Experts like Harvard's Bill George will tell you leaders aren't necessarily born or made. They may genetically have some of the right personality traits, which are then forged in crucibles -- in great fiery tests that help transform individuals and their careers.
Often, these crucibles represent failures, as we learn best from our mistakes. Show me someone who has never failed, and I'll show you someone who has never gotten out of their comfort zone. That's not a leader.
Leaders aren't necessarily the smartest people in the room. While George himself was CEO of Medtronics, they say most US presidents are mere C+ students (there are exceptions in both parties). Leaders are more likely to be the captains of the high school football team or the head cheerleader than president of the chess or rocketry club.
That's because leadership is about social skills. We develop these skills through (analog) social interaction with others -- not by burying our heads in code. Thus, smart people who mind their business and do their own work are at a natural disadvantage.
[Don't do it like this. Read 8 Ways to Fail at DevOps.]
Popular people typically cut across social circles and develop advanced people skills at a fairly early age -- such as the ability to convince people to do things they don't really want to do. Studies show women make better leaders than men because their social interactions are much more highly developed.
Yet, research shows the first women to win leadership roles are typically trusted because they act more like their male role models. This gives men a less accurate sense of female potential in business, though some of these early women leaders have proven exceptional.
Comedians have long joked that when two men disagree, one will punch the other out, and then buy the loser a beer. But, when two women disagree, one will give the other an eating disorder that will last a lifetime. These are, of course, vicious stereotypes.
Men do start most wars. It's also a stereotype that technical people cannot lead. Bill Gates was a member of a programming club in high school and Mark Zuckerberg a member of his school's fencing club. Both were first to see beyond the present market to where things were headed.
That's what IT leaders do. It's what all leaders do.
Experts tell us there are several stages of leadership transformation. These include the development of a sense of "we" that replaces the "I," putting the focus on team before ego.
In keeping with this, leaders learn to value intrinsic rewards, like the pride of accomplishment, over extrinsic rewards like a Lamborghini. Observing the sorts of vehicles on the roads of Silicon Valley tells you much about the level of true leadership in the region.
Not every leader goes through a fire test. Yet, a crisis situation that forces you out of your comfort zone to manage an emergency based on your authentic values (what George calls your "true north") is a great proving ground for future leaders, according to a number of academic authors and their studies.
Your crisis situation could be a stint in middle management -- in which strategy, culture, process, and vision are directly at loggerheads. Or, it could be some childhood trauma that forced you to grow up quickly, such as the early loss of a parent, as we saw with President Bill Clinton.
If you're willing to get out of your comfort zone and take control based on your own set of values, you will learn to lead with both authenticity and consistency. Of course, not every leader succeeds, and not everyone who succeeds is a leader. Luck plays a big role in history.
If you want to succeed, there are things you can do at any stage in your career to prepare for a leadership role should the stars later align for you.
What do we mean by stars aligning? Here's an example. Dwight Eisenhower graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1915. By most accounts, he was a great leader. He also was fortunate to be a member of a class in which a record 36% of graduates would become generals and earn their star insignia. He went on to become America's first five-star general.
Why was Eisenhower's class called the class that the stars fell on? Probably because these people caught World War I as a learning crucible, and came of age in time to play a major role in World War II. Political leaders like President Woodrow Wilson saw World War I as "the war to end all wars," while, for foresighted generals, it represented what, in current corporate vernacular, would be called a "stretch op."
How does all of this translate to you in your day-to-day duties as an IT professional? Here are four tips to keep in mind as you look to advance your career:
- Don't fear failure. Are you working in an environment in which failure is permitted? If not, it might be time to consider a new job.
- Get out of your comfort zone. Are you someone who prefers to stay in your comfort zone? That's ok, if you're not interested in moving ahead in your career. But if you are looking to take a path toward leadership, it's time to step out of that zone and try something new. It can be as simple as volunteering to work on a new project outside your wheelhouse, or making a point to meet a new person in your organization each week to learn more about how your business operates.
- Examine your social skills. Consider how you interact with others. Does your behavior skirt any of the stereotypes outlined above? Does it reflect your true, authentic self? Do you behave at work as the person you really are, or as the person you think your colleagues want to see?
- What motivates you? If you're focused on the "I" and looking to advance simply for material gain, it's certainly your right to choose that path. But if you want to be a leader who becomes a force of change in your organization, it's time to let go of the "I" and think about the "we." Look for ways to engage, educate, and encourage your teammates, and evaluate your personal goals to determine whether they align with leadership traits such as pride of accomplishment and altruistic intent.
Leaders can be made -- if you have the right tools at your disposal and are willing to cultivate the skills and mindset required. What's your IT leadership journey? What are your career goals? Share your experiences in the comments section below.