During medieval times in Europe, it was not uncommon for leaders to lead their armies into battle from the front, and in more peaceful times to participate in dangerous jousting competitions with their knights, often resulting in personal injury or even death. One of the more famous examples of this leadership style was Henry VIII:
To Henry VIII, the joust was more than just a sport – it was a vital part of his kingship. And he modelled this kingship on a particular version of chivalrous masculinity inspired by the archetypal medieval knight bedecked in shining armour, charging down the tiltyard with lance ready to strike his opponent.
For Henry, knighthood was not just an ideal but an active ideology; to his mind, it was essential that 16th-century men still demonstrated such proficiency in arms. 1
So in order to set the correct example, and to earn the respect of those around him, Henry felt compelled to demonstrate his technical prowess with lance and shield on horseback despite the fact that, as the King, he was not actually required to do so.
Leading a modern technology team is not that far removed from medieval times, although thankfully we are no longer swinging weapons at one another. To gain the respect of technologists, you need to be able to speak their language, to understand not only the technical jargon but also the deep concepts behind it. If you cannot demonstrate proficiency, even to a competent level, then the respect you will engender from your team will degrade very quickly.
The leader does not need to be the greatest programmer, designer, architect, tester, or DBA, as they can always strive to surround themselves with these experts via hiring, but they do need to be able to build enough confidence and trust to lead them to success, and that trust cannot be achieved through technical incompetence.
"How jousting made a man of Henry VIII", Emma Levitt, http://www.historyextra.com/article/premium/how-jousting-made-man-henry-viii ↩︎