What it takes to lead

Photo by Dennis Skley.

I had just started a company with a partner and we'd hired our first employees. We were young; to us, being employers was uncharted territory—almost a lark. Then one of our new hires announced he had just signed a mortgage. My partner and I stared at each other in the stabbing recognition that people were depending on our little company—on us—for their financial well-being. Like it or not, our people were looking to us to lead them.

What does it mean to lead? Simply, it means getting people to commit to you. People don't commit to companies, projects or even causes: They commit to leaders. And that can be scary.

Be prepared to have followers

To be a leader, you need to be prepared to have followers. If that panics you, then either forgo leadership, or take a deep breath and plunge in. But before you do so, here are three questions. I don’t intend these to be a test of your suitability to lead, but more a set of the attitudes you need to succeed: Those that differentiate a leader from a boss.

1) Do you look forward to being in charge, to have others ready to obey?

If so, think again. Leadership is not command: It's inspiration. For example, if there is a decision to be made, a leader will assign it to someone on the team and be prepared to accept that person's decision, the purpose being to help the team member grow. A boss will never yield that control.

2) Do you relish the entitlements of leadership?

If so, think again. Leadership is not being honoured, it's honouring. If there’s a major report that has to be copied for a presentation tomorrow and the clerical staff have gone home, a leader will operate the photocopier; a boss will pull one of his minions off important work to do the job.

3) Are you driven by the priorities of others?

If so, think again. Leadership is not responding to the world, it's shaping it. If a superior demands unfairly that someone be disciplined, a leader will refuse to do so; a boss will comply.

You may conclude from this that I favour leaders and denigrate bosses. You’d be wrong: Both are necessary. The real balancing act is knowing when to lead and when to control. Leaders focus on the people; bosses focus on the work; great managers focus on both.

About the author

Jolyon Hallows, CMC, has more than 35 years’ experience in information technology, particularly in managing, developing and troubleshooting complex and high-visibility systems applications. Mr. Hallows is the author of two books on project management—Information Systems Project Management (first and second editions) and The Project Management Office Toolkit. He is an instructor at numerous seminars and is active in the project management industry, both locally and internationally.

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