Chapter 1: What is Leadership, anyway?

(This is part 1 in a series of posts where I document my progress through reading Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach by Gerald Weinberg, answering the questions at the end of each chapter)

1. Observe someone you consider a leader.

“How is this person’s life different from yours? Which of these differences are a result of being a leader? Which of them are a cause of being a leader?”

The first three times I read this question, I tried to search my memories for true leadership from my own work history. Then I realized that my perspective is far too narrow.

I have an old friend who is a natural leader. He was clearly the alpha, but for the most part, he also made a point of caring about people around him. Back in the day I’d disagree with him over a lot of things, yet happily follow him most of the time. I think he also has a narcissistic streak – at the very least, from time to time he would obviously put his own agenda or ego before everything else. But then, he’d also be brutally honest about that side in his personality, which made it tolerable.

From what I hear, he has things pretty well in order these days. Family, kids, whatnot, whereas I’m still figuring out what and who I want to be. I think he’s always had an inner vision of what life for him should be. The differences between me and him are probably mostly the cause, not the effect, of him being a leader.

2. How would you expect your life to be better if you increased your leadership skills?

“Which of these improvements will arise from your changed behavior, and which from recognition of the changed behavior from other people?”

Increased confidence, I think, primarily. A self-image that isn’t in constant flux. This answer may be a bit misleading in that I don’t expect that to happen as a result of the things I need to change. Rather, that is the first thing that I need to change. If recognition from others will drive positive things, it will probably be a sort of a feedback loop. I don’t think any good change can come entirely from the outside.

3. How would your life change for the worse if your leadership skills increased?

“Will these changes be worth the rewards? How can you change, yet behave in such a way that these changes do not affect you so adversely?”

I tend to fluctuate between bouts of really low self-esteem and feeling like I’m the most important person in the world. Now, if the change improves my self-esteem, I’ll probably have a hard time keeping my ego in check. I’m hoping I can avoid the worst by keeping a keen eye on the mirror.

4. Make a list of situations in which your presence seems to increase the productivity of others.

“Alongside this list, identify situations in which your presence seems to decrease the productivity. How can you characterize the differences between these situations? (Fore example, increases in productivity might involve working with people you know well, or working on a problem that is new and different. Or perhaps just the reverse is true for you.) What do these lists tell you about yourself and the environments that empower you?”

Increase:

  • When I’m the most experienced programmer on the team
  • When I’m allowed to work as a free agent, researching the issues that are giving others grief.

Decrease:

  • When I’m the other party to a personality conflict. Arguing with someone instead of arguing for a case is very tiring. It drains me, and I’m sure it drains others as well.
  • When I manage to sidetrack another person, or even the whole team.

I tend to carve myself a niche where I get the warm glow of appreciation from people. Typically I stay well within my comfort zone, which is sort of a bummer, growth-wise.

5. Based on the two lists from the previous question, are you statistically an asset to groups, or a liability?

“Do you seek out situations in which your leadership will be positive, or do you more often look for situations in which you can learn to do better? Do you, in fact, learn from these situations, or do you just keep repeating yourself?”

I think I’m a net benefit, but then if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this, I guess.

A lot of the time it seems like projects start out promising really interesting learning opportunities, but end up being a bunch of boring grinding. Whether that’s due to unrealistic expectations, or learning the lessons quickly, or merely me being fickle is really hard to say – the jury is still out on that. Still, I feel like I’ve learned something on every project I’ve been on.

 

Next up: Chapter 2: Models of Leadership Style.

4 comments

  • “A lot of the time it seems like projects start out promising really interesting learning opportunities, but end up being a bunch of boring grinding. ”

    I get that a lot too. I think that it is so mainly because all cool new ideas are spent in first few weeks and then you need to use them which is mainly boring. And at least for me those cool new ideas do not solve all problems as I though they would and they also generate new ones.

    Then again I don’t really believe in learning without pain at least I have not witnessed anything like that ever 🙂

  • And yet, on some level, I’m fairly convinced that the painful, boring grinding is where the actual learning happens.

    Learning is change, and not just any change — it’s physical change to your brain. Of course it’s painful.

    (As I’m typing this, I’m listening to the guys of Stack Overflow talking about how failure is when you learn most. And failure is definitely painful.)

  • Hello Rytmis

    Seeing and looking someone you think is a leader is good enough to list skills, however you may have others better than the person observed.

    As you say you must be yourself. Leaders now are accepted by what they do and not by what they say that want to do. Prahalad said at HBR, and I think he is right, that leaders must care with people that are not as virtuous as they are.

    Leaders must learn every day, so they have something to give their followers. Leaders need to achieve and to have responsibility for success because is the only way to be respected.

    And Rythmis , definitely, failure is not when you learn most. We always forget our mistakes but we remember frequently our success in our conversation at home or with friends.

    José Baldaia

  • Of course, the exercise was not “pick the best leader to compare to”, but rather just “pick somebody” and contrast their traits and habits with my own. Also, the lists I’ve made aren’t comprehensive, rather, I’ve chosen the things that stand out when I think about them.

    I’ve just read “The Talent Code”, where the author posits that neurologically speaking, failure is key to deep practice, where learning a skill to the point where it can be called a talent happens. We practice, fail, then hone that failure away by even more focused practice. This builds the neural pathways that help us perform better each time.

    While I would definitely like to forget my failures, if you read my posts, you will probably note that I tend to pay a lot of attention to my failures. If you knew me personally, you would also know, that I like praise and success, but I’m the first to admit my own failings as well.

    In fact, saying that we don’t learn best from our failures by pointing out what we most like to do is a flawed argument. As an analogous example, I like watching TV over doing physical exercises, yet my brain and my body learn more when I’m exercising.

    As for learning every day, I couldn’t agree more. This is one of the reasons I’m keeping this journal.

    Thanks for commenting, by the way. 🙂

    Cheers!

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