In my opinion, the most important functions a leader fulfills is to protect and provide. There are many ways in which a leader can do those, and I will first explore how a leader can protect people, the team, and the company.
Note: This is part of a series sharing my thoughts on leadership. Read the introduction here.
As I mentioned in my article on trust, I enjoy attempting to distill a complicated topic to the simplest terms I feel still capture its essence. In considering all of the many important functions a leader performs, I settled on categorizing them in just two groups: protect and provide.
As a reminder, when I speak of a leader, I do not refer just to those with positional authority. Anyone can be a leader, as illustrated by this definition from Niel Nickolaisen, our CIO at O.C. Tanner:
A leader is someone others choose to follow
When I think of an archetypal leader, an images that jumps to mind comes from warfare. I think of the leader as the person who is out in front, inspiring the troops to follow and rally to a cause. In that sense, the leader is literally protecting people, whether those that immediately follow, or those who live in increased safety because of the leader’s actions.
Of course, leadership does not necessarily require conflict, and certainly does not require bloodshed. Protecting can take many forms. There are three that I want to consider:
As with almost everything that is work-related, leadership is primarily a personal matter. When we seek to protect others, we need to first see them as people, and focus on their individual needs. There is great opportunity for us to learn about the people who have already chosen, or who we hope will choose, to follow us.
One way in which we protect people is to ensure safety for them. This can take many forms, especially in the workplace, one of which is psychological. Anxiety is a natural response to a fear stimulus. If coming to work, or attending a meeting, or submitting code, or engaging with a certain person has the likelihood or potential to result in danger, our stress response will kick in. When we live in a constant, or even frequent, state of heightened tension like this, our health and productivity will sharply decline.
We need to create environments where people feel safe and secure. When they are able to let go of that fear response, their mental energies can be put to better and more productive use. When people feel free to speak up and share their thoughts, or to take risks and try new things, we unlock potential that is not accessible in any other way.
While I have made a point of emphasizing that a leader can be anyone, my current role is a manager of a small team of software engineers. Because of that, much of my focus around leadership is from the perspective of a manager. When I think about what a leader of a team can do to protect them, the first thing that comes to my mind is shielding them to be able to focus. Deep work is a concept that I consider crucial, particularly for individual contributors, such as the programmers on my team.
So much of what we can do for our teams is to protect them from distraction or from undue outside influence. My experience is in the realm of software, and I have seen that people outside of the team often want to step in and push for certain features to be built. As a leader, we need to help our teams resist the urge to chase the new and the shiny. Much of that work comes in preventing direct access to our team members. Most people, especially developers, have an innate desire to please others and solve problems, and presented with the opportunity, will jump at the chance.
Another area in which teams often face pressure is in timelines or deadlines. Part of the challenge here is that the people who apply this pressure are typically in positions of authority. If the culture of an organization is unhealthy, a manager may not have the ability to protect the team. Hopefully, as leaders we can find ways to shape the environment so that our team can work without fear that they will be forced to release before they feel ready.
Especially as a manager, but also as any kind of leader, we have the responsibility to protect the interests of the organization in addition to protecting the people and the team. One of the main ways in which we seek to strike this balance is through discipline. As with some of the other topics we have explored, there are multiple facets to consider.
Naturally, one aspect of this is the disciplinary action or conversations that a manager is required to handle. For those leaders who are not in positions of people management, disciplinary action may not be of the official variety, but they still can exert influence in ways to help others grow and improve. This kind of discipline can be challenging to administer, and requires a willingness to hold difficult conversations. In this way, we protect the company from possible negative consequences of poor performance or other issues.
Additionally, we protect the company by defining and executing a process with discipline. This requires personal discipline, as well as the ability to lead and inspire others to stay focused in their execution as well. As we work to instill professionalism in others, and help them stay connected to the objectives of the organization, we protect the company’s interests and ensure that, at least in our area of influence, things will continue to move forward.
There are so many more things that could be said about the role of a leader to protect, but I am going to stop here. While this is not a comprehensive summary of everything that a leader needs to do, I feel that it is a helpful distillation of one half of the most important functions.
In my next article in my series on leadership, I will explore the other half of a leader’s role: to provide.