January 31, 2013 — 7 Comments

Well.. I guess my initial post was on something I’m pretty familiar with, my next one is on something that I’m familiar with through the harsh fire of experience, but consider myself far from an expert on.

Leadership – such a big and often misused word – what is it to me? what is it that I can bring to deliver leadership? what does it mean to the people I’m to be ‘leading’? 

I’ve been managing staff for quite a few years now in some reasonably difficult scenarios, managing staff for whom English isn’t their first language, managing staff who are located in entirely different countries than where you are with entirely different cultures and practices, managing staff through a significant amount of change, managing staff in the reasonably harsh glaring light of a listed and reasonably famous locally company, managing a large staff across several geographic regions, managing staff in the transition from other companies as part of M&As – and I honestly believe that I’ve learnt more from them that I have been able to impart from my side.

So – basically, I’ve made a TON of mistakes along the way, hundreds and hundreds of mistakes that have sometimes caused people significant pain and myself a lot of anguish. I’m not someone who can turn off their emotional feelings and manage like a robot, nor am I someone who doesn’t feel a great amount of injustice on behalf of people that I’ve actually made poor leadership decisions for.

What are those mistakes I hear the big wide internet saying (or at least that’s what I imagine you’re all saying) – well, let me count the ways I’ve messed up or things I think I still need to think about every day:

  • Not understanding that things that aren’t important to you, really mean a lot to those you lead – This one took me a LONG time to work out, you’re busy doing all the stuff you do and snowed under as most people managers are so when staff come to you with things that you think are quite petty that issue they are raising can literally be the biggest thing in that persons life right now and if you treat it like it’s petty you are essentially invalidating their existence and being a poor leader. Yep – I’ve done this one plenty – someone comes and complains about an interaction they had with a sales guy that they didn’t like, sounds like work politics and you ignore it, or even really fail to listen and hear that person – this can make the difference between that staff member being a happy, productive worker, or basically despising you. This is a hard lesson to learn, so I’d counsel anyone who is taking on a management position to keep this in the front of your mind.
  • Leading Up – Oh man, this one took me FOREVER to work out and I’m still not great at it. When I first started out as a naïve farm boy, I just assumed that hard work, dedication and loyalty would be rewarded with money, fame and an endless supply of hot women (kidding!) but your ability to lead up directly influences your ability to lead, full stop. If you can’t clearly manage the people who manage you and understand their motivations, expectations and vision, how will you ever convince the people you’re leading to follow you? I’m terrible at this, I’m blunt and plain speaking which doesn’t help me finesse my way through this landmine area but I’m working really hard on it. Getting across what you want, how you want to your leaders is the only way you’ll be a truly effective leader yourself. Understand the politics and use them to you and your teams advantage, don’t damage your team (or yourself!) through political tone deafness.
  • Not taking counsel from those who know better – Another one I’m terrible at but I’m working on – I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by some very great leaders (shout out to Mark, Per and Tim!) and if I’d just removed my head from my butt and stopped assuming I knew everything I’d have learnt a lot more from those leaders who’d taken the time to work with me even if I hadn’t always been receptive to their comments or direction. I know now I’m difficult to manage and lead, but it’s taken me a long time to come to that conclusion. I think what I’m trying to say is that when you’re leading understand that others are trying to lead you – at the bare minimum respect their time and knowledge, take the advice under consideration and act accordingly.
  • Communicate – Wow Rob, you’re so brilliant, telling me I should communicate with those I lead – so insightful /endsarcasm – but in all seriousness, HOW you communicate has more to do with the effectiveness of your leading than WHAT you communicate. Given the geographical, time difference and pure busyness that I face on any given day, I unfortunately do the majority of my managing and communicating via email, which, take it from me, is a TERRIBLE way to lead. Seriously – pick the phone up if you want to get something across, fly and see someone, send a carrier pigeon, but don’t expect that your finessed email as much as you read and re-read it will get across exactly what you’re saying and how you’re trying to say it. Email is read through the eyes of that person, NOT through your eyes, so is subject to their preconceptions, their mood, their biases and feelings so cannot possibly hope to get across the nuances of what you’re trying to say. Further, email is kind of a one sided – “I’m talking, you listen” medium – a phone call is collaborative, you can judge someones reaction as you deliver whatever communication you need to deliver and it’s just flat out more personal. If you’re solely managing by email – you’re just not leading – I’ve tried to move away from this by at a minimum scheduling fortnightly 15 minute catch up phone calls with my staff where we shoot the breeze and talk about what they (and I) need to discuss but I could get a LOT better at this with just one step – when you’re angry, or frustrated or someone has ticked you off with an email DO NOT reply (and especially don’t reply all!!), pick up the phone and call – this should maybe be higher in the list, it’s very important and I’m still learning this.
  • Be real, authentic and credible – Another one that’s straight out of a management text book, I’ve never really had a problem with this, I’m a say what I mean kind of guy, but the issue that I’ve had is that you can be a say what you mean kind of leader but you have to consider the above points (particularly around leading up) before you communicate your thoughts and visions to your staff – the thing that will destroy credibility is communicating something that you believe to be the case but potentially not understanding that those above you aren’t on the same page and therefore being unable to deliver on your promises. You’re only as good as your LAST WORD – so if your last word wasn’t credible even if everything else previous was, don’t expect anyone to think you’ll be credible for your NEXT word – credibility can be destroyed in seconds and take a lifetime to rebuild, if ever.

My friend Tim (www.timbrewer.com.au) has a view around servant leadership, that is to say that the pyramid of leadership (where the boss is on top) should really be flipped around the other way and essentially you’re a servant of those that you lead – I’ll be honest, I don’t much go in for those thoughts but he did lead me to a epiphany the other day and actually what prompted me to start this blog – basically, imagine an upside down pyramid where you’re on the bottom – got it? – now, you’re essentially the foundation and also carrying the entire load on a very small point (essentially your set of shoulders) – you’ll need to be strong, stable, measured, hold up those below you until you can bring others up to share the load and spread out the base of the pyramid – until you’re no longer the person carrying the pyramid but everyone around you is sharing the load (and the fresh air!), then if you remove one person, the pyramid doesn’t fall over. I’m committed to growing my pyramid – how about you?

I’m committed to continuing my journey to be better at what I do every day, whether that be as a leader, a technologist or a business manager – but the above is just a small list of all of the mistakes I’ve made, so hopefully you won’t have to!


7 responses to Leadership


    Excellent thoughts–your friend is offering you some sound leadership advice. Greenleaf knew what he was talking about. Don’t buy into the myth that you are ever balancing that pyramid on your own, even at the beginning!


      Thanks for the feedback Stosh! You have a great blog by the way.

      Great point about not being the only one on that pyramid base – I think it can sometimes feel that way but the easiest way to avoid that loneliness is to empower people quickly and get out of their way so they can share the load! It’s taken me a lot of learning to get there but leadership is a journey not a destination!


        Thanks–your point about getting out of the way is on point–you wouldn’t believe how many managers/leaders I’ve coached who can’t do that, even though everyone says they don’t like to be micromanaged!

    Natalie Granger January 31, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Great blog. The most important thing in life is to constantly be learning. It’s clear that you can reflect on the past and use even the negative and stressful situations as learning experiences and opportunities to improve- something we all should do. Rather than a lesson on leadership, I think this post is an excellent lesson on learning.


      Hi Nat
      I couldn’t agree more – but to your point fundamentally I think leadership IS learning – self praise and self criticism come easily to me, I’m just working on doing a little less of both.
      Cheers for the comment!


    Good writeup Rob, these are key points that I have trouble with as well. I may print this out to keep as a reminder.

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