Friday, March 06, 2009

My "Ten"ets of Leadership

Leadership has started to become the buzzword in my head recently. I think about it all the time and I try to keep thinking about what the good leaders I know do and what things I like to imitate/ emulate. I've been thinking of the "Ten"ets of Leadership in the last few days. Here are the top ten with a bonus thrown in:

Hire the best

Guy Kawasaki says, "A players hire A players, B players hire C players." This leads to the inexorable slide to Z players which finally leads to a Bozo explosion. What you want to do is avoid that slide by hiring A players and as Kawasaki rightly says, the A players actually hire A+ players. This in my opinion is the first step to building a high performance work culture where people want to learn from the colleagues they hire.


You can't hire the best people and not trust them. That's like buying a BMW, but pushing it to work everyday -- you can never enjoy the benefits. Sometimes, people may frustrate you, disappoint you but as Randy Pausch said famously in his speech - "Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress you". He said, when you are pissed off at somebody, and you're angry at them, you just haven't given them enough time. Just give them a little more time — and they'll almost always impress you.

As a leader you have great power and I know I'm going to use a cheesy line, but so what - "With great power, comes great responsibility." As leaders we're responsible to share feedback when expectations are violated or when we're making judgements. Its hugely unfair to make a judgement that the person judged, doesn't know of.

Most importantly, stand up for your team and take the shit if you need to -- but ensure that you sheild them from outside influences and pressures. The key is that if you don't stand up for your team neither you nor they have face.

Shared Ownership

Build mechanisms to share knowledge openly and to make project progress visible. The Agile story wall is a great example of creating shared ownership around work. For teams in a different context, I urge managers/ leaders to share work on an open, visible space/ system and find ways to move from "your project plan" to "our card wall" (as Kraig Parkinson) famously said.


No two people are the same. Treat people fairly but understand their unique needs. This could manifest itself in many ways -- degrees of support, mentorship, coaching, training, sponsorship. This could also define the amount of time you spend with them and the kind of work they pick up and the kind of development areas you identify for them. This also influences the kind of interactions you have, the ways in which the person learns and the areas in which they experience a discomfort.

To me, individualization is a way of building connections with your team. The stronger your connection the more they cease to be resources and metamorphose into human resources.

Communication Channels that work

Spend one on one time with people. Now you may have "management work", but spending time with people is "management work". Find ways to delegate the repetitive "management work" and find communication channels for your people that you can exploit for coaching, mentorship, guidance, teaching, sponsorship etc.

Here's where I want to circle back to the idea of individualization. Its incorrect to make a blanket rule of how frequent these meetings need to be. Its important to have a fixed time that works for both you and your team member; but more for her than for you (that's the beauty of servant leadership). Some people prefer bi-weekly meetings, others weekly, others fortnightly and others monthly. The key is not the frequency, but the discipline around making these chats happen. To know why one-on-one communication is important as a manager, read Behind Closed Doors by Esther Derby.

Delegate well

The key to delegating is remembering that "responsibility without authority" is like trying to dance in an iron cast. When you delegate a piece of work please make sure you do the following:
* be around to support the person through the task;
* remember that growing people is about helping them learn to do something even if it takes you double the time it could have, if you were to have done the task.
* remove blockers;
* appreciate/ acknowledge progress (everyone loves a little pat on the back);
* let everyone that this person will need to interact with know that she is "in charge" - no one likes the "Who are you?" look.

Build feedback loops

Learning is about failing fast and learning from your mistakes. Create feedback loops in the team for people to learn from their mistakes. The shorter the feedback loop, the better the learning. On an Agile project, these manifest themselves as Pair Programming, Testing, Showcases, Iterative Development, Continuous Integration, etc. The key is to have mechanisms for review that are systemic in nature and are sustainable. Build these as part of the team's culture. The beauty of XP practices is that they can be implemented in just about any context, sometimes with little or no modification.

Commitment to growth

Regardless of whether your firm has a sponsorship program or not, you're responsible for the growth of people in your team. This is something I can emphatically say that you can't shy away from. You have the closest view of your team members' strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats and you have the clearest idea of what she is capable of. Given that you're having regular one-on-one's you perhaps have the best idea of what her aspirations are. How can you not be responsible for growing your people then. And growth != promotions. Growth is about learning, picking up new skills, new responsibilities, new authority, new opportunities and this may translate into promotions and higher pay but that is secondary.

Set goals for project success

People like to know what they're working towards. Making these expectations very clear makes the big picture of the business vision really clear. It helps you empower your team to make decisions. Its so much fun to work in a team of smart people who can all play leaders when the time is right. It reduces the pressure on you to be always thinking of "the right thing".

Do the ugliest work yourself

If you want to gain the respect of your team members, don't just incessantly delegate. Work alongside them -- demonstrate your commitment to the shared purpose, do the work which no one wants to do, so that you reach a time when there's no "impossible" or "dirty" work.

"the king [leader] is a paid servant and enjoys the resources of the state together with the people". - Kautilya

Bonus -- Acknowledge your own mistakes

Randy Pausch in his lecture, talks about the importance of apologizing when you screw up. He also says, "When you see yourself doing something badly and nobody's bothering to tell you anymore, that's a very bad place to be. Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care." When you screw up and no one says anything, that means they gave up on you! The least you could do to build a great feedback culture, is to be receptive to feedback your team gives you. Don't build a defensive culture around feedback. Instead build a "gift culture" by setting a right example.

I guess you could keep adding to this list, but if there was ever a need for leadership primer, I would use the above "Ten"ets as a guide. For all practical purposes, Leadership is not rocket science. Its a skill, but one that's based on good old common sense. It may take time to start doing well, but cant be difficult as long as you remember the words of the great Chinese sage Lao Tzu, "The greatest leader forgets himself and attends to the development of others."


André Faria said...

Leadership is one of the habilities most complex to acquire in life. We are on the way. Nice post.

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