an invisible leader
John C. Maxwell
Leading highly skilled people is not a difficult task, but a leader must recognise the fact that they will not always be the smartest person in the room. In fact, most of the time the team will have a much deeper knowledge of the contents of the work and a leaders task will remain to simply be there to guide the team.
In order to succeed in leading a specialist team the leader should consider themselves a servant rather than the boss. Team members will quickly recognise the fact that the boss does not always understand the work topics in depth and for a leader it can be challenging to still be able to have them see the value of your work. Obviously, this can’t always be the case and at its worst the team may even look down on their boss. Therefore a leader should always have a bit of a thick skin and be able to ignore the downplay they might experience.
As a part of my research for this essay I interviewed Minna-Liisa Vesanen, a former R&D director at NOKIA. Much of what I talk about in this text is inspired by our conversation and based on her knowledge and experience. Vesanen emphasised the importance of acting as guidance to the rest of the team and remembered herself sometimes feeling even painfully aware of how little she knew about the actual topic. In a lot of situations though this may even turn out to be a positive when it comes to taking the team forward. Specialists tend to easily fall so in love with what they are working on that they want to dig deeper and deeper into the topic or widen the scope of their work too much. In this situation a leaders job is to offer a more objective standpoint and to help clarify the targets for the team. By doing this a leader will help their team stay focused and protect them from the outside noise and problems of the rest of the organisation.
Specialist usually work best in a highly flexible work setup. They may get their best ideas or solutions for different problems at hand completely outside of office hours. Therefore, a good leader makes sure the work is organised in a way that specialist can thrive. This means up to date tools, flexible working hours and the freedom to experiment. The later one especially, the freedom to experiment can often be a big challenge for a team given that experiment, realistically also leads to failures.
John C. Maxwell’s book Failing forward (2007) came up in our conversation for it is one many leaders could learn a lot from. In his book Maxwell talks about how a significant difference between average people and highly successful people is their view of and response to failure. Even though the book is more about individuals this can easily be applied to teams too. Failure should be seen as something positive, a sign of effort and a change to learn. When a leader is able to create an organisational culture that embraces failure, their team members will genuinely have the space to thrive and develop.
Often specialists will want to learn and grow constantly. They get excited when new technologies, tools or methods become available but then also easily bored if their work does not offer challenges. A leader must be there to challenge them and on the other hand keep people from getting too excited and carried away. When a team is working on something the individuals are highly passionate about it’s easy to get distracted and stray from a path that is suitable for the success of the whole company or organisation. In order for specialist not to get too creative the leader must make the rules very visible and discuss the implications of breaking the rules clearly. A team that has all of this – the clear boundaries, a lot of creative freedom and a culture that embraces failure is one that every leader should strive to have.
When the work is done it is time to celebrate success. Importance of celebration is something many leaders may underestimate. When done right, celebrating is not only a great way to lift team spirits but also motivate individuals in their work. An excellent leader in specialist organisation will always point out the actual success stories of the period and the people behind them. By making their accomplishments visible to everybody in the team a leader can show that the great effort is truly appreciated which motivates others too. In corporations those who made the biggest successes should always also be compensated with bonuses they have earned since words of affirmation only go so far.
In conclusion, a leader should help the team stay on course and reward those who have done well. They should strive to support individuals creativeness in the work and create a space that welcomes growth through failure. They should be there to listen to their team and to provide them with the tools they need to succeed. To be a great leader often means to be a comparatively invisible part of the team.