Chris Shaw (Blog, Twitter) has started SQL Quiz #4 which asks for you to talk about a great example of leadership or a great leader. Many people have been tagged and  responded, including Jeremiah Peschka (Blog, Twitter) who jokingly offered to tag me in a twitter conversation. I told him not to bother but I was going to jump into the fray and tag myself anyway… The leader I had in mind is an example enough to not not be discussed.

Lots of Bosses, Managers and Leaders

I have been in technology for about 10 years, in the working world about 6-7 years before that. Through my experiences at work, school, organizations and Fire Department volunteering I have had the pleasure of working with and for many great people. I have had mostly positive experiences with those who were in management roles. That being said not all were “leaders”.

According to my calculations these categories look something like this:

Boss: They are in charge, that is a big deal to them a lot of the time. This is sort of like the shotgun troubleshooting of management styles. Often chasing things in circles, not 100% sure of what their team is doing or their management expects from them or the team. They’ll chew someone out in front of whoever is watching and think the larger audience the better (puffs them up more). Over their team’s shoulder all the time. They operate without trust (to or from), don’t give a lot of respect but demand a LOT. That being said, their positions should still be respected… We may not like working with a boss but we are to treat them as we want to be treated, we are to submit to authority over us.

Manager: Maybe they are a reformed Boss, maybe they are someone with exceptional organizational skills and professional charm. They will discipline in their office, they try to understand the job, give some latitudes to their team. They explain their priorities well and are generally respected. They worked their way up, learned the skills, attend the management seminars and truly want to be a part of a successful team.

Leader: These are rare and I am 80% prepared to say they can’t be made. The reasons I say 80% is because I think the armed forces of our nation (can’t speak for others) consistently turns out some great leaders. A leader has a lot of the same skills as a manager but they are part of the team. They talk in terms of “we” or “lets”. They will give you enough rope to hang yourself, yet still help you grow and learn through your mistakes. They will treat  you with respect, demand a lot of you but be there delivering that with you. They can talk with you about an issue, motivate their underachievers and make the tough decisions when someone just won’t grow. The goal is collective success, not individual glory or gain.

A Leader Who Comes to Mind

I think of a manager from recent history. I was getting towards the level I am at now (What level is it when you realize and admit how little you know, know where to find the answers and know your strong points – and weak points?). His name is George and we’ll leave it at that. He embodies all of the traits I mentioned under the Leader category above but some specific lessons I learned from him:

  • Trust but verify – Trust your people, intelligently verify that trust but give them that rope I mentioned.
  • There is no backup/restore for integrity – He demonstrated and demanded honesty. His pattern for the team to follow was: You make a mistake or are part of a cause of an issue? You admit to it and fix it. Send an e-mail, don’t look for the broom and an available rug. Admit to the mistake, explain how you are making it right and what steps you are taking to prevent a similar future mistake. He expected this of each of us.
  • Never let them see your low morale moments – I am not saying give up human traits. There were times when decisions from above seemed puzzling and you had to figure that even he was puzzled. Some other managers would panic their teams and get quite negative when the going got rough. Either George wasn’t bothered or he didn’t let on to his team. We weren’t in the trenches but one of the scenes from Band of Brothers that always stuck with me. The company has a new Lt. The guy is horrible, disappears often and the guys are ragging on him hard. Sgt. Lipton agrees with them but he doesn’t show it. He defends his Lt. vehemently. What good would it do to see your Sgt. routed? He privately confronts his Captain at a later time but not in front of his men.
  • Credit hard work in public, discipline in private – When someone does a great job, let everyone know. When they don’t let just that person know. I had to have a discussion in George’s office. Nothing overly serious but it was about a soft skill I was ignoring. I was expecting a lot out of people on other teams but in a rude manner (like a Boss, I fear), I wasn’t consistent with that delivery to all teams. He confronted me in private and I wasn’t being yelled at. I was having a conversation with a more experienced person giving me some advice in a humble manner. It hit me much more than an angry encounter in my cube.
  • Work to live, don’t live to work – Leaders are great at what they do, they are passionate about their field and profession but they aren’t obsessive and they have mastered work-life balance.
  • Teach, Share, Mentor – Leaders want to grow and groom their replacement, they want to make everyone else a success. Most of the boss types want to do all they can to tear others down on their way to the top. Some even make it there.
  • Hire A players – Leaders don’t want to hire the people who can’t cut it and try to look better. They want to hire the best and brightest of the candidates. They will also see potential in people and help get them to that A spot.
  • Humility – Pride never seemed to get in the way of George’s decision making or interactions with others. He had pride in his work and his team but not the arrogant pride that seeks to elevate self for bragging rights. If he was reading this post he wouldn’t be too happy that I used him as an example.

Hope?

So I said that I really believe true leaders are born (at least 80% of me believes that), I still think these traits are all traits that can help one get closer to being a leader. I need to be better at following them myself. If these and other traits don’t make you a natural born leader, they seem to be ones that could get us close.

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