Often, I find myself thinking about the differences between leadership and management. As a programmer, I have an unique perspective this topic since my job deals chiefly in an abstract world. All day, everyday, I think about made up things. I name things. I find the subtly between ideas. I organize complex information. I analyze and contrast perspectives. Moreover, software is notoriously hard to manage. Between unmet deadlines and the fact that it’s knowledge work rather than physical work makes for loads confusion. I’ve been running a small consultancy for four years and writing software for eighteen. All of this, I think, gives me confidence in my perspective.
Before we can talk about the properties of leadership and management we should start by defining them. We can always change our view of these terms but it’s useful to start with a shared understanding.
Management — the act of taking orders (from leaders, peers, and subordinates) and harmonizing them with real-world constraints so that we may move forward together.
Leadership — the act of giving orders in the form of values then practices which lead to expectations and finally enforcement.
Any organization that seeks to be excellent at anything will have a strong vision of their values. They will enforcement them. They will teach them. They will make their decisions based on them. These are not mere words and wishful thinking, no, these are real. They are humans bringing to the pass their vision of the world.
That’s what we all need: vision. A vision for our life. A vision for our work. A vision for our relationships. It’s needed everywhere which is why it’s of the utmost importance to get in the drivers seat.
Let’s get practical — a step by step guide
- Given your purpose, determine your values. Not your companies values. Not your co-workers values. Not your CEO’s values. Your values. I don’t mean values like health, wealth, and wisdom. These are too generic and not directed at anything specific. If you want to be a better leader at work, start with what kind of work you do. What does a great X company look like to you? What does it feel like to work there? Ask yourself loads of questions. This step is the most valuable. Go slow. Be focused. Most importantly, actually do it! Start by making a list. Writing it down is key. Maybe even draw them out, paint them out, talk to your friends about them. Make this process colorful. Also, these values should be timeless and relatable.
- Set expectations. How do these values translate into action? If they involve other people, what do you expect from them? What do you expect from yourself? Setting expectations is how you create the contract between yourself and others. It’s how people know if they are doing a good job. It’s how you learn where the problems are. It’s how you learn more about your values. I once had a boss who would define the what but never the how. It was a nice way to work. I knew how to succeed in that environment. I think expectations generally lead to some kind of process. Personally, I’d recommend a light yet clear process. Too many rules makes for a dry, demotivating environment. Only have expectations that you would appreciate living under.
- Get everyone on board. Have a discussion with your people. Explain your values and expectations. Make it an open floor discussion where your values and expectations may be challenged. Explain why you believe what you believe. Describe the benefits of living in your world. Help people believe in what you’re doing. If you can’t get buy-in, then it’s time for you to opt-out of that job / role. You must be able to bring your vision to bear on the world. It’s what makes us great. Do not sacrifice your greatness and creativity.
- Courage. This is the tricky step for many managers. To lead is to ask. You must ask of people. You must ask of yourself. You must say, don’t do X, do Y. Courage must be called on when your superiors violate the values / expectation. You must be willing to confront people even yourself. You must call everyone to task. You must be willing to walk away. You must be willing to fight the good fight. It’s that important. More often than not, saying yes is easy but saying no takes courage. Obviously, saying yes can be just as hard.
Your Mission (trademark you)
The end result should be a blueprint for why and how you do X. You can take it anywhere with you. If you work in software like me, you can take it to your next job. You can share it. You can discuss it. It should be a real thing. A system to live by. I’m unsure if there is a more important thing you can do in terms of making an impact.
People can follow a mission. People can live with expectations. What people cannot handle are the ever changing expectations. People cannot respect a leader with no spine. People want to be inspired. People want to be lead. Who wants the burden of leading everything? We have each other for that. Support the people in your life by being a great leader. That starts with knowing what you believe and actually doing it.
Think with insight. Act with compassion. Lead with courage.