A while back, I wrote here about how to become a thought leader within the larger MSP industry. But before you can take your leadership skills on the road, you first need to practice the art of leading your own company team in the most effective way. I’ve discussed leadership in a peripheral way, in the context of management models and business ethics, but this time I want to address what it takes to be a good leader and how effective leadership (or the lack thereof) can make or break your business.
You’ve probably heard the saying that “good leaders are made, not born.” But is it true? If you watch little kids on the playground, some seem to naturally want to take control and others seem content to go along with others’ ideas and suggestions. Are those “born instigators” that way because of genetic factors, early family dynamics or something else? As with all of human psychology, it’s likely that both nature and nurture play a role – but the good news is that even if you weren’t “born to be a leader,” leadership involves skills you can learn. And as with all skills, practice makes you better (though rarely perfect).
What defines a leader?
Some might say it’s one of those “I know it when I see it” things – but there are some specific characteristics that define a leader. At its simplest, leaders are individuals who are able to influence others to do something and/or influence them in how to do it. But by that definition, there’s a big difference between being a leader and being a good leader. Some people lead by a process of intimidation and aggression. Some lead by example. And some lead by manipulation.
Manipulation is another of those things that can be either good or bad. The first dictionary definition defines “manipulate” as “to manage or utilize skillfully.” However, the word has come to have a negative connotation as in the secondary meaning: “to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one’s purpose.”
Skillfully managing people is an important characteristic of a good leader. In fact, that skill can be even more important than your level of intelligence or your knowledge about a particular topic or field. A good leader might not know all the technical details of a product or service or process – but a good leader knows how to recruit and motivate the people who do have that in-depth knowledge, and trusts them to carry out their job responsibilities without micromanaging them.
Do things such as your height, weight, gender, age, race and other impossible or difficult to change physical characteristics affect your ability to lead? Some would point to statistics showing that tall people tend to be elected to leadership positions more often than short people, men more often than women, physically attractive people more often than the plain or odd-looking, etc. But is it really those physical traits that others look for when deciding to whom they’ll give their trust and respect? Biases certainly exist, but those “exceptions that prove the rule” also prove that there is something else at work here. There have been some physically unlikely but very effective leaders throughout history – Golda Meir, Napoleon Bonaparte, Margaret Thatcher, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Gates.
One of my favorite fictional examples of an unlikely leader is the character of “Hetty” on the CBS drama NCIS. Actress Linda Hunt is 67 years old, 4’9” tall and wears thick plastic-rimmed glasses – yet she commands the Los Angeles operational arm of the Naval Criminal Investigation Service and the respect of its agents.
Unlikely leaders demonstrate that personality, drive, “smarts” (both in terms of IQ and common sense) and other factors over which we do have control can overcome any perceived physical disadvantages. That includes physical disabilities; FDR led the free world from a wheel chair. Think it only happened back then because we didn’t have TV and video coverage and the Internet? State attorney general Gregg Abbott is a leading force in Texas politics today, despite the fact that he has been partially paralyzed for almost three decades.
Learning to Lead
It’s almost certain that you have some leadership qualities if you’re in a position to be running your MSP – but the best leaders are always learning and evolving into better leaders. In Part 2, we’ll examine some specific leadership techniques that will help you get your MSP through tough times, and give it the ability to fully blossom during good times.