Make space for leadership

Writing about leaders doesn’t make you a good leader, but on reflection, having the space to lead provided the opportunity to direct competently.

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On two occasions, over two days, two leadership demands were placed on me. On these two occasions, I was away from home and not working at my usual day job. Leadership is something that all of us have to provide at some point or another, whether as a family member, employee or employer, team member in an association or sports club. Leadership is unavoidable in life. Working as a leader is completely different to providing occasional leadership. On both of these two occasions, a rare thing happened - my leadership was effective.

Reflecting back, I realised that the reason for the success was distance, being removed from my employment. When the incidents arose - one was related to Covid-19, of course - being away from my role as a writer made all the difference. Without the distraction of penning an article on business topics such as AI in the Netherlands or summarising an interview with the CEO of a major vendor, as well as the demands to collate and write an eBook for a CIO looking to explain the impact of digital transformation to their organisation, I was able to be effective - rare for me as a leader.

Away from essential tasks, the ability to listen, to debate, top share experiences and empower others took place. Leadership requires space. If leadership is treated as a side-of-the-desk addition to the outcomes an employee has to carry out, or if leadership is added to the workload, then do not expect it to succeed. 

Throughout my career, I have been, at best, mediocre at leadership. The reason being, I couldn’t let go of the day job that had defined me - that of writing prose. Today is no different; my business relies on and is therefore defined by the output that titles, suppliers and business technology leaders commission. Yet when I stepped out of the office, travelled 325 kilometres north and left the deadlines, documents, research notes and laptop behind, I found an ability to listen and to listen in a different way. Not the listening to gain, whether a quote for a story or instructions for a ghostwriting commission, but to truly listen to what my team members were actually grappling with, to how my family members believed they should counter a challenge. All of which made me realise, what many of you hopefully already know, that leadership requires a difference in listening, space or place - difficult in these pandemic times.

Blessed with the opportunity to interview and therefore learn from excellent leaders of technology teams or technology service providers, it has become clear that the reason for their success is that leaders realise the role, the skills, and the craft is to lead. Effective leaders are always honing these skills, eager to learn or experiment with new methods. If they found their way to leadership through being promoted as great technologists or other skill sets, they have put these aside to lead and become a better leader. It is a bold step and one I have seen colleagues do and admire.

All too often, organisations promote a skilled professional into leadership, perhaps in a misguided belief that this will retain them in the organisation. Yes, individuals need to be challenged and given new opportunities. But it is more important to develop leaders out of those that exhibit the abilities of a leader. The risk to the organisation is that you unnecessarily create layers of middle management, increasingly unimportant strata to the business in today’s outcome-oriented and distributed enterprise, and deplete the skills base of the organisation.

Just as we need to look for the leadership abilities in our team members and foster them, so too must those with technical, analytical, artistic and production abilities be nurtured and celebrated. A challenge for business technology leaders in the near future will be to find rewards that retain and excite this cadre of people in your organisation, because their contribution is going to become ever more significant.

So, when asking team members to take on leadership responsibilities, ensure they have the space to be effective leaders. Encourage them to put aside other tasks, to embrace the opportunity to explore their nascent ability to empower others and give them space in their daily working lives to lead. Leadership is not a bolt-on, cannot be an additional burden, and has to be selfless, and seen as one of the most important elements of our organisations and society.