Leadership, is it in you?

One issue that I often see in technology organizations, whether it’s in an internal IT department or an entire company focused on technology, is a lack of leadership. The common situation is this: a ninja programmer gets a promotion to manager because they are fantastic at doing their job. Now, their job has nothing to do with managing people, processes, timeliness or creating vision. They’re good at writing code. A very technical, analytical and often solitary task. So the ninja programmer accepts the job because  A. pay is better and B. they’ve reached the ceiling in their organization and the only advancement is into management. So they take the job and shortly afterwards they encounter small issues with their subordinates. Not having any training in management or leadership the ninja programmer is confrontational with their subordinates, often times embarrassing them publicly. The ninja starts looking at his subordinate’s work and finds it not up to his ninja standards. So he bluntly tells his employees that their work sucks and not very ninja. These confrontations and the lack of tact by the ninja demoralizes the team and they start missing deadlines. Then the attrition starts. One programmer leaves, then another. The ninja dismisses it by saying they’re not good enough to work for the ninja. During this time the ninja starts spending less time with his team and more time doing what he loves, writing code. The team is completely dismayed at the situation and starts to complain to upper management about the lack of leadership. This leads to a huge problem for upper management: get rid of the ninja and his awesome coding skills or keep the ninja and have everyone be unhappy. The fact of the matter is that everyone is unhappy. The team is upset with the ninja, the ninja hates his new found responsibilities and upper management has to make a tough decision.

Of course this all could have been averted. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for promoting from within and giving people a shot at more responsibility but only when they’re ready. I’m of the philosophy that leadership responsibility should be given when individuals have a propensity towards leadership and they have shown an interest in leadership. It is a shame that in most organizations that there isn’t a technical path where people can continue to grow technically. I understand in most companies this isn’t feasible. We need to keep the ninja happy and most times that means keeping them in a technical position absent of leadership duties.

So what can we as leaders do? First of all, we need to identify individuals that show promise as leaders. Seek them out and hire them. Then we need to mentor them. Show them how we do our jobs and how we handle certain situations. Give them a glimpse of what it’s like to sit behind our desk. Finally, we need to give them leadership tasks. Start them off small with a simple project. Build them up with increasingly difficult tasks. We should be watching in the wings, giving them feedback and ensuring that they do not fail. We need to be their biggest cheerleader praising them publicly but admonishing them privately. Take the blame for their failures but let them take the credit for their successes. Before you know it your young leader will be ready to fly on their own. When that happens, get out of the way and let them soar.