Thursday, November 12, 2009

Some Thoughts on Good Leadership

For a good third of my time as a Pagan and my entire adult life thus far I have been involved in a leadership or planning position of some kind or another. I have a pretty good idea of how difficult it is to herd cats having been a cat-herder myself. In my professional life working from a bag boy to a CS Lead now as far as what I think are good and bad examples of someone I would want to follow or model my own style after. I'd like to share some of my thoughts on that based on my experience both as someone who has been on both sides of the desk.

The First Duty

The first duty of any leader is to put the goals of the group they lead ahead of their personal desires. A good leader knows this both on an abstract and practical level as the right way to go.

On the abstract it is the proper, honorable thing for a leader to put their group and its goals ahead of themselves. This kind of selflessness is worthy of great praise and is seen by many as a great sacrifice. After all, the purpose of leadership is to see to the good of the group being led. Indulging of personal desire at this expense is a gross abuse of power and trust.

On the practical level they know that, ultimately, they will share in the credit for success and blame in failure on some level anyway. Excessive squandering of credit and rewards can also lead to division within the group. This can be caused by any number of things from hurt pride to greed, envy, or ambition seeking an opportunity. Such behavior often leads to conflict either of members against each other or members against the leadership.

Ensure the Chain of Succession

This probably sounds medieval to be including and very patriarchal but succession of some kind is the second great duty of any leader. No one is immortal or indispensable. For this reason a good leader must always have an eye out for people with a knack for taking charge or have serious drive. This way when the current individual in charge can no longer, for whatever reason, run the show there is already a group of very fit individuals who have been given opportunities to build trust, proved themselves, and learned the ropes.

There are some who fear this idea and try to cling to control for whatever reason. In most cases the period during the transition to new leadership when a person like that passes on is very messy. Sometimes these transitional periods, without a group of ready successors on hand, can lead to the complete undoing of everything the leader created. Why hang on to what you have now so tightly that it can't survive without you?

This doesn't just mean ensuring someone will fill your shoes when you're gone, it also means making sure they'll have what they need. Why make all the effort of preparing a second generation if you don't give them everything you can to face the challenges of what may come? If you want to ensure the longevity of your group you need to be sure that the group is left in the best condition you can possibly leave it for who is coming up next.

Lead by Example

Above all things to be effective a leader must command respect. One of the best ways to do this is to lead through personal example. By walking the walk you show everyone you are sincere in what you believe. It shows that you are someone who can be trusted to adhere to your principles.

On a practical level it keeps a person in charge from becoming isolated from their people. It can be very easy to stick to business, stay close to your advisers and supporters, and focus more on the business of action but in so doing can make yourself vulnerable. If you do not truly understand the needs of your people, not just the ones in charge or influential positions, then you will lose their trust. Leading in a situation where you are not trusted by your own followers results in very counterproductive situations where often the most one can get is the bare minimum.

Sound the Horn, Swing the Hammer

When entering a new position of leadership the new occupant needs to establish both their objectives so everyone knows what they intend to do and show their strength.

The first is a bit more abstract in benefit than the other, but are equally essential. By declaring your objectives and intentions it gives the people a sense of security and direction. When people have direction they are much easier to motivate because they will have a sense of their actions having greater meaning.

The second is not as macho as it sounds. This doesn't mean throwing your weight around or making people do what you want because you can to show off your authority. What this means is showing that you will be strong when it is most needed. People will often follow a strong leader, even if they are wrong, over a weak one, even if they are right.

One way of doing this is in dealing with potential threats to the group. If there is something or someone who is a genuine, known, and proven threat to your group then what is best is to move quickly and by confronting them directly if you know you can beat them. By proving not only that you will lay down the law when necessary and then doing so very effectively you will have a much easier time convincing your people to trust your judgment in tense situations.

Another way is in resolving internal conflicts. If you are in a situation where someone genuinely deserves what is coming to them be it a lecture or removal what is best is to give it to them. However, if there is a situation where someone who caused the problem is genuinely remorseful and wants to help fix it punish them by putting them to work. This shows both that you can be hard when you must but also merciful when it is sensible showing people that you are reasonable in your decision-making process.

Listen to Your Followers

As was mentioned earlier the first duty of a leader is to their group. It is for this reason a leader should always pay attention to the goals and hopes of their people as well as their fears and doubts. Some might see this as moving to control opinion. Rather it is utterly essential to know what your people want and need to effectively lead. Without the voice of the people the leader is deaf to the world.

Compromise on Things, Not Principles

A good leader must have a solid ethical compass. This gives their followers and people a strong sense of security and certainty along with other rivals or leaders. By showing that you have principles that you will not compromise on and anything that threatens that will not be up for consideration what is realistic to expect.

Instead compromise on things. Things, provided they are not essential, can be easily recouped later on. Look not at the immediate cost but the long-term gain. If you have to go forward two spaces then go back one so that in your next move you jump forward four then by all means take the harder road initially to reach your ultimate goal.

Be a Realistic Idealist

Effective leaders need vision, aspirations, and dreams to fulfill both their own and their followers'. A leader without vision is nothing more than a glorified caretaker. At the same time the leader must not be blinded by their vision. To only see things in ideological terms is very dangerous and can lead to ideologically pure yet highly ineffective solutions to problems. The bad examples of the Soviet and Maoist systems where doctrinal orthodoxy was more important in getting a job than competence shows the pitfalls of excessive ideological focus. It can also hamper the ability to see long term and take in all the facts.

Effective leaders have to work with what reality gives them which probably will not fit any ideological idea of perfection. They also need to remember that the ideal is not something that will come immediately but is a process that, fast or slow, takes time. Sometimes it is better to move at a steadier pace, gain some ground now, then come back later and improve what you have than to lose it all.

Most importantly put competence and skill above ideological loyalty. Having ideologues under you can hamper both flow of information up and implemented of necessary action going down. Above all competence must be the rule of the day, not ideological orthodoxy.

Be Consistent

Reason is necessary for any effective project to happen. This is related to not viewing things ideologically but applies more to personal conduct. Handle situations as reasonably and consistently as possible. If you act in an arbitrary, unpredictable fashion people spend more time trying to figure out how not to upset you than they do sharing ideas or getting things done.

Use Carrots and Sticks

The real emphasis in this one is the AND along with how it should be done. Use whatever rewards you can to entice people to aim high and strive to do their best. This gives them a reason beyond the usual to push hard and do better. When it comes to punishment use it very sparingly. People should not be running away from you when you act, instead they should be chasing after you. Only punish people when they really screw up or knowingly are trying to sabotage your group's aims.

If You're Damned if you do and Damned if you Don't, Just do It

Sometimes you'll run into a situation where you will be damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you're stuck in a situation where no matter what happens you're going to catch flak, it is often the better idea to move ahead and do it anyway.

For one, regardless of what you do your critics are not going to cut you any slack no matter what happens. By refusing to act because of what might happen if you do knowing the same will happen if you don't it will make you appear weak and undermine people's confidence in your ability to lead. It is always better to err on the side of strength and decisiveness when you are facing such a dilemma.

Some Closing Thoughts

There are always good, practical reasons for taking principled, ethical stands and leading in an ethical, aboveboard, and transparent fashion. Never assume that leadership from a principled place is not pragmatic, as I see it pragmatism and principle are not mutually exclusive and many principles ultimately have their foundations in realistic solutions to problems. Remember, above all else your first duty is to those who follow. A good leader remembers this, a bad one ignores it at their own risk.

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