Friday, April 6, 2007

How To Be an Effective Leader

I’ve spent the last 10 years leading teams of software developers, testers, and ethical hackers on a wide variety of highly technical projects in challenging conditions. I don’t think of myself as a natural leader. However, I have learned over the years how to be an effective leader, able to guide teams toward consistent success and the occasional heroic achievement. What makes for good leadership? What is it that allows some people to motivate teams and influence people while others spend just as much effort and are not able to accomplish these goals? I don’t believe there are many natural leaders; I think most effective leaders have to work hard at it. Leadership is a science as much as it is an art and there are principles that anyone can apply to become a more effective leader of people.

I think you could measure two things and accurately predict an individual’s ability to lead:

  • Differentiation. The ability to separate the emotional process from the intellectual process.
  • Clarity of Vision. An awareness of internal values as well as consistency and clarity in communicating those values as a compelling vision for change.

I first learned of these concepts through the research of Joan Fiore, Murray Bowen and Daniel Goleman. Fiore is an organizational consultant and leadership coach I met while at Microsoft. Goleman you’ve probably heard of, he wrote the book on Emotional Intelligence. Bowen may be a new name to you, he was a Psychotherapist with a focus on family therapy. Unsurprisingly, the principle of differentiation is as useful when looking for dysfunction in a family as it is when looking for dysfunction in any other type of organization. Differentiation, once I learned how to look for it, is a trait I’ve seen in every exceptional leader I’ve met. Being differentiated doesn’t mean ignoring your emotions; it means you are capable of taking your emotions as a source of input rather than as an always-accurate reflection of reality. Differentiation, at its core, is a measure of how well you are able to maintain your own individuality while simultaneously maintaining connection with others. Bowen developed a scale to measure differentiation:

  • 75 – 100: This person is principle oriented and goal driven. He is capable of evaluating other people’s viewpoints and is flexible in his thinking. He is able to take responsibility for himself and understands his responsibilities to others. He is able to tolerate intense emotions.
  • 50 – 75: This person’s intellectual and emotional processes are able to form a cooperative team. His intellect may overrule his emotions when it is in his best interest. He has a solid sense of self and is able to follow independent life goals. This person does not blame others for his failures nor does he feel that he has to give credit to others for his own successes.
  • 25 – 50: This person’s life is driven primarily by emotional responses, though there may be some flexibility. When he has low anxiety he can function as if he were more differentiated. As anxiety levels increase the emotional processes quickly overrun the intellectual processes. He spends a lot of energy on what other people think of him and toward winning the approval of others. His self esteem is dependent upon others, and his point of view may vary depending on the people he is in connection with.
  • 0 – 25: This person lives in a world dominated by feeling, in which they find it difficult to distinguish feeling from fact. He spends so much energy seeking approval and keeping harmony in his relationships that there is little energy left for productivity. Important decisions are based upon what feels right. Specific long term goals are very difficult to make.

The more differentiated an individual is, the more effective he will be when leading others.

Clarity of vision is an interesting concept. It turns out that the moral substance of the values behind the vision is less important than the ability to communicate the vision consistently and clearly. This is the reason leadership has no moral bounds – Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Hitler were all effective leaders though their moral systems varied widely. Individuals who know their values, can communicate them, and are consistent in acting on them are effective leaders.

Based on these principles I've discovered that the following traits result in the type of leadership that I am most interested in following and emulating:

  • Self Awareness. You are aware of your impact on others. You are aware of your own weaknesses and work toward mitigating them.
  • Self Regulation. You think before you act. You consistently act out of your value system. The people around you know what to expect from you.
  • Empathy. You are willing to trust and eager to empower. You are interested in listening and understanding other’s experiences.
  • Social Skills. You are able to connect with others and communicate well.
  • Motivation. You have a passion to lead, you desire to excel, and you actively want the best for your team and yourself.

It’s interesting to note that each of these is an internal trait. You don’t need to be in a leadership position to start improving them.

1 comment:

Diana Guess said...
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