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What do you think makes a good leader? Are you one?
NOTE: This particular page needs a great deal of work since my job at Plug Power, since I actually got the opportunity to lead a technical team on an industrial project for the first time. Since I have recently started my serious employment search (and also because I think the before/after contrast is interesting), it hasn't been cleanly updated, but here are the most salient points to bring it up to date:
- I do not seek out leadership positions, nor did I in this case, but when I believe I am the best person available for the job, I step up. (Apparently everybody else at Plug Power believed so, too.) Here are some other cases where I have taken on a leadership role, throughout my life.
- If you care to read the details below, the best summary of my leadership experience at Plug Power (with regard to that) is, "Well, I was right." Apparently I understand my own strengths and weaknesses pretty well, because they all played out like I thought they might... both the bad, and the good.
- The bad: Even knowing that it was a danger, I still had some trouble delegating, and took too much of what I considered the "critical" work upon myself. My weakness at multitasking gave me some trouble. I am apparently an inveterate optimist, and have trouble making realistic schedules (especially when everybody else in the management chain is as bad or worse). Even for myself. (I don't feel too bad about that, because it's famously difficult with software, and I've met few people who were good at it.)
- The good: Apparently I am rather good at "talking lots of different peoples languages", and finding common ground between people so that they can work effectively together, even when they have differing areas of expertise, or opposing priorities or points of view. Even in a less-than-ideal environment, I still get along with everybody. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I can effectively deal with inter-team personal conflicts quite well. As I expected, my technical expertise stood me in good stead, and I did well mentoring other employees and teaching them new programming techniques. I was even officially recognized by Plug Power for my efforts leading the software team, on multiple occasions. Apparently I have a bit more "force of personality" than I thought.
- The essential: The project got done, by when it needed to be done. And it was done well, especially given the time constraints (though still not as perfectly as I would have liked).
Pre- Plug Power:
First, we'd better be sure we know what we are talking about. The word "Leadership" can be (and is) used in a lot of different ways. People can be:
- Organizational Leaders: Commonly called "managers". Managing a project can be quite different than leading it, however, and the two should not be confused. Usually these roles are fulfilled by the same person, but I saw a case at GE where the person managing the project was not leading it - on purpose. It seems that it can be effective in some cases to separate the logistical and organizational (read: "corporate") duties from the others.
- Idea Leaders: The people who are the most creative, and come up with the most good ideas and solutions on the project. (This is something I always strive to be, and I think I usually succeed.)
- Morale Leaders: The people that, through force of personality, keep the team happy and productive. When they are absent, the team chemistry may suffer. Although I have never really been in a position to play this role, I do not think I would be particularly effective. I don't have much "force of personality".
People also sometimes talk about "personal leadership", the ability to keep oneself productive. I think this is an iffy use of the term "leadership", and is better described by saying that one is self-motivated and self-disciplined. I am very good at this when there is need; if other people are counting on me, I do everything I can to meet my commitments. In the absence of an external motivator or deadline, however, I have been known to relax more than I would like... some of my personal projects never seem to get done. Fortunately, the simple fact that I am being paid is quite sufficient to keep me focused.
I think the most useful and correct definition of "leader", however, is someone who is in charge of coordinating a team, and is responsible for the results of the team's effort. Hopefully, such a person exhibits all of the characteristics listed above, and many more, besides. This is the type of leader that I will talk about further.
As with may other things, I think that the skills necessary to be a good leader depend significantly upon what the team being led needs to do. I strongly believe that the leader of a team should always be the person who is the best qualified to lead. This has many aspects:
- Solid knowledge of the technical aspects of the project the team is undertaking. (Yes, I am an engineer, and I will list this first.) The leader does not necessarily have to be the best at the technical aspects, since there are other skills that can be just as important, but if they are, so much the better.
- Ability to communicate. (Ask me about communication.) The ability to listen is especially important in a leader, since to be effective they must be able to incorporate the best ideas of all the team members. Having respect for all the team members is necessary to do this well. It also helps a lot because:
- A good leader must have the respect of the rest of the team members (or be able to earn it).
- In most cases the role of manager also falls to the leader, so organizational and logistical skills are obviously very important.
- Leaders must be able and willing to effectively delegate responsibility. If they really could do it all themselves, they wouldn't need the rest of the team, and wouldn't need to lead anyone. I have seen at least one project falter because the project leader tried to do too much himself.
- Leaders should be able to keep their team members happy, as far as they are able in the context of the job. Happy people work much better. Being sympathetic to their needs and willing to spend time helping to work out their job-related problems (and perhaps even others, if they want the help) can go a long way, I think.
