8 counterintuitive leadership tips

Business and IT leaders share an example of how they’ve turned their backs on conventional leadership advice - for the better
649 readers like this.

Leadership advice is everywhere. From quippy inspirational quotes on Twitter, to countless conference presentations and volumes of books, everyone seems to have an opinion on how to be the perfect leader. But of course, the advice may fail in action - and even if it does work, your mileage results will vary.

In fact, following conventional wisdom to the letter can be detrimental to leaders, especially in IT, where technology changes the rules on a near constant basis.

[ How do your people skills measure up? Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

We asked business and IT leaders to share an example of how they’ve turned their backs on time-worn advice and re-written their own leadership rules. Read on for their advice, and consider how it may – or may not – work for you.

Self-doubt can be a good thing

Sanjay Malhotra, CTO, Clearbridge Mobile: "We live in a society preaching the dogma of self-confidence. Society tells us we can accomplish anything as long as we don’t doubt the idea of infinite personal potential: But in reality, stupid never doubts itself. I argue that as leaders, we need to be able to evaluate ourselves accurately and that it’s an essential skill to practice appropriate levels of self-criticism. Use self-doubt to your advantage.

Self-confidence is important. Self-confidence is a stimulus for action, but self-doubt gives us cause to prepare. There are countless situations from my career where I wasn’t confident, but having self-awareness of my lack of confidence forced me to over-prepare. Doubt is an influential tool; it prompts us to examine what we really want and what we’re capable of. Doubt shows us when we need to ask for help, and most of the time, doubt is the reason we create our best work.

Confidence gets us going, but to be truly successful, leaders need to be able to feel the fear of failure, experience inadequacy, and channel those feelings into the decisions that create growth and improvement."

Servant leadership can go too far

"We had the balance wrong. I think we’ve now got it wrong the other way.”

Antony Edwards, COO, Eggplant: “Over the last 20 years, there’s been a lot of communication around ‘the up-side-down organization,’ ‘the servant leader,’ and the ‘self-organizing team.’ The core points of these principles make a lot of sense, especially in the context of overly hierarchical organizations. But I do think we now have the opposite problem. Most first-time managers I encounter act almost as assistants to their team and forget that part of their responsibility is to lead.

We need to realize that it’s individual contributors that deliver everything in organizations and that a critical part of a manager’s role is to ensure they have what they need to be successful. We need to respect the opinions and needs of the experts. But I’ve seen so many teams paralyzed by indecision, so many teams that say they don’t know what the vision is, so many teams with key interpersonal issues that are not getting resolved, and in these cases, you often find a manager who is scared of taking the lead.

The skill of good management is knowing when to support, when to coordinate, when to facilitate, and when to take the lead. We had the balance wrong. I think we’ve now got it wrong the other way.”

Sometimes you should throw out the playbook

Mike Kelly, CIO, Red Hat: "When you're in a leadership role, there are many factors you need to take into consideration when making decisions. Data, experience, and advice from your colleagues all play a critical role. But, sometimes you really have to follow your gut instinct on topics you feel passionate about, despite what the leadership playbook says." 

"For example, there may be situations when hiring someone without all the job qualifications is the best decision and fit for your team. Or working in a way that isn't by-the-book agile delivers the results you need. Knowing when to follow your gut – knowing full well the consequences and the reward – is key."

[ Some people get confused about Agile vs. DevOps. We break it down: Read Agile vs. DevOps: What’s the difference? ]

Stay out of the nitty-gritty of every problem

Abbas Faiq, CIO, PTC: "When it comes to issue resolution, people say the ‘devil is in the details.’ But I find that if you really understand the 60,000-foot view, you are better off staying at that level rather than going into details. Consider this: you might have 10 different problems occurring simultaneously. As a leader, you don't have time to get into the details of every problem. You have to react quickly. If you deeply understand the 60,000-foot view, you can have an intelligent conversation with your subject-matter experts who know the nitty-gritty details. This will enable you to cover more ground while keeping the whole team focused on the big picture."

Failure isn't just OK: It's necessary

"Business leaders cannot have the words ‘should have’ in their vocabulary."

Robert Reeves, CTO, Datical: “When building a minimum viable product (MVP), IT must impress upon business leaders that failure is necessary to improve. The entire point of building an MVP is to find out what you don’t know. IT must have an open dialogue with business leaders about how everyone is going to learn and improve. Prepare them for failure, and make certain that IT delivers on that improvement. Business leaders cannot have the words ‘should have’ in their vocabulary. Hindsight is 20/20. If not, you create a culture where IT will not take risks to find a clever solution. You will find IT mired in ‘analysis paralysis’ and not delivering at the rate they would prefer to."

[ Read also: Minimum Viable Product disconnect: How to avoid a dangerous trap by Robert Reeves. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.