What does it mean to be a leader?


As a child I felt really alone and misunderstood. As I grew up I gravitated to those things that let me work alone. I never understood the managers or leaders or coaches. I considered these people totally useless, and perhaps even worse – like parasites.

All these people did was get in my way. They did not DO anything. I never wanted to be a leader or a manager or a coach, just leave me alone to do my thing. I was actually able to do things.

This shifted for me in my last job in consulting. I worked at a really fantastic although completely homogenous consulting company – I was one of two or three women out of 150 consultants – not to mention race, gender and sexual orientation diversity. However, most of the people there were incredibly intelligent and accomplished. They like me, after a career of running things, they just wanted to just be left alone to do their thing.

I had a midlife crisis (I may still be having one). I did not want to run anything – I just wanted to be alone and do my technical thing. In the software world -we call this an individual contributor/IC. So I did that – at this wonderful consulting company.

What I found was that I could sit there and do my technical thing BUT SADLY the overall project would be a dumpster fire. This was bad for me in two respects:

  1. if my projects kept failing then no one would hire the company and I would be out of a job
  2. it was unpleasant for me personally to work on projects that were failing

Why were there dumpster fires? I noticed that the technical directors I worked with were:

  1. unable to pick the correct items to work on
  2. stay focused and make progress on those items
  3. have their team contributing meaningfully to forward progress
  4. communicate that progress to the client

I did not want to work on any more dumpster fire projects – so I decided to go back into management. I am really good at this.I think my secret skill is that I know what is important to work on.

How do you develop this skill? I think it is a type of wisdom. Through practice and intention. Your intention has to be – I want to build something that people happily use. Believe it or not this is often not the intention when working on technical projects (even for myself).

When I was technical directing projects – it felt really good. It felt good to see this progress, to see that clients understood this progress.

What is management vs leadership? I read an HBR article that said management is the ability to manage complexity and leadership is the ability to manage change. I was engaged in a management role – I was managing complexity.

I moved into a new position at a different company about 6 months ago. I offered my skills at managing complexity and optimizing systems but people did not care really about this. I wondered what was I going to do? Change… organizations these days are constantly changing. I think this is what it means to be post modern. You can never be the same as you were yesterday, your organization cannot be the same as it was yesterday.

How do you manage this change? You lead.

What does it mean to lead? You collect yourself in integrity and start steering the ship. It can be a small dingy of one or a massive ocean liner. But the leader is just looking into the wind not back at the passengers.