My Reflections on Leadership

The other day I was pondering the topic of Leadership. I can’t remember exactly why. I guess it was one of those days I allow myself to think about anything that interests me. As I took the time to reflect on the things I already know about leadership, I realized there was so much more I could learn. 

To lead means to take the initiative and drive others to see that initiative and equally pursue it. More often than not, we find in any collection of human beings, there are always those who lead and those who follow. 
The question then is: what makes some people exceptional leaders? Off my head, I could think of a few requirements for good leadership: vision, knowledge, drive, personality, among other things. 

But the role of leadership encompasses two primary areas: Execution and Managing People. Entire books have been written on both topics. In a way, they reflect the hard and soft skills needed for leadership. And while both sides are equally important, I find that managing people is harder than execution because people are largely unpredictable.
Even though countless resources exist to address Execution and People Management, I am convinced leadership is more a set of habits than something I can learn from reading countless articles, books, and other resources. 

Great leadership involves refining the way we think and act, consciously, and subconsciously. The conscious actions are what we learn in many of the books and resources on leadership. The subconscious however relates to habits we can form to better prep ourselves to serve as good leaders. Habits are automatic behaviors we incorporate in our daily routines that are somehow embedded in our subconscious. So what are some of these habits? I asked myself the other day and I wasn’t sure of the answers. So I did a bit of digging. 

On Execution..

First, let’s look at Execution as a primary responsibility of leadership. Execution is quite simply the discipline of getting things done. In order to lead the execution of an enterprise, one must have a bunch of attributes. Off my head, I could think of a few:

  • Knowledge and constant learning
  • Planning
  • Delegating
  • Organizing Teams
  • Follow up

Knowledge, of the problem domain, and proffered solution. As leadership requires insight, leaders must be committed to the pursuit of knowledge and insight. Knowledge can expand an individual’s capacity and motivate them to greater accomplishments. Most people would prefer to work with a knowledgeable leader. Key high-level insights from a leader can help stir execution in the right direction. In a much broader sense, knowledge is a prerequisite to execution. I have found that to be the case in almost any endeavor I have embarked on. The more I know about the subject of interest, the better I can perform at it.  Here’s how to look at knowledge: 

Both spheres are clearly disjointed.
‘What we know’ covers our circle of competence. Although, we can be wrong about our perceived circle of competence. Perceptions as you would agree are often misleading. ‘What we know’ is usually a subset of ‘What we think we know’…

‘What we don’t know’ is anything outside our Circle of Competence.  As much as we should all strive to constantly learn and grow our COC, more importantly, we should maintain awareness of the boundaries that confine our COC. That means if we find ourselves in positions of leadership, we must ensure we have people on our team who will cover areas outside our competence. 

Effective delegation is another thing great leaders are skilled at. They know the boundaries of their circle of ability even within their circle of concern. Such leaders make an effort to surround themselves with smart and driven creatives who can function as independent thinkers and leaders within their team. I encountered a term for this in a book I read recently: “How Google Works”. I believe it’s the term: Smart Creative

Smart creatives are smart and creative. Smart in this context refers to breadth (or depth), understanding, and critical thinking. Notice I mentioned breadth or depth. It’s really hard to have both.  Breadth comes from a wide knowledge about many different things which leaves one at a higher level of understanding without really deep technical expertise. This is great for management roles. Depth however comes from a focus on core technical skills and experience, which is more suited for specialized roles. 

All well and good, the world will always need people who are deep much as it needs people who are wide. Delegation works best when there are smart creatives on the team, both wide and deep. Basically everyone can run and think independently albeit with coordination. This frees up a leader to maintain big picture thinking and drive the team at a higher level. Basically, steer the boat. 

The process of steering the boat will involve collecting reliable feedback from the current state of affairs. Meaning a smart leader will ensure such a framework exists for reliable feedback. I would stress the word reliable here because inaccurate feedback can create false perceptions of reality; leading to wrong decisions. 

All the requirements for execution don’t really work well without some people management. As is my experience, managing people is harder than execution. I guess it’s because the process requires navigating egos, temperaments, emotional dispositions, and whatnot. Different rules often apply to different people. About 2 years ago I stumbled on a book that gave some valuable insight on dealing with people: Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People“. A number of things I learned while reading Dale’s book can be applied to People Management. 

Humans by nature, are primarily driven by their emotions. People management often requires navigating these emotions. For example, a person’s default response to being criticized is to defend their frame of reference. So when two people are in disagreement, usually it’s because, from their respective points of view, they believe they are right and the other is wrong. I believe in the course of dealing with people, it is highly inevitable that conflicts will spring up here and there. It’s a good thing though, a sign that people have strong opinions about how things should be.

So as a leader one has a primary responsibility to resolve conflict. The approach to resolving conflict should be first don’t criticize, at least not in public. The default response to attack is always defense and sometimes counterattack. Unless you’re dealing with a reasonable person, the other individual will only defend their stance and you will defend yours and no one really makes progress. The way to get through to someone is to show them you understand their point of view and then explain why they are wrong. This process of showing understanding will play a part in disabling their aggressive instincts. It’s difficult to attack someone who understands you. Then after disabling their aggressive instincts you can better persuade them to see your point of view. 

On the Human need for recognition..

Another thing to be aware of is a leader’s obligation to feed people’s hunger for recognition. Many people crave that feeling of purpose; a feeling that their lives matter. It’s a feeling that underlies many of humanity’s greatest inventions and enterprises. Hence within a team, a leader should always take time to recognize and publicly commend the good work of followers who perform well. A failure to do so can always cause followers to seek such recognition elsewhere. I wouldn’t want to lose the brightest minds on my team because I failed to recognize their good work. That’s just messed up. 

There’s so much more to managing people, I wouldn’t dream of writing about everything. but at least I was able to write a few of my thoughts down…