The words both start with L-E-A, but can leadership really be learned?
As a consultant, I have the pleasure and challenge to work with a variety of different teams. I am a team of one, but I collaborate with agency teams (such as Happy Cog, whom I’m working with on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum project), internal client teams, freelance designers and developers.
Sometimes I’m brought in by an executive on the client side. Sometimes I’m brought in by an agency who has already won the client. Sometimes I’m brought in by a consultant to the client, who is helping them to build a team.
Almost every time, it’s incredibly unclear who’s leading.
I mention Happy Cog above because I fall over myself with excitement every time I get to work with them. Not just because they’re some of the most talented, most professional, most revered people working on the web today — but because everyone’s role is crystal clear, and every team member can point to the project lead in under 3 seconds. Not only that, every team member respects the project lead and follows their lead. It is in NO way a dictatorship, but it is also not a sociocracy — “a system of governance using consent-based decision.” It’s a meritocracy, where the lead becomes the lead because he demonstrates that he can lead, and that he’s willing to.
It’s a deep honor to work with these people, and have the opportunity to do things right, and well. But at the same time, it has made me acutely aware of the leadership problems that I have faced on almost all of my other projects.
Since I am always brought in as a consultant, I am never the true project lead because it is ultimately not my responsibility to implement the solution and integrate it into the business. One day I would very much like it to be, but that’s simply not the case right now. While I do currently get to lead almost all of the user experience phases of these projects, I still have an overall project lead that I report into — and in order for my work to be successful and impactful, the leader has to possess some pretty specific qualities.
My expectations for a leader are:
- To set clear goals, and to continually articulate them in written and verbal form to the team
- To motivate the team to believe in their vision
- To recognize and nurture the expertise that each person on the team brings to the project
- To assign actionable tasks with measurable results
- To express their appreciation for the contribution that each team member makes
- To be decisive and confident
- To ask team members for their input on key issues, but to always take responsibility for making final decisions
- To stay calm
- To ask for help when they need it
- To put the needs of people above the needs of things
I very rarely come across people who possess these qualities, and who take pride in not just what they do, but how they do it. I’ve been spoiled by working with Happy Cog, and I worry that I’ll have a really hard time working with people who don’t meet these expectations.
Part of my responsibility as a consultant is to clearly and respectfully communicate to my clients what I need from them in order to be successful. But I have to ask myself: Can leadership be learned? If it can, do I have the authority and chutzpah to express my expectations to the person who’s supposed to be my leader, or should I simply use this list as a rubric against which I evaluate potential projects and working teams?
I’m sharing my thoughts with you as I’m going through a period of discovery, so not all of this is entirely clear in my mind. I would love your honesty and guidance in helping me thinking through some of these issues.
Thanks in advance for your advice and understanding.