In many of our AIM courses, we teach about leadership. Whether leading people, new processes, or new technologies, we place a great emphasis on leadership. But what are the characteristics of a good leader?
I believe this is important to understand and practice so this week I will share with you some leadership lessons I have learned and, more importantly, I am hoping that you will share your insights.
Throughout my career I have had several opportunities to lead change. In my opinion, this is one of the hardest tasks because it requires you to transition people into new territory amidst skepticism and fear of the change. I once worked on a very large data center consolidation project where computers were being moved from scattered sites around the world to large centralized data centers. People had become attached to their application running on a computer that they could see and touch like a favorite pet. To move the application and hardware to an unknown location was truly a change to be reckoned with. This same scenario is being played out daily as companies transfer data and functions to the cloud. I wish we could come up with a better term than cloud so that the end result appeared more concrete and palatable to those suffering from computer separation anxiety.
From this experience I learned two valuable lessons about leadership:
- A good leader is a good communicator. It is important to be able to paint a plausible and even inviting picture of the future: “IF we do this, here are the benefits for you.” The first thought in everyone’s mind is “what’s in it for me?”
- It is vital to lead people in a direction that is in their best interest and does not lead them off a cliff. This builds trust and increases cooperation. The first time a leader moves a team or group in a direction that is not in their best interest, trust dissolves and resistance increases. Until that trust is re-established, the leader will no longer be effective.
Leading from the Middle
Hard charging and visible leaders often lead from the front. Shepherds, in contrast, lead their flocks from the back. I have found that it is sometimes necessary to lead from the middle. Recently, I had the opportunity to teach and lead a weeklong youth leadership course at a nearby camp. There were 48 teen campers and a staff of older youth. During the week, a group of campers was tasked with cleaning the dining hall. The staff was in a meeting at that time. I decided to help clean the dining hall, since I knew that I had support leading the staff meeting. The participants were pleasantly surprised that their adult leader would actually help them finish their chore so that they could go off and do what they wanted. They assumed that a proper leader was always out front TELLING them what to do, which was their limited experience with leaders, but leading from the middle builds team unity and builds respect for the leader.
A Good Leader is a Good Follower
I have come to realize that to be a good leader you must practice being a good follower. If you understand the vision and goals of the leader, then it is important that you help your teammates to achieve those goals. For example, as a follower, it is your responsibility to ask clarifying question when the vision is not clear and then support that vision once the direction has been decided. When it is time for you to lead, you would do well to have teammates who are also good followers.
I think that everyone has a chance to step into a leadership role in his or her lifetime. Whether that role is parent, coach, mentor, manager, or executive, it is important to remember to lead in a way that gets everyone to the goal safely. As the leader, it is not about you but about the group and the desired outcome for everyone.
I hope you have some leadership stories that you are willing to share with me. What worked for you? What lessons did you learn by getting it wrong the first time? Did everything turn out well, or were there lessons along the way? Let me know.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.