A lot of job interviews lately have included a question about my approach to leadership, so I thought I would jot down a few thoughts toward an answer.
Leadership really consists in two parts: building the team, and giving the team a focus or mission.
Building the team should be really easy. Most people really want to be a well-respected member of the inner circle. Man is a political animal, as Aristotle said, so people will be trying to clump together naturally. Unfortunately, everyone is different, and they have different ideas, rough edges, and issues, so fitting together has to be dynamically managed. There are a million ways to get at this, each with its own technique, but that would take too long to go over.
Usually a lot of those issues revolve around trust, respect, expectations, and communication, so I try to start with those things first, before branching out. I did study as a pastor, so I tend to be pretty gentle in my approach at the beginning. If anything, that’s a weakness of mine: sometimes I’m too slow to rachet down to a more firm, disciplinary approach. I’m confident I can do 99% of the team building through listening and explaining, if I am given enough time. But sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to build the team, and you have to use stern words and disciplinary action to get results quickly, which runs the risk of undermining trust and respect if it isn’t done right.
Usually I compensate for my gentle team-building with a high tempo urgency around the mission. A team without an objective is just a social club and doesn’t belong at the workplace anyway. Focusing on the mission takes pressure off of the political aspects of the team and gives me time to build trust through communication. It also allows me to make dynamic changes to the structure of the group by pointing at the metrics I am targeting. If the change didn’t produce the desired result, it should be obvious why we’re making another change.
In terms of setting the mission, I am a process guy, and I like incremental improvement. I have seen leadership that just picks an objective, throws all the resources available at it until it goes away, and then picks a new objective. It drives me crazy. It’s like weeding a garden every two years, or washing dishes only when you run out of spoons. I want to take territory and hold it; I hate to give up ground. So I tend to find the most urgent problem, do what I can to deal with the immediate fallout, and then identify procedural changes we can make to correct that issue permanently. Then I will move on to the next set of problems, coming back regularly to make sure we haven’t fallen back on previous issues. This means you may not see a lot of dramatic progress at the beginning. What you will see is consistent progress so that, usually around 6 months to a year, my team stands out in every category across the board.
The last thing you will see is development of subordinates. I see a lot of correlation between building a team and raising a family. As a dad, I’m not just raising some kids to hopefully be successful someday. I’m training my children how to train their children to raise their children. In the same way, I expect to see personal development in my team, so that they are giving me advice how to build my team, which shows that they are ready to lead their own teams and develop them too. Fortunately, developing my subordinates into leaders takes the same techniques as building the team in the first place: listening, communication, imparting a vision, etc.