Being a Better Leader

In my career spanning the last 13+ years, I have had opportunities to work with and observe some great and some not so great managers. I have gathered some insights into how to and how not to be a team leader. Though I have not, myself, been a manager of a team, I have managed projects, cross-functionally, with people from different groups reporting to me on the status of the projects we were working on.

I believe that managing people is not rocket science. It takes heart to be a good leader. One of my recent managers has been the greatest inspiration to me. He also became a close personal friend of mine during the course of our working together. I gathered some of the points stated in this post while observing him, some by observing my and my colleagues’ managers at my previous employments, and some came from within.

Some of the qualities, I list here, may seem odd or idealistic to be useful in this world of hire and fire work ethics. You may feel, “Why should I be kind to somebody when my own boss is not being kind to me?” But, it is quite possible that your own boss may change his mind toward you when he or she looks at the way you engage your team members and how productive your team is.

I am constantly trying to improve myself. I hope that you will join me in this. As you can see, some of the qualities are easier to develop than others.

Here is a list of qualities, I think, one should develop to be a better leader. They are not listed in any particular order. They apply to every level of management. I am sure developing these qualities helps in every walk of life.

  • Be compassionate—This means to be understanding of the other person’s feelings as if they were your own. Be kind and considerate in your words and actions. This goes a long way. For example, if a mistake is made, instead of pointing out with harsh words, be kind and encouraging and work with the team member to improve the situation. We are only humans and everyone makes mistakes.
  • Be patient—After you assign a task and a deadline, be patient. Don’t be standing behind and look over the shoulder all the time. This makes many people nervous—I was one of them. You can of course set a time-line for periodic updates beforehand.
  • Develop friendship and trust—Develop friendship and gain trust of your team members. When they understand you at a closer level it translates directly to understanding at work level. I have had managers who created personae of toughness and kept themselves at a distance, because they felt that they had to be distant from the team members to give objective criticism of the work done by them. Also, some may feel that it will be easy on them if they have to let go of any of the employees. This is not really good, since it affects the morale of some of the team members as they may feel that they have done something wrong to be alienated that way. They may not understand that it is your general attitude. Developing friendship and trust also helps your team members to bring any problems to you early on rather than waiting until they become wild fires.
  • Be protective—Every organization has its politics. A good leader will try to shield his team members from the politics of the company. This will help the team members to feel secure to do their job.
  • Keep promises—Never make promises that you cannot keep. Especially with respect to recognition in terms of pay raises, bonuses or promotions. If decisions regarding these matters are not in your hands, then do not promise them as if you have the authority. When promises are not kept, you will loose their trust. It would be too late to explain that you did not have the authority. Gaining that trust back may become difficult.
  • Be honest and open—This is very important. Some managers hide information from their team members regarding certain decisions being made by the upper management. It is probably because of the fear of diminishing the team morale or loosing some team members. However, it is better to give the information to the team so each individual can make a decision for themselves. This is a rare thing to find in the present day. I have had good fortune to have had a couple of managers who were very honest and open in very critical aspects.
  • Lead by example—Be the change that you want to see in your team members. If you expect your team members to work hard, you should do the same. You cannot be a slacker and expect your team members to do the hard work.
  • Cater to strengths—Each person is unique. Even if the function of all the team members may be same at a certain level, as is the case with most software teams, each of them could have strengths in different areas. Work with them to capitalize on those strengths. The team will excel.
  • Help with weaknesses—It is easy to point out weaknesses. For example, a yearly review may say, “You could have finished this project early on with the help of the group-X, if you were more proactive. So be more proactive.” There are a couple of possibilities here. The person might have been proactive, but group-X might not have cooperated at all for various reasons. Or, maybe that he or she is just not very proactive or intimidated for some reason. However, just by saying “be more proactive” is not going to help this person. Work with this person to come up with a plan to solve this problem. We spend more time at work than at home. Most companies provide facilities or classes to help employees improve their productivity. Find out the information and help the individual. He or she will thank you for the rest of his or her life.
  • Be a mentor—There are very few managers who strongly believe in mentoring and grooming their reports, so that they can take on more challenging roles. Become part of that elite group of managers. Each person has a vision of what they want their career path to be. Work with them to identify that path, if they don’t have one. It is like being a Life Coach. You will be satisfied immensely when you see them progressing well on their chosen career path. Keep an eye out for opportunities for their growth and help them make most of those opportunities. They will thank you for that.
  • Be approachable—Don’t be a brick wall or too serious. Be approachable. Let your reports come to you for help no matter how small the problem seems to you. I have seen projects slowing down when reports feel that they may be balked at by their managers, if they talked about problems with projects.
  • Be a team member—Do not behave like you are the king. Be a team member. Remember that you are a manager for helping the company in managing work done by people—it is for having a centralized channel for information transfer.
  • Listen first and engage in dialog—Be a good listener. Develop a habit of deep listening. If a problem needs to be solved, do not put forward your idea for a solution first. This will immediately block the creative output from your team members, because it will create an atmosphere that you already have a solution and you want it to be implemented, even though that may not be your intention. Encourage all team members to give out their ideas first and list them without voting on them. After all the ideas are listed add your idea to the list. Then, impartially discuss each idea and vote on them to find the best possible solution.
  • Be thankful and appreciative—Be appreciative and grateful, no matter how small an achievement made by a team member seems to be. Remember that small achievements made by each member creates the big success for the entire team. For each and everyone of the team member who has done their part well, try your best to get monetary and other tangible recognition within the organization. This may not always workout since upper management may be greedy or don’t really want to reward their employees well. But you should at least do your best to get the recognition that your team members deserve. Otherwise, you will just watch your team atrophy.
  • Promote cooperation, not competition—Remember a team is like a family. A family’s environment becomes happy and joyful when its members cooperate with each other. Competition among members brings rift in the family. Same thing applies to a team. Some managers think that by making their reports compete with each other productivity will increase. However, as a former member of such a group (luckily, I had only one such experience), I assure you that it does not increase productivity. It stresses out team members, since they are constantly competing to do better than the rest. This gives rise to selfishness and greed.
  • Be joyful—Smile a lot and laugh a lot (No, I don’t mean you to laugh for no reason or you will look like a crazy person 🙂 ). Be jovial with your team members. Show genuine happiness, if you feel it. This helps alleviate a lot of stress.
  • Show tough-love—Sometimes you need to show tough-love, and demand discipline from your team members. However, you need to first gain their trust and friendship before you can do that. Otherwise, you will be misinterpreted as being bossy. 🙂

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