Learning how to be a (good) leader can be a journey of a life-time. As something that can't be learned in theory but only in practice, it leaves a trail of marks and scars to remind one of all the past mistakes and ... other learnings :)

That's also the case for me - I do remember perfectly the history of my notable failures. I think I've mentioned my first huge leadership mistake almost "too many times": in the early stage of my career I was convinced that having clarity of vision (being self-convinced that I'm "right") gives me the mandate to tell others explicitly and authoritatively what to do and they will simply adhere. Some call it a "command and conquer" approach.

But I'm quite sure I didn't cover my second biggest leadership mistake (committed very soon after the first ...). And that's the omission Id like to fix today with this very blog post, so bear with me.

Topsy-turvy

Let's set up a proper context then: I've learned (the hard way) all the flaws of being too directive (imposing my will and telling people "what" instead of "why", so they could figure out "how"). And my idea to fix the prior approach was pretty much to turn it 100% upside-down by:

  • setting up the proper context (of where's the value to be gained or what precisely is the problem to be solved)
  • setting up the tangible, verifiable (and preferably - measurable) goals
  • being very clear not only about expectations but also about the ownership and the level of autonomy (granted) matching it
  • making sure that what I'd like to get done is aligned with the individual motivations and joint aspirations of the team
  • inspiring directly in the trenches and diving deep when (and only if) needed

In the shortest possible words: I expected that inspired, genuinely motivated people would find their way (as a team) to tackle the clear goals I've put ahead of them. Even the ones that involve significant organizational improvements or even a cultural shift.

Basically - I set the stage, clear the foreground to provide the space, and all the team has to do is to smash the problem hard and level the dust.

"Go, you smart people! That's the direction, figure out the rest!"

Surprisingly (to myself), I was wrong. I've learned very quickly that this approach still guarantees nothing (except regular disappointments). Trivial goals were not an issue, but once the team had to break their old patterns, introduce a deliberate change, raise the bar somehow, the chances of failure were rising dangerously.

What's the typical leadership reaction to that?

"Not enough motivation! Not sufficiently inspired! They obviously don't care! They need more fire in their eyes!"

Well. Sometimes it's true. But in surprisingly many cases - it is not.

Inspiration: a fuel or ...

The truth is, the teams fail even in organizations with strong, powerful, and effectiveness-oriented culture. But rarely because of the lack of goodwill. Or due to any wrong intentions. Inspired people who are "sold" to the idea (presented by their leader) honestly and obsessively want to get it implemented in practice.

Smart, even moderately ambitious people genuinely want to achieve.

Inspiration clearly boosts eagerness, but eagerness doesn't mean people have a clarity of HOW to tackle the problem, and they have enough organization skills or mid-/long-term willpower to do that.

So they fail.

Inspiration makes them keep trying and trying, but I agree with Naval Ravikant:

"Inspiration is perishable, act on it immediately."

Inspiration is a great catalyst, but when ineffective (there are no tangible results observed), it burns out pretty quickly.

By HOW (to tackle the problem), I don't mean the application of hard (technical) skills. It's the organizational execution that matters most. And in many cases, even amply motivated people lack the necessary combination of "the framework", discipline, guts, and imagination to have the sh*t done.

"The framework"?

How do I define "the framework"? A collection of handy "tools" a skilled crafts(wo)man works out for her/himself, through all the years of practicing the profession: mastered techniques, useful templates or patterns, acquired mental models, fruitful routines & behavioral patterns, recognized early-warning symptoms, familiar cause & effect sequences.

Or in others words:

The unique set of building blocks of every day's "getting the sh*t done", that is heavily customized for yourself, your abstract thinking model, intelligence, communication style, cognitive abilities, etc.

There are no two people with the same "framework", because those reflect our personalities too much. There may be a high degree of similarity (for people with the same educational background, shared inspirations or tutored by the same mentor), but there will be always differences.

Lack of a sufficiently developed "framework" means that people don't even know what they don't know. And that their unnamed problems don't only have standardized names, but also have been solved enough times to have generic, industrialized solutions ...

Developing "the framework"

"Frameworks" do not pop out of the blue. Good leaders work on a daily basis with their team members on shaping and tuning their "frameworks". Not by preaching the theory though - it would not be effective. They teach the heuristics by imposing them top-down w/o getting deep into complex conceptual aspects (like reasoning behind, etc.). The team members learn those intricacies empirically. The leader doesn't provide all the answers (quite the contrary!) but makes sure that her/his teammates face the right questions at the correct stage of their development.

If that reminds you of martial arts training, kata, and wuxia movies like "Drunken Master", bravo, you are 100% correct! Trainees busily work out automatisms they initially can't place in any big picture, eliminate past bad habits, build enough proficiency to make elementary activities natural. In time, the elements of the puzzle start "clicking together" - their dependencies, interactions don't only make more sense, but their synergies become visible, so the trainee can start making an advantage out of those.

Funny or not, that's more or less how a professional growth of new generations of software engineers should look alike. Instead of letting them figure out everything just by themselves ...

This road to mastery is known as Shuhari. It requires patience, proper graduation of challenges faced, a high level of awareness (from both the leader and the led one), and (at last but not least) very good control mechanisms (the leader's responsibility, of course).


But let's stop here for now - as the concept of a mechanism sounds like a topic for a totally separate blog post ...