Lisagor: Listen, care and engage

Leaders need to set clear objectives and inspire their employees

My favorite time to reflect on past business experiences is the 30-minute ferry ride to downtown Seattle to meet with clients. The gentle swaying of the boat as it navigates Puget Sound summons unfettered thoughts. Some, on rare occasions, are actually meaningful.

I remember how proud I was to participate in the space shuttle project in the early 1980s. That motivation helped me get through some tough work conditions.

Something else that made the experience worthwhile was my immediate supervisor. Bill resembled the Looney Tunes cartoon character Yosemite Sam, with leather cowboy boots, a broad-brimmed hat and a red handlebar moustache. I learned from Bill, one of my best managers, that having the power and authority to make things happen isn't the same as being a leader.

He knew how to set clear objectives, inspire his employees to care about those goals, acquire the necessary resources and then to leave us alone to excel. We followed him because he earned our trust, and not just because he carried a big stick.

History books are full of examples of authoritarian leaders. Although such behavior might be appropriate on the battlefield, it leaves a lot to be desired in most companies and government agencies.

Unfortunately, it is still prevalent in technical organizations, where competent specialists assume management responsibilities without leadership capacity or willingness to learn.

Common management philosophy would have us believe that leaders are not born but made. In general, I agree with this. But I also believe some people would be better off remaining on a technical track or in a supporting role. They are no better suited to take on an organizational management position than I am to be a professional athlete. Organizations do themselves a disservice when they only offer a management track as a promotion or salary increase.

True leaders can manifest their power and capability because their followers have the potential for greatness. Leaders should never become self-satisfied. They should continue to develop as human beings. By remaining students, they can teach instead of preach.

Everyone in an organization deserves respect and is capable of leading by example. In that sense, we are all equal and deserving of admiration and compassion.

Effective managers should care about their employees. Progressive leaders don't hide in their offices, expecting everyone to visit them while they sit on their thrones. Instead, they talk to their peers and employees to engage in meaningful discussions.

As managers, we need to nurture the next generation of capable leaders through our own enlightened behavior.

Lisagor founded Celerity Works in 1999 to help IT executives manage growth. He is program chairman for the FCW Events IT Summit in Seattle and the PM Summit in Washington, D.C. He lives on Bainbridge Island, Wash., and can be reached at lisagor@celerityworks.com.

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