There are courses you can go on to learn how to be a leader. I’ve been on a few, they’ve been pretty variable in the quality and usefulness. I think the one thing I remember most from one course is when the course leader said most people don’t know the difference between leadership and management. That leadership was about having a vision, being able to articulate that vision and taking people along with you on that journey. Management is the day to day supervision of work and people. I hope I treat the people I manage equally and fairly by treating them differently. Each one of them needs something different from me. But at the moment I want to think a bit more about leadership.
As someone said to me the other day after being on a leadership course “it’s difficult to teach leadership, it comes from experience”. I think this is definitely true. But for me there are many elements that come together to create leaders. Not that I have leadership all figured out. But, I think I’ve learnt a few things about it over the last couple of years.
For me leadership is also a mindset. It took me a long time to think of myself as a leader, I consider myself to have leadership skills.
For a lot of my life I thought of myself as a silent invisible person stealthily working in the background (both individually and part of a team). I think this was from a combination of personality traits and lack of confidence that made me think this way. I have worked with people in the past that told me I wouldn’t be a leader until I become less shy and less introverted. I know now that there is room for all sorts of personality types in leadership and there are different kinds of leadership. At some point I realized that despite often feeling uncomfortable putting myself forward, I was pushing myself to do it, constantly. Because I wanted to make things happen, I could see what was needed to make things better. If you want to make things happen, improve things, you can’t do it from the back, you’ve got to lead from front.
I think leadership is also a balance of being willing to put your opinions and expertise forward, but you have to be willing to debate. The GDS quote on this that really resonates with me is ‘strong opinions, loosely held’. I will fight for what I believe to be right, until someone has persuaded me otherwise or a compromise has been reached. I think you also have to be willing to say when you don’t know something. I’ve got no time for bullshit. There is a place for faking it til you make it in terms of confidence. But if you don’t know the answer, don’t pretend you do. I think User Researchers can be more comfortable saying I don’t know, but I’m going to work it out.
Leading from the front doesn’t mean keeping all the power, doing all the work yourself and taking all the glory. Great things are rarely accomplished by a single person. No one person has all the answers and great ideas. I have taken a lot of inspiration lately from this talk by David Marquet on greatness and leadership, about giving intent not instructions. Leadership is about the willingness to share ownership of issues and achievements. You can give direction when its need but also ask appropriate questions to help others find their own direction, that way you can learn from each other and you put the authority where the expertise and information is and better decisions will be made.
When you have a platform with people listening to you, that’s a real responsibility. Another part of sharing the power is that you need to share that platform, to let other people be heard. Encourage those who wouldn’t usually speak up to share. I always want to know what others think and I know there have been many times when I haven’t been confident enough to share, without encouragement. And I didn’t always get that encouragement, now I try to give to myself and others.
Another part of my learning curve in leadership has being comfortable asking other people to do stuff; the art of delegation. For me its not about not trusting others to do a good job, but the constant worry that I am overburdening people. I need to learn to trust that people will say no if its too much for them and they will ask for help if they need it. And I still need to learn to say no to important work when its too much and not the highest priority.
As user researchers we often have to persuade and lead our teams to focus on users needs and make difficult decisions based on the evidence we have gathered and the team need to trust we have done the right research to make effective decisions. We can do this through building trust and confidence within the team as a whole. Which is an easy thing to say, but not always to do. Trusting and respecting the people you work with is so important and we can all be leaders whether or not we have a leadership job title.