In several previous posts, I’ve referenced a set of 11 leadership principles that I was taught in the military many years ago. These are apparently still in use by the Marine Corps and studied by the Air Force. As appropriate as they were for leading small units, they have also served me well in many other roles. No doubt you’ll quickly see the relevance these principles have to a military leader but to a technology leader you might balk. In this post I want to cover them using the lens of a technology leader. I think they are extremely relevant to all leaders and might help you either improve yourself or coach a rising star in your organization. I’ll start with the first six this week and finish up the remaining five in next week’s post.
1) Know yourself and seek self-improvement – In no other discipline, that I can think of, are practitioners and scholars faced with more rapid change than information technology. Not only is the underlying technology rapidly changing and sub-disiplines, like scalability, evolving but entire business models are being made obsolete to make way for new models. As technologist, we must all constantly improve and the first step down that path is to know your own limitations. Too often we run into technologist, usually men…but that’s another post, who think they know everything there is to know. Even if that were true this morning by tonight they would be behind in their knowledge.
2) Be technically and tactically proficient – I’ve covered this several times before in other posts but its worth repeating. To be a great technology leader you need to understand the technology. Your team will respect your opinions more and you won’t have to run back to your architect to answer questions raised by your peers. If you don’t know how to code or setup a database or haven’t done it in a while, start this weekend on a project that will require you to learn hands on about your chosen profession.
3) Seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions – There is a passage in The Art of Scalability that reads “You can delegate anything you would like, but you can never delegate the accountability for results.” I can’t think of a more concise way to say this, you as the leader are responsible, period…end of the story.
4) Make sound and timely decisions – We are proponents of data driven decisions and have seen many times in our careers where someone’s world-class opinion about a product feature turned out to be completely wrong. However, analysis-paralysis occurs every day, even in small startups where you would think there wouldn’t be such an issue. Use the Pareto principle. Gather the 20% of information that makes 80% of the impact, make a decision and execute. The entire point of the Agile methodology, that almost all technologist are fans of, is to admit that we don’t know. The correct way to get there isn’t thinking long and hard about stuff but rather make things happen and see the results in order to make course corrections for the next iteration.
5) Set the example – You’re probably familiar with the proverb that a fish rots from the head. Organizations, whether government, monarchies, military, or tech startups, are the same. A leader who lies or has a poor work ethic will quickly have a team that imitates their shortfalls. Arrive earlier, leave later, work harder. Show more passion, more grace, and more thankfulness for your employees. Act like the leader you want to be led by and you’ll have an amazing team that will follow you anywhere.
6) Know your soldiers and look out for their welfare – Similar to the principle above, in order to led well over the long term, you need to build a relationship with your team by getting to know them and letting them get to know you. I’m incredibly private and reserved but you have to open up some in order to let peers and subordinates know that you’re human. Once you know your team members, their capabilities, their fears, their hopes, their dreams…look out for them. This means helping them become the manager they want to become or help them earn the promotion or pay raise they desire. Put them in positions that will stretch them but don’t leave them hanging without a safety net. A good leader gives team members opportunities to succeed or fail. A great leader puts team members in positions where they can succeed or fail but makes sure they catch them if they fall. I relate this to teaching a child how to ride a bike without training wheels. If the child feels you holding them they don’t build the confidence they need to do it themselves. If you don’t keep a close hand they might fall and hurt themselves, which will make them shy away from wanting to learn. The perfect combination is far enough away to make them feel like they could fall but close enough to catch them.