Five Qualities of Real Leadership

I've noticed coverage of "leadership" in IT magazines recently, but I'm not comfortable with the approach they take. For example, this editorial in CIO Magazine titled Leadership Isn't a Fairy Tale After All has "Personal attention and hands-on involvement can make good IT managers great IT leaders" as the subtitle. The text then says:

Our story spells out detailed tactics and practical ideas that CIOs can use to turn good IT managers into potentially great IT leaders...

You’ll notice a strong thread of personal attention and hands-on involvement from the very top at the companies developing a strong bench of future leaders.

At REDACTED, for example, the CEO walks the walk on one-to-one leadership development by holding regular career conversations with his senior leadership team. His CIO, REDACTED, then makes sure that style of direct communication flows downward to the IT team. “If you don’t take time to talk to people about their professional development,” REDACTED notes, “it just doesn’t get done.”

REDACTED is another bright light in this realm with a program called The Lab, which fosters leadership development across various business units by bringing together 30 of them at a time to form strategic problem-solving teams.

And at REDACTED, CIO REDACTED connects on a more personal level, emailing coffee-talk questions to her global staff every two weeks to get conversations going on everything from personal dreams to world views.

In my opinion, "regular career conversations" are a form of coaching, not leadership. Forming "strategic problem-solving teams" is management, not leadership. Finally, "emailing coffee-talk questions" is banter, not leadership.

So what are the five qualities of leadership, at least in my experience?

  1. Leaders develop and execute a vision; they do not follow trends set by others.

  2. Leaders embody strong core values and do not sacrifice those core values in order to advance their personal careers.

  3. Leaders' actions demonstrate a focus on their people, not themselves, and that focus on the people takes care of the mission.

  4. Leaders work to "make their people look good," rather than making the boss or themselves look good.

  5. In the darkest hours, leaders put themselves personally at risk for the good of their team.

Notice the contrast between these five principles and the previous guidance. My focus is on actions, whereas the other ideas focus on communication. I do not discount the value of communication, but with leadership the deeds matter far more than the words. It is helpful to have coaching, mentoring, managing, and so forth, but these concepts are separate from leadership.

If you're wondering about the image for this post, I wanted to show a picture from the movie We Were Soldiers, based on the book by Lt Gen Hal Moore and Joe Galloway. Then Lt Col Moore (portrayed by Mel Gibson) always landed with his air cavalry troops, in the first helicopter, and was the first person to step foot on adversary soil. He was also the last person to leave. As he wrote:

When we step on the battlefield, I will be The First Boots On and the Last Boots Off.

And he didn't just say it, he did it. That's a leader.


Dan said…
I agree with a lot of this.

But mucking around in the weeds might be the right role for a lt col - it's not the role of a general (of course neither is career coaching, IMO).

Stick with those 5 qualities - they are about right.

The worst "leaders" I've had were terrible because they didn't understand that their job was to develop and execute a vision - not to be the head techy or the chief reactionary.
H. Carvey said…
Couldn't agree more, Richard.
Little Mac said…
I agree, Richard. Very good summary of key traits for leaders. Sadly, these are most commonly lacking.
Anonymous said…
You make a good point.
hexsaw said…
Your comment "In the darkest hours, leaders put themselves personally at risk for the good of their team" is one that is an incredibly hard bar to reach. I agree that it sets the best leaders apart - but I think that expecting leaders who sacrifice for their team above all else often has unintended consequences.

As a single servicemember, it was relatively straightforward to put my life on hold when someone on my team needed top cover. As a family man now, when I put myself at risk for my team, or put extra hours in to support my team, I put my relationship with my family at risk and potentially I put their livelihood at risk.

I've met plenty of great self-sacrificing leaders who I loved working for because they gave me that supportive top-cover, who ended up divorced at 50 because of all of the time they spent focused on their team/work/employees.

It's a hard balancing act. I hope my family would understand if I put my career at risk for the good of the team, but I also hope I'm never in the position of having to make that decision.

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