Leading a technical organization is dangerous work. Every week there are literally hundreds of small decisions that must be made without full comprehension of the associated risks or benefits. Each one of these decisions could lead your team down the path to success or failure. Oh, and everyone on your team has a different opinion. That makes decision making very hard, and if we are honest, scary.
Yet leadership is not about decisions. Trying to lead solely through decisions is a recipe for failure, no matter how good they are. Effective decision making is simply management, but leadership is so much more.
Leaders want the ball
In college I played intramurals for my fraternity in every sport I could. I spent a lot of time on the ‘B’ teams, and later leading on our executive council. I loved it all. In that fraternity I learned about leadership firsthand, and it started on the intramural fields.
In the sports I was confident in, I wanted the ball. I wanted to be the one who had the last shot, or who sparked the final goal. I wanted to lead the team, to influence victory. In those sports we saw good victories over the years, and I loved every one of them.
But in the sports I was not good at, I hung back. I passed the ball quickly, I looked to sub out at the end of a close game. It wasn’t cowardice exactly, but it was close. I knew the decisive moment was near, and I didn’t trust myself with it. Victory in those moments did not feel good, but instead, like relief.
As the years went on and my influence in the fraternity grew, I saw the same thing with my fellow officers. The good ones wanted to lead. They wanted the ball. As I got older and took on more serious positions, I started to want the ball, too.
When our biggest decisions came about, the same pattern emerged, and our best leaders stepped up. And in time, they helped others step up. When the biggest decision of my time in school came around, it was my best friend and I who stepped up and led our chapter to the right decision, one which has benefited us every year since.
When I left school the fraternity was in much better shape than when I arrived. It wasn’t me—it was those around me. We had great leaders, and they helped everyone grow. The stakes weren’t as big as they are for me now, and the current decisions are certainly more complex, but the truth remains: leaders want the ball.
Effective leaders build culture
In soccer, the jersey number 10 is sacred. Number 10 is the playmaker, he sparks the great plays. Number 10 is who you want on the ball when the clock goes past 90 minutes. Number 10 scores some goals himself, sure, but Number 10’s value is his ability to rack up the assists.
The technical leader should be the team’s Number 10. They should rack up the assists. They set the team up to win, and do it by building a winning culture.
If you reflect on your time on technical teams, both effective and otherwise, I bet you notice a simple pattern: teams evolve in the image of their leaders. The values and goals of the leader directly set the tone for the team. What the leader recognizes and rewards, the team produces more of. More importantly, the choices a leader makes, their team emulates.
Good leaders want to influence their teams. Good leaders want to model the right behaviors and set a winning tone for their team. Bad leaders simply want to manage the status quo, and eek out a little bit of a performance gain. Good leaders build culture, bad leaders make excuses why the culture can’t change.
Next time the big decision comes down the line, don’t just make a choice—lead. Bet on your team. Bet on your people. Have the courage to want the ball.
In the end, don’t manage. Lead.
Management presides over bureaucracy. Leadership empowers people.
Management dictates policy. Leadership expects cooperation and accountability.
Management enshrines standardization. Leadership models flexibility.
Management trusts process. Leadership trusts people.
Managers pass the buck. Leaders want the ball.