Sunday, January 22, 2012

On Leadership

"Leadership" is one of those words that used to make me cringe.  I couldn't see how it could be defined, measured, or taught.  I associated it with being a manager, something I haven't pursued--just like I haven't read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Becoming a leader, I thought, involved spending time away from the things that interested me most.

But, according to technical management guru Gerald Weinberg, leadership is "the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered."  A leader is someone who helps people solve problems.  It's not necessarily a manager.  The managers in your company might rarely or never be leaders--for example, if they primarily assign mountains of paperwork, engage in political infighting, or micromanage all work.

This is a powerful thought, though obvious once you've had it. A leader cares not only about their own work but helps other people get things done.  Of course, most work today is so dependent upon other people that it would be hard to get anything done without empowering others.  Being an effective leader seems synonymous with being an effective doer.

Weinberg suggests that leaders empower people to solve problems in a number of ways.  One important way is helping people understand problems and possible solutions to them.  Some people are leaders because they're great at getting to the root of a problem and convincing others that they're right.  Or, they can tell you why something you thought was a problem really isn't one.  Or, they come up with solutions that no one else has come up with.

Some of the best insights I got from the book involved interacting with coworkers.  Weinberg has found that attempts to help are often perceived as interference.  This is why it's important to ask whether or not someone needs your help.  I know people who are so eager and so full of ideas that they often cause those they were trying to help to stop listening.  "We're just trying to solve X, and you bring up 10 other things we should be doing!" they're thinking.  Similarly, when you can't understand why someone is acting a certain way, it's often best to assume they're really trying to help you.

There are plenty of nuggets in Weinberg's work, but something I'm going to try to work on is communicating my feelings, something I've never been great with.  Since you can never know how people see you or what they are thinking, your communications should not assume either.  That is, you shouldn't say, "I know you are having trouble completing your work because of issues you're having at home."  Instead, Weinberg suggests beginning with something more like, "I'm feeling frustrated that we're having trouble completing projects on time.  The only thing I can assign my frustration to is your frequent absences.  Is there something we can work out?"  This risks becoming psychobabble akin to "I feel that you feel that I'm feeling you're feeling, etc.", but I'm going to give it a try.


  1. This book sounds interesting. Can I borrow it from you? I have always thought that good managers are also good leaders -- that, at the very least, they create an environment (primarily by the way they communicate) that inspires their colleagues to do good work, to meet deadlines, to interact well with others. of course, the other aspect is actually doing.

    what i find interesting, though, is whether leadership is more of an innate feeling/knack that someone has (developed from experience and personal interactions in real world scenarios), or whether it is something that can even be learned academically. there are people who are good managers, but who are not very effective leaders, for instance, which i would think would make them overall not very effective as managers in the workplace.

    someone suggested to me recently that i explore a master's program in project management at the local university, and i initially kind of scoffed at the idea. i thought it would be a waste of time and money, because leadership skills are something you either have or do not have. i'm not so sure this is the case, though. i think some management skills are developed innately as well (like the ability to multitask), and not something that can be learned in a university setting. overall, i do think there would be many benefits to this kind of program.

  2. Great point. Weinberg says, "Anyone can improve as a leader simply by building the strength of our weakest elements. Mr. Universe doesn't have more muscles than I do, just better developed ones." He divides these 'muscles' up into innovation, motivation, and organization. You can get better at communicating and coming up with ideas, just like you can improve technical skills. Sure, you can borrow the book!


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