Tech Leader Pro podcast 1, What is leadership

Published on 2020-08-25 by John Collins. Please follow me on Twitter for more: 

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File details: 12 MB MP3, 8 mins 20 secs duration.

Script

Intro:

My name is John, and welcome to episode 1 of the Tech Leader Pro podcast. Today I am going to answer the question “What is leadership?”, but before we begin, I would like to briefly mention our sponsor Five.Today, which is the ideal product to help busy tech leaders to manage their days.

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And now, let’s get to our main topic without further interruption.

Topic:

Leadership can mean different things to different people, so for me the best way I could think of to kick off this podcast series would be to share with you my definition of leadership.

First and foremost for me, leadership is about making decisions and owning the consequences. When a way forward is not clear, people naturally look to leaders to make decisions regarding what direction should be taken next.

When a leader stops making decisions, they stop being a leader: they will very quickly find their team members will lose faith in them, and start to doubt their leader’s credibility. That loss of confidence in a leader can be terminal if left unchecked.

Secondly, leaders own the results of their decisions: if a leader makes a bad decision, they should own it. They cannot hide behind someone else, or try to allocate the blame elsewhere. Such behavior will also result in a terminal decline of a leaders credibility in their team.

Another important aspect of leadership is the ability to appear calm and in control, even when internally the leader may have many concerns and anxieties. A leader must understand that their anxieties must not become the anxieties of their team: nothing spreads faster than fear and panic, and nothing will destroy team morale faster. In the face of challenges faced by the team, the leader must be the calm, reassuring, and a confident voice.

People often ask: “should a leader be feared or respected?”. I will always suggest 90% respect with 10% fear, as you need to be a little bit edgy with you team: remember you are their boss, not their friend. However you cannot go too far with fear as a motivating factor, as it is very negative.

Early in my engineering management career, my then-boss slammed his fist on his desk during a 1-to-1 with me and said “John, if everyone in here is not afraid of you next year, you are not doing your job!”. Rather than having the desired effect on me, instead I decided in that moment that it was time to find a new mentor, and I left that role soon after.

So, respect is the way to go, but how does a tech leader garner respect with a team of head-strong and smart software engineers? Well in order to explore that further, lets use an analogy that I first explored in my 2017 blog entry entitled “Tech leaders need to be technologists”.[1]

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.”

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.

One final thought I would like to share with you about leadership is to study the philosophy of Stoicism, in particular I would suggest studying the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, who was not only a great philosophy but was also an emperor of Rome, so he knew a thing or two about the application of leadership principals. One of my favourite quotes from Marcus is as follows:

“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” [2]

This is one of the core principals of Stoicism: you cannot control the events around you, but only how you react to them. And remember as a leader, others are studying your reactions and may even emulate them, so you have that responsibility to set a good example. And while we are on the topic of perception management, Marcus has some thoughts on that too:

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” [3]

One of my best leadership mentors used to tell me: “just present the facts, not your opinion”. Marcus reminds us that most people do not follow that advice, but instead colour what they present with opinion, perspective, and in worse cases even their political agenda. A leader needs to be sceptical of what they hear, and keep on digging until the facts are reached, and only then can they make a clear decision.

Wrap-up:

So to recap, today we discussed that:

  1. Leaders need to make decisions and own the results.
  2. Those decisions need to be informed by facts, not by feelings or perceptions.
  3. Leaders should focus on being respected, not feared.
  4. Leaders need to lead by example, and tech leaders need to be technologists in order to gain the respect of the engineers they lead.
  5. Core leadership skills are timeless, and we can learn a lot by studying the classic philosophers on the subject, such as Marcus Aurelius.
  6. Leaders should accept that they are not in full control of events, but only to how they react to them. Their reactions set the example and tone for others to follow in their team.

I hope you enjoyed this episode, and I look forward to covering the next topic in this series with you! In the interim if you want to follow me online, you can find my blog at TechLeader.pro, or follow me on Twitter @TechLeaderPro.

Thanks for your time, take care and have a great week!

References:

[1] Tech leaders need to be technologists

[2] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.

[3] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.