Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The most important thing about leadership

What I have noticed when technical people complain about bad leadership (as opposed to lack of leadership), is that there is really a lack of trust. This typically occurs because the leader has either exhibited repeated selfish behavior or is failing to communicate openly and honestly. I have seen some leaders holding back information in the interest of appearing dignified or more intelligent than others. I have also observed leaders spewing the party line to cheer up the audience, when the party line is not credible. Neither of these behaviors will lead to long term success.

In my experience, people will respect you and follow you when they understand that you have their well being in mind at all times. The only way I know of to establish that understanding is to drop your guard and let others know where you stand. I'm not advocating that you don't speak the party line, but when you do, make sure you add what you really think (perhaps softened a little if it is a sensitive issue). That way people know you are real, and when you say things are really good, or that they could be really good if only the company or individual did something, they will believe.

You need to go out of your way to help others, in and out of your team, when it is the right thing to do for the group. If this makes the team stronger or the product better, everyone wins. You'll get credit for doing the right thing even though it hurt you, and when you need their help, they'll be there to help you. You want to be the leader that will be there for them when they need you, and you need to demonstrate that every chance you get.

The consequences of losing trust in a high tech firm are dire. Once you lose trust, you lose a lot of the communication that needs to happen. Your team needs to be able to tell you when you are heading for a mine field. They will do that when you do the same for them. As a leader in high tech, you have to accept the fact that you don't have all the answers, and you will need effective communication to help your group get to the right destination.

If your company is healthy, individual well being is typically best served by the company's well being. So if you focus on what is right for the company, while respecting the individual, people will notice. If your company isn't healthy, that is a totally different situation. You need to decide what is best for each individual and let them know why you believe the things you do. If you are a leader in an unhealthy company, you have to think of the individuals first. Anything less than that isn't leading, its pandering.

In the end, it's all about trust.

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