When leaders such as Nelson Mandela or Steve Jobs are described in popular media, one aspect of their personality, such as charisma or vision is singled out as the secret ingredient of their success. In reality however, leaders need to bring a combination of ingredients to be successful in the long term.
This essay is for aspiring leaders, based on my decade of experience leading creative teams. And, since I am also an avid cook, I have codified my insights in the format of a recipe.
One part people management: If you want to lead people, you need to know how to work with them. You need not be an extrovert or gregarious person, but you need to be empathetic and genuinely care about the well-being of the people you lead. You will also have to read situations quickly, listen carefully, and make good decisions. Finally, you need to manage up. Make your management feel informed and build their trust in your capacity for sound judgment.
One part functional expertise: As you transition from an individual contributor to manager, you will need to learn to let go, and delegate. However, remember that you can delegate execution, but you cannot delegate understanding.
As responsibility increases, it will become difficult to maintain functional expertise. By continually sharpening your functional knowledge, you can ensure that you make good decisions on behalf of the team.
One part administration and organization: When you are a leader, you sign up to do the administrative work on behalf of the team – usually more than you can imagine. Equipment has to be purchased, budgets have to be reconciled, expenses have to be approved, events have to be organized, performance has to be reviewed, and salaries need to be negotiated and so on.
The key to tackling this aspect of leadership is to strive for balance. Too much administrative overhead will feel stifling and burdensome. While too little structure will feel chaotic and out of control. Apply sound organizational design principles to set up the structure that fits your team’s needs.
If you are part of a larger organization, it is likely that this organization will impose some processes on you and your team. As a leader, it is healthy to approach these processes with a critical eye to evaluate which ones further the mission of the team and which ones detract from it. It is inevitable that you will find a few processes that you can do without. You cannot fight every battle; so pick the ones that are worth the effort. This will showcase your leadership skills to an audience larger than your immediate team, and is ultimately a service you do to your overall company.
Stir with authenticity: When you cook, do you ever do a taste check after you have combined the main ingredients? Leaders need to do similar self-checks to assess their effectiveness.
If you notice you are lacking in one area, you can adjust and find strategies to augment this aspect of leadership. For example, if you find you lack functional expertise, seek experts who can mentor you, or point you to resources to help you fill this knowledge gap. If you are disorganized, or find that administrative tasks bore you, find tools to help you stay organized, and remind yourself of the larger purpose. If you lack people skills, seek mentoring or coaching to become a better listener and thoughtful communicator.
The best leaders are self-aware and understand their strengths and weaknesses. Remember that it is an ongoing journey. Conduct a self-inventory by doing honest self-checks and seeking feedback. Most importantly, adopt an open and lifelong learner’s mindset.
Sprinkle with personal style: Leaders come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders. As long as you stay professional, and drive team results, you are better off leading in your own unique style, than try to fit a mold that you feel uncomfortable in. Doing so may make you feel like an impostor deep down, and will affect your credibility. It takes time to find your true voice as a leader, so be patient with yourself. Being true to yourself will help you connect with your team, and earn their trust.
Serve with love: Finally, great leaders lead with love. Many of the tasks a leader does will be invisible to the team. However, they must be done if they serve the greater good.
There will be times when a leader is called upon to serve and even sacrifice for the team. And only upon this service and sacrifice, can we build our authority and influence, and earn the right to be called a true leader.