Leadership of IT/Software Teams in a Regulatory Environment
Part 1 – What Exactly Is “Leadership”?
“the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this.”
Not exactly helpful, are they? Wikipedia is slightly better:
“is a formal or informal contextually rooted and goal-influencing process that occurs between a leader and a follower, groups of followers, or institutions. The science of leadership is the systematic study of this process and its outcomes, as well as how this process depends on the leader’s traits and behaviors, observer inferences about the leader’s characteristics, and observer attributions made regarding the outcomes of the entity led.” (Antonakis, John; Day, David V. (2017). The Nature of Leadership. )
There are thousands upon thousands of different works on the subject of leadership, going back farther into history than the Roman Empire. What it really boils down to, at its core, is that to lead is to influence others into behaviors, commitments and actions in service of one’s goal(s).
Let’s dive in a little. We’re going to explore what it means to exercise “Leadership”, what it takes to gain that influence over others.
First, we must recognize that influence over others isn’t something we can take – it is something that is given. Whether voluntarily or through coercion, a person chooses to be influenced by someone. That choice may not be consciously made…it may be something baser, more instinctual, and quite often this is the case whether one is in an office, a political party, a religious revival, or other venue. It appeals to not only the comprehension of the team, but also to their emotional triggers.
Less a mechanistic approach to guiding persons, leadership really is much more a “way of living” in the context of one’s colleagues.
To exercise Leadership then, is a bit like playing a psychological game, guiding others thought processes to coincide with one’s own. Just as each person owns his or her own emotions, team members must make their own commitments to the team – a leader finds ways to enable them to make those commitments. How does one do that? The United States Marine Corps focuses on six factors that lead to successful leadership:
This, I feel, is the most important distinction between a leader and a manager. A leader must care about the persons entrusted to them. That care is demonstrated by actions that follow one’s promises and commitments. When you care for your team, you engender a protective atmosphere for them, enabling them to feel safer around you – you become their guardian as well as their colleague.
A specific personality type is not absolutely necessary to exhibit leadership, though some personalities find the communications aspects easier. I think it may be easier to relate this idea of ‘personality’ rather as sincerity, or genuineness of the leader. When you are sincere with your team, they know they can place trust in you – another safety factor.
Having boundless knowledge on the relevant topics is very helpful, of course – but is it really necessary? Not so. Understanding the limits of one’s knowledge is equally important. The most important aspect of knowledge, though, is recognizing where it is present in your team and promoting team members’ own knowledge. When you use your team’s knowledge wherever and whenever possible to enable them to step forward, even if you already can answer the need yourself, you build your team’s confidence in themselves – you promote their ability to excel, strengthening them.
Succinctly, motivation in this context is the strength of effort used in the persistent pursuit of one’s goals. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shines a light directly on the source of the motivation of every human: we all share physiological and safety needs; we quite often share the needs related to belongingness, love, and esteem; and we are all usually quite unique in our self-actualization needs. A real leader finds ways to bind the needs of the team at various levels of the hierarchy together, directing the members towards a common goal – motivating them all by giving them ways to self-motivate.
Closely tied to the concept of sincerity I mentioned above with Personality, Commitment means to support the team with no reservations, during good and bad times. It embraces the team as a living thing, a culture, rather than a tool that can be pulled from a satchel and put away when not needed. When you commit to the team, you are accepting that you work together as a common course of action, which engenders similar action by team members, creating a self-reinforcing group.
Finally, we come to communication, the bindings that tie all the others together. A person simply cannot be a good leader if they are not also a good communicator. Transparency, clarity of vision, visibility, and receptivity are key facets required of a good communicator. When you can spell out the goals set for the team clearly, make yourself constantly available to the team, and actively listen to the voices of the team, this skill at communication earns the respect of your team.
As I mentioned before, there are theories on leadership that go back thousands of years, so one could just as easily pick a definition from any period along the way to compare against. However, I think it will suffice in this context to use the USMC six traits – surprisingly enough, leadership is a near-universal concept, whether in the uniform of a military officer or the business-casual of a startup CTO.
Notice that each of the six focuses on strengthening the individual members of the team – and tend to de-emphasize the role of the leader her- or himself. This is not to say the leader should play no role, but rather that a successful leader encourages the team to excel. The most important take-away for aspiring leaders is:
This isn’t about you at all. It’s all about the team.
In the next section, we’ll talk about how these apply in a software development and IT arena.