. I am dealing with this right now, in fact, as I transition out of my current role into one much more closely suited to my interests and temperament as a highly skilled problem solver. The manager of my current team has literally no idea how to make a judgement call, even though he has three times my rank and five times my experience. Every single time he has to make an important decision, I get roped in and end up making the decision for him. This is, as you can imagine, immensely irritating, and it makes him look really bad. If you look or act nervous around your subordinates, you will not be taken seriously, and people will not come to you for important decisions- instead, they'll go around you to the people who know what they're doing and are willing to take responsibility.
- Deferring your decisions to your subordinate will make BOTH of you look bad. This follows on directly from above. It is clear to everyone that the manager of that team has no idea what he's doing. Unfortunately, in the process I tend to come across as short-tempered, irritable, and extremely impatient with what an outsider might perceive to be perfectly reasonable questions. This is just as dangerous, possibly even more so. One thing any office-bound worker has to understand is that in today's hyper-politicised workplace, the HR bunnies of this world will NOT stand for someone who isn't a "team player", whatever the hell that means.
- Leadership requires balls. Ultimately, you have to take a stand on something. And this applies well beyond the workplace. Whether it be your marriage, your relationship with your girl, your relationship with your sister, or hell, even your relationship with your dog, you MUST be willing to take a stand on key issues. If you are wrong and you know it, apologise immediately and then move on. If you are right and you know it and can back it up, never give up ground just for the sake of heading off a potentially serious argument. The limits and boundaries of your strength must be clearly established, and you absolutely must be willing to show your ability to defend your team and your people against external threats. If you don't, those who depend upon you will immediately lose respect for you.
- It is more important to be respected than to be liked. Personally, I don't give a damn what most people think about me, both within and outside the organisation. This is not, admittedly, the healthiest attitude. It does lead some in senior management to wonder whether it's worth investing time and money in me to develop me as an asset, and fair enough to that. Fortunately, I have a reputation within the organisation of getting things done, and to a very high standard. Even today, even now, it is still possible within some organisations to get ahead based on merit and skill, and if you are respected for being highly skilled and competent, and have shown a knack for encouraging those same traits in others, then people will be more willing to forgive certain foibles.
- Be better than anyone else at what you do. Note what I'm saying here very carefully. I'm NOT saying that you need to be good at everything. There are certain things that some members of my team do that I simply never touch, even though I know I could figure out how to do those things in about ten minutes if I had to. There is just no point in my getting involved in those things. Where I add value is in being better than everyone else at solving complex problems. This makes me vitally important to the team and, better yet, important to my clients. They know where they can go to get things done, which means that I know how best to optimise my time so as to ensure that things get done and done well.
- NEVER give off the appearance of being incompetent. Or, "fake it 'till you make it". If you don't know how to do something, it is better to, shall we say, creatively hedge around the issue. The fastest way to look incompetent is to be weak, indecisive, or nervous around your people and your clients- no one wants to deal with someone like that and everyone will automatically assume that you lack skill if you betray these problematic traits. The one exception I will make in this regard comes when you're interviewing for a job. In that case, if you've put something down on your CV, you'd damn well better be prepared to back it up. I have personally dinged candidates who were otherwise very good the moment I discovered that they wrote something on their CV that they couldn't back up.
- Be a SPARTAN, not a Superman. This is going to sound weird given #4 above, but I don't care how good you think you are. You're still not capable of doing everything yourself. This is where your ability to lead others becomes so important. One of the lessons my father taught me over the years was the importance of learning how to delegate- in such a way that people would be enthusiastic about their tasks. The trick is to give people the opportunity to come up with their own ideas, and then give them free licence to run with them. That way, you go from carrying the weight of the entire team on your shoulders alone, to inspiring others to carry the weight for you. You inspire others around you through your very presence, just like the Master Chief, even though you're only a small part of the wider cause.