I really love dealing with people. I come from a culture which highly prizes human interaction and communication skills. But I also love technical work, and this tends to attract people who prefer to work alone. In this article I want to discuss my progression through different styles of management and leadership throughout my life.
I was a high-performance athlete in my teens. I rowed, typically in 8’s and 4’s. My crew was good enough to compete internationally and was the third best crew in the UK in our age-group. (Note: Ireland is not part of the UK. It was highly unusual that we were competing there.)
I was team captain and also the person sitting in the stroke position. This is the one who everybody else follows (you sit facing backwards in rowing). This means that I set the tempo and controlled most of the race strategy.
My crew were young and skittish. I found that they would panic and lose the race if things went wrong. So I set out to deliberately break them down and then build them up until they would follow me blindly. This worked a dream until the day I was injured. They came last in the Irish championships despite being by far the fastest crew on the course.
In Ireland we have a lot of student organised university societies. There are societies for each of the major language groups, for juggling, for debate. You get the picture.
Since I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome during my period at National University of Ireland, Galway I found that I needed to nurse my energy carefully. So I frequently found ways to run the societies by committee rather than putting in the hard work myself. I often found a student who was particularly interested in running specific events and I enabled them to do so as part of the society. The other technique I learned in this period was to start things off with my own efforts, but then to organise a team to fulfill the tasks, and finally to withdraw while supporting things so that the project wouldn’t completely fall apart once I was gone.
In academia I was first exposed to and later tried out two very different modes of leadership. One was charisma-driven and the other relied on ‘logic’ or ‘being right’.
The charisma approach was not my favourite way to work with people but it does bring some minor benefits. Both my PhD supervisor and my postdoc employer employed charisma, in very different ways, to get their way on projects. I saw that it saved them incredible amounts of time. Rather than needing to convince people they basically just manipulated the people into doing what they wanted instead. I guess that I did learn the basics. A little bit of charisma can get you a long way. Nobody says you have to misuse the skill.
Being logical and correct is highly prized in academic circles. In my experience it is not always as honoured as people claim. That said, I certainly (naively) adopted the logical correctness approach during my time in academia, particularly each time that I worked in Germany. From what I can see only incredibly smart and self-secure people are happy to work with you in this mode. It is better avoided.
Startups are relatively open to the ‘being right’ approach initially. Since being right is the only way to make progress. But once things are running it is better not to piss people off.
I learned a deep and intrinsic sense for alignment of interests through my startup career. I love the physical feeling (in my chest) when I am negotiating with a partner and we find a new way of looking at our common problem and the difficulties just dissolve away. Nothing beats this feeling and I seem to be particularly good at seeking it out.
Leading teams I have typically adopted an approach where I lead by Vision. I link this Vision to an achievable Technical Roadmap. And, I align this vision-roadmap to the personal career goals of my individual team members. It is a lot of fun and people who have worked for me seem to appreciate it.
What about sitting back and just being a good person? I have always appreciated the mature elder-statesmen who seem to rarely react, they don’t put in huge efforts to lead their teams, but their interventions – though minimal – lead to spiraling positive effects.