What I've Learned About Leading

January 16, 2012

What does it take to be a good leader? What kind of leader do you want to follow? Throughout my life, I've gravitated toward leadership positions. Even when I was young, I tended to take charge of a group to achieve a goal or accomplish a mission ... though most of the "missions" in my younger days happened to be some sort of mischief. Having participated in the Boy Scouts and JROTC, I joined the Marine Corps where I served for seven years, and throughout my life, I've been fortunate to have more than my fair share of incredible mentors.

When my service in the Marine Corps concluded, I "enlisted" at SoftLayer as a data center technician. My primary responsibilities included building severs to order and installing software for our customers in four hours or less, and it was all pretty foreign to me. I had a lot to learn about the technical side of operating a data center, but based on my impression of the company, I was confident that I'd be in good hands.

Because I always find myself asking for more challenges and additional responsibility, I transitioned into a Customer Systems Administrator role. The CSA position required a lot more learning (at a breakneck pace), and in addition to the technical aspect of the job, I found myself learning just as much about the 'soft skills' required to provide the great customer service. Equipped with that knowledge (and a bit more experience), I pursued a leadership role on the team, and I made it my goal to use what I'd learned in the data center and in support to lead my team. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a challenge, but I've never backed down from one before.

I don't mean to make this post all about me ... my goal in sharing a little of my background is to give a little context for what I've learned about leadership. It goes without saying that I've been fortunate, both in the Marine Corps as well as with SoftLayer, to have some of the most intelligent, talented and sometimes downright enigmatic leaders. I've managed to pick up advice, tips and tricks for handling all of the curveballs that are thrown on a daily basis, and over my years as a leader, I've developed a few philosophies (an amalgam of some of the key points I absorbed from all of those who have led me in the past) that I try to abide by daily:

Lead by Example.

I make it a point to never ask someone to do something that I've never done or something that I'd never be willing to do. This is the keen avoidance of the "do as I say, not as I do" mentality. Failing to do this hands-down one of the easiest ways to lose your team.

Employ Your Team to Their Abilities. Empower Them to do Their Best Work.

It's very important to know your team's strengths and weaknesses and use those to make everyone better. Using the strengths of one team member, I can push another outside of his or her comfort zone to improve his or her overall skill set. I've also seen amazing results from providing freedom for my teams to make decisions. Not only does that freedom build trust, it also gives some real "ownership" to every person, and with that sense of ownership, each team member does better work. I've been a little surprised to notice this empowerment coming from the coffee juggernaut Starbucks: Starbucks baristas and store employees are encouraged to make real-time decisions in the interest of taking care of their customers.1

Keep Learning.

Leading a team requires that you stay on top of what they're doing. Always ask questions. Continue to research so you can be a resource for your team. Find opportunities to learn and take advantage of every one of them.

Most Importantly: Learn how to Have Fun.
I see this cliché often, so when you see, "Have Fun," I wouldn't be surprised if you just rolled your eyes. I'd be lying if I said that things were great all of the time ... Realistically in any business, there's going to be a time or two when the *&#@ is going to hit the fan. It's important to find opportunities to cut loose and relax a bit. Cooking steaks for the group during a long overnight shift, grabbing a bite after work or a providing a happy hour once in a while builds a great deal of cohesion outside the office walls. Providing a relaxed environment does not prevent your team from doing stressful work ... It actually builds camaraderie, and it will help the team get through those tough times. The brutal honesty is that if people aren't enjoying where they're at, they'll look elsewhere – leaders have to help foster an environment that enables success.

At the end of the day, these tips may not work for everyone. There are a plethora of studies out there pertaining to the different leadership styles, the different types of leaders and how they influence teams. What's important is that leaders need to be intentional about bettering their teams (and ultimately bettering their businesses).

Along the lines of continuous education, I'd love to hear the leadership philosophies you've learned in your experience as a leader. Leave a comment on this article to share what you think has made you successful.

-Matthew

1This comes from both observation and talking to current and past employees. I've never worked for Starbucks, so I can't cite a specific company policy to back this up, but that evident organic culture is probably worth more than a million company policies that would try to create that culture.