- And, last but far from least, a leader must have the ability to make good decisions, for that is their biggest responsibility. It is the leader's (or leaders') decisions that will determine the success of an endeavor. Good decision making requires two critical things:
1) good intuition for the problem at hand, since few (if any) leadership decisions can adequately decided on a solely analytic basis. This generally is a talent, or must be learned through experience.
2) having adequate information. (I say adequate, because you can almost never get all the relevant information.) Having adequate information consists primarily of being able to communicate effectively with team members, and often outside people who are important to the project as well. Knowing what information to look for and where to find it is a key skill.
Hmmm... after writing all that, it looks like I've been reading a management textbook. Scary. Really, though, this was just the stuff that came out when I started thinking about the question. Hopefully, it's not all completely obvious, and you like my opinions on the topic. It is a highly complex topic, something well worth talking about for many hours straight. (I don't think I actually have discussed this one for several hours straight, but there are many similar ones that I have...)
So, what about me? Am I a good leader?
Again, I think that depends very much on what needs to be done. I have some very distinct strengths and weaknesses in this regard; I'll tell you about them and let you decide. For simplicity, I'll go down my list, in order:
- Technical knowledge: On a software design project, I think my leadership knowledge might be passable. While I consider myself strong from a pure design aspect, I would not claim the same strength in managing a sizeable technical project with several people; there are technical aspects to this that I have relatively limited experience with, having never done it. I would not consider myself particularly good at estimating how long it will take someone else to write a given piece of code, for example. (But then, few people seem to be any good at even estimating how long it will take themself to write a working piece of code.) I also have little experience with organizing the logistics of a multi-person software project, which has its own special challenges. Technical knowledge is one of many aspects to leadership that I think I could probably be very good at given some experience. I think it definitely takes some specialized experience beyond just being able to design, however - and right now, my leadership experience in a technical setting is rather limited.
- Ability to communicate: This is an area where I think I would be pretty strong, once the team members got to know me. My weaknesses (in non-verbal communication, for example) could be a bit more of a problem in a leadership setting, but I think they would eventually be more than counteracted by my strength in verbal communication, my straightforwardness, and my ability to listen.
- Respect: As long as the team members know me well, I do not think this would be a problem. It helps considerably that I would almost certainly be able to show them genuine respect (I've never met anyone at work that I couldn't; maybe I've been lucky.) Until they get to know me, it's harder to say, since I don't have an imposing visage or any classical "charisma".
- Organizational / logistical skills: I can be very good at these, if I pay attention to that aspect of the problem. I generally prefer not to, however, so I generally don't. On the occasions when it has been really necessary, however, I have performed well, so I'm sure I could again.
- Delegation of responsibility: This is an area where I know that I could be much better. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I have a definite tendency to do something myself, especially if I think that I can get better results than other people on the team. I also have some difficulty leaving the fate of a project I am responsible for in someone else's hands. On the up side, I have never had a serious problem in this regard on an actual project - but that may just be because the projects I have led have been small enough that I could get away with this by putting in a lot of extra hours. Hopefully, since I know about this weakness, I will be adequately able to deal with it when it becomes necessary.
- Keeping team members happy: Results here could be highly variable. As long as a team member is willing to let me know there is a problem, I think I would be pretty good at solving it. Logistical problems are relatively easy, and I think most interpersonal problems can be solved with straight talk, as long as everybody listens. (I'm a good listener, because I respect virtually all opinions and I never get insulted.) The catch is, that if people get emotional and refuse to listen, I admit that I would be rather at a loss (I'd probably just keep trying to get them to listen). Also, if nobody tells me that there is a problem making them unhappy, I may not notice it. I will always tell someone if I am having a problem, and I expect everybody around me to do the same. In practice, this may not work.
- Decision-making ability: This is the tough one. I can say that I think I'm good at making design decisions. Hence, I could make a decent technical project lead (given enough experience - see first bullet). As far as higher level decisions go, that is a very hard thing to say. One thing I can say is that I have a very hard time making big decisions, and I don't enjoy it. It stresses me out like little else can. I never feel like I have enough information to make a good high-level decision. As far as the quality of these decisions, I would say that they have generally come out very well. As previously mentioned, though, I think decisions like this are largely made by intuition, and intuition requires experience. I certainly do not have the experience required for me to be confident in my ability to make effective business decisions above the level of a technical project.
Perhaps the most important question, however, is: Do I really want to lead?
The answer: Not unless I should be.
As stated at the top, I strongly believe that the best person for the position should lead. (Or the best people: there is a lot to be said for multiple leaders -- or a complete sharing of the role, as long as the team works very well together (if not, it'd be a big mess).) I consider myself to be good at what I do, but there are quite a few people out there who are better... and certainly many who are more suited for a leadership role, simply because they have more experience. If any such person is working with me, I am more than happy to let them lead the group... as long as they are competent, and are willing to listen to and at least consider my ideas.