Leadership to me is a simple thing that is frequently misunderstood.
It is being mindful of the challenges and types while putting the most effort into being of service. I try to construct the right environments for co-workers to grow their capacity and succeed as a team. I try to get out of the way, listen, and offer help at the most appropriate times. I try to be honest, clear, consistent, and humane.
How is it misunderstood? I think it is primarily when people attribute aspects like: power, threat, hierarchy, abuse, neglect, and obstinance. This is not leadership. These aspects—either looming or eminent—persuade people for all the wrong reasons. They always cause some kind of ruin, either for an individual or a whole organization.
Types of leadership
At its core, leadership is about persuasion but it’s also not singular. The different kinds are important because they define whether persuasion is empowering or oppressive. Empowering leadership comes in the following types, which I have worked to hone in my professional life:
Leadership of skill
The clearest way I’ve heard this explained is a pack of 3 dogs running in a forest: When sight was the most important thing, the youngest dog would be in the lead. When they were chasing something fast, the middle dog would outpace the other two. When smell was needed most, the older dog would switch to the lead.
In professional settings, this has lead members of teams I’ve been on to be leaders of topics. The dog pack metaphor breaks down though, in this setting, because when these leaders are open to sharing—their skills flow to others and build up the capacity of that skill for everyone. If they remain active, they’re often still a leader. If everyone attains their skills, a leader in that is no longer necessary. In either case, the point of this for me is to lead the rest of the group to attaining the same skills.
This is often confused with being responsible for a topic. This is not the same. In that case, a person is tasked with a topic that may or may not be something the rest of the group should learn. This is something that frequently turns into a siloed activity, different from the surrounding work. This can also be a role.
Leadership by Role
This is the most common. When someone has taken on the role in a leadership position, that need not be based on any other factor than that is their main concern.
Just as roles who contribute design, business, or technology are the main concerns of the people within those roles — that often does not encompass their entire skill set. For instance, a designer is the designer but they may also have proficiency in business or technical subjects. For their role in a company or project though, it would be less productive to also do the biz or tech work. A role is often better as a descreet skillset because is reduces the occurances of conflicts of interest that lead to corners getting cut.
If I’m in a leadership role, that means I need to be primarily concerned with dynamics outside of the project scope. Meta-team, meta-strategy, stakeholder relationships, career paths, funding, timing, and so on. This also means I can be an arbiter or facilitator but it certainly doesn’t mean I have to be. It really depends on how I can best be of service.
Leadership of Service
I feel like this one is the kind most forgotten and most important. Many professional cultures view people in leadership roles as being super-human bestowers of power. That they are lofty know-it-alls floating “above” workers who need them to succeed.
I know from experience however that nothing could be farther from the truth. Leaders by role need co-workers in roles who create. Leaders don’t usually create anything of business value. A company of leaders by role would accomplish nothing—whereas a company of “workers” could accomplish anything. Leadership roles then are a luxury for the purpose of trying to provide the most appropriate service for co-workers to do their work.
How best could a leader be of service? That is what should be asked every day with every action a leader takes. How can I help my team be ready to accomplish their efforts? What am I doing to enable my co-workers for success on all the levels (esp. measures like Triple Bottom Line, etc.) that matter?
Sometimes that means forging ahead into uncharted territory and sometimes it means drawing from experience.
Leadership of Experience
This happens a lot with mentorship. Having gone through something similar in the past, mentoring can help someone new to that type of situation. This lets people, sometimes a lot of people, save time by learning from my past mistakes and successes.
One challenge with this kind of leadership is knowing when to object, vs mention, vs stay silent about what has come before. Not every situation is similar enough to warrant speaking up, while months of needless failure can be prevented if I object to a course of action in time.
Challenges to good leadership
- Managing vs mentoring
Managing vs mentoring
While it’s popular for leadership roles to be managers, I’ve found success decoupling “management” to instead provide mentorship without all the baggage and falsities that come with being a “boss”. The interpersonal dynamic can be much more candid and bidirectional as a mentor. Mentees are more comfortable sharing, collaborating, and challenging themselves in this space. This lets the team grow better, faster. Management functions can be centralized in HR so they don’t have to talk with people that can fire them every day.
When you’re in a leadership role—people you lead are 99% more likely to be nicer and more obsequious to you. They’re laugh at your jokes, forgive your mistakes, listen attentively, and follow your directions. You’ll probably think that they like you. This is not reality though, this is privilege.
This is something I cannot forget because like all forms of privilege, it’s invisible to the privileged person. The way I’ve countered this dynamic is by asking people questions that address what I could otherwise advise and being transparent.
Most often in workplaces, marching orders go in one direction and information about activities goes in the other direction. I’ve found teams to have a lot more trust and productivity when information about activities flows in both directions—where leaders share what they’re doing and why, just as much as everyone else. Historically leadership didn’t share anything about what they do. Lately it’s been more popular to join in “stand ups” but more is usually required. Telling my team that I’m just “busy today” or “I’ll be in meetings” is pretty useless information. Making my work visible and describable is useful and inspires teamwork.
Lack of respect can crop up in any direction: between leaders and the lead, across leaders, between professions, between organizations, etc. In all these cases, people can end up saying no or not doing what they’ve been chartered to do for all the wrong reasons. In the worst cases it makes people leave, be fired, or file lawsuites. Not what you want.
When though, respect is established and expected as part of a shared agreement of how people should work together—everything else can fit into place. Respect should grow from trust, vs fear. Respect degrades when trust is either not present from the start or broken by an incident (or several incidents). In either case, activities must be done to gain trust. These are not activities that directly deliver business value but it has to happen for the rest of work to happen.
Leadership to me is more about service than status. It is about examining the underpinnings of motivation and dynamics to apply them as needs change. It’s about empowering the people around you to do good things.