IT leadership: 3 lessons in failure, (im)patience, and teamwork

Becoming a transformational leader takes commitment and plenty of practice. Consider these valuable lessons in effective leadership
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Becoming a leader of a team or an organization isn’t something you simply wake up and do. It’s an evolution. It starts with “leading” yourself and driving yourself to make an impact toward a mission – toward something bigger than yourself. It takes relentless focus and passion.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years – sometimes by doing it right, sometimes by doing it wrong. Here are three that I keep coming back to.

1. Don't obsess over your last shot

“Fail fast” is a phrase you hear a lot in tech. You will fail often – my list of failures far exceeds my list of successes. But when you miss a shot, don’t dwell on it. Obsessing about the last shot is not what champions do. They iterate quickly. They practice. And they define success as the team winning.

Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Group, told me recently, “You’ve got to create an environment where it’s okay to take some risks, it’s okay to experiment. You do not have to be worried that you’re going to lose your bonus or lose your job because something got screwed up.”

At DataStax, we use data and instincts to make thoughtful decisions quickly. Then we let new data help us iterate along the way. The fear of failure should never get in the way of execution.

2. Balance patience and impatience

Some research has found that impatient leaders are more effective than patient leaders. They are better innovators, motivators, and champions of change. On the other hand, leaders with patience are better at building and maintaining relationships, which is another crucial part of being a successful leader.

[ Want more advice on fostering a stronger culture? Read IT leadership: 3 ways to enable continuous improvement. ] 

recently spoke with Aref Matin, CTO at John Wiley & Sons, who said that transforming a business can be a lot harder from a process and people perspective than it is to modernize technology. Aref, like many leaders, had to learn when to be patient, especially because different people evolve in their roles at different paces.

“We just need to be patient, more than I have liked in the past, in some cases. But it’s been worth the effort because once you look at the transformational changes that come about, it’s like a beautiful painting,” he said. “Everything comes together quite nicely, technology parts are working, processes are modified and optimized, users are much happier.”

Our lives, both work and personal, are a balance of patience and impatience. I spend time each morning thinking about the forest (big picture), instead of the trees (Slack, email). This helps me figure out what’s going well, what needs improvement, and where to take immediate action.

At the end of the day, priorities are driven by addressing and serving the needs of your customers.

3. Master the no-look pass

A big part of leadership is bringing together a diverse set of people to work together on the mission and ultimately win.

In most team sports (can you tell I like sports?), it’s no different: It usually comes down to one player giving another team member the opportunity to score. The same can be applied in the workplace. One of the keys to winning is perfecting the “no-look pass.”

Here’s how to do it:

  • Hire world-class leaders that know how to play their positions really well. World-class doesn’t require having many years of experience. You can be phenomenal at what you do with just three years of experience.
  • Practice together – a lot. You should know everyone’s strengths and developmental areas, and how to make the most of them.
  • Define success by the team winning. It’s not about the individual player stats, it’s all about winning as a team.

The “no-look pass” is something I talk about a lot. Sometimes we do it well, sometimes we don’t – but we’re always learning. We are focused on mastering our style of play, not anybody else’s. The faster you perfect your game, the more successful the company and the mission will be.

The road to transformational leadership requires personal connection to a mission, deep commitment to change, a lot of failure, some patience (and impatience), and teamwork. No two paths are the same and no two leaders are the same. But I truly believe we can all learn from each other.

[ Are you telling the right story? Learn when it's time to try a new approach: 4 styles of decision-making: A leader’s guide ]

Chet Kapoor is Chairman and CEO of DataStax. He is a proven leader and innovator in the tech industry with more than 20 years in leadership at innovative software and cloud companies, including Google, IBM, BEA Systems, WebMethods, and NeXT.

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