The leadership challenge - first the basics


I've had this idea in my head for some time now: to write about leadership. And it's not that I consider myself a leadership guru, but I think in my own story there is something of value to share about the challenges of leadership. From a programmer's heart with some talent - I'd like to think so - I went on to found and manage companies, entrepreneurship, and lead non-profit organizations. Unexpected considering that I had a deep passion for programming from a very young age and my career choice was, to say the least, extremely simple.

A little less than ten years ago I founded a consulting firm with my wife - I should clarify that she has always been in the lead and I, as expected, have always listened to her. With relative success we managed to get around the fact that neither of us knew anything about running a business.

However, life is not always as planned and after a couple of unexpected blows and some family and personal challenges, we redefined our dynamics. That is how a little more than 15 months ago I committed myself to the challenge of helping a British consulting firm land in Colombia.

I must admit that the challenge has been wonderful. Today we are a little more than 150 in the team and, even in a difficult year for the technology services industry, the company continues its strategy of growing its operation in Colombia, with a strong presence in Bogota, Medellin and Cali. Today we are immersed in the adventure of designing, building and opening our first own office. There are only great challenges and expectations for the future. Not bad for a programmer at heart who understood little or nothing about entrepreneurship, leadership and management challenges.

Unexpected path to leadership

Talking about leadership is complex because the theory doesn't work like the exact sciences - you read about mathematical addition and you can add with some exercises. You read about writing and you are free to write and rehearse what you learn. But to lead, you need followers. By definition, a leader is one who has followers. It's not like going to the supermarket and buying a dozen followers. People follow a leader in particular circumstances where it is possible for them to lead. It's like love, you can give it, but you can't demand it.

From programmer to chief operating officer

This idea of writing about leadership and the challenges associated with the leader's role I share from my personal background. In short, I am a family man, a lover of programming. Even to this day, when the opportunity arises - and I can contribute and not get in the way - I throw some code, deploy containers in the cloud and complete some command files to automate or simplify operation and monitoring tasks - long live infrastructure as code.

Far from being an expert or a computer genius, programming for me is like riding a bike, you never forget. You just have to practice from time to time. Surely there are new and more efficient methods to program or solve problems. In my case, it's not the language or the specific technology, but rather the ability to interpret the need, evaluate the available resources and put the puzzle together to solve the need or take advantage of the opportunity.

Teaching and learning more to teach

boy in gray sweater beside boy in gray and white plaid dress shirt

Early in my adult life, with the sole intention of broadening my social horizons, I started working at the university as a teaching assistant (class monitor) and even teaching some private classes to other students. Along the way, far from broadening my horizons and making new friends, I fell in love. I fell in love with depth and intensity, a passionate love, similar to the one I feel for programming, but more mature. I fell madly in love with teaching.

Even without completing my professional career, I started teaching classes and some private courses to companies. To date I have been teaching for more than 20 years and, as far as I know, I do it quite well - I leave it to the comments if anyone reading this article has something to share.

That unexpected mix of a programmer with a very technical profile and my desire to make others understand what I was trying to explain led me in my working life to quickly assume leadership and management positions. I took on roles as diverse as account manager, project manager, program manager, portfolio manager and the like - with perhaps more appealing names like Delivery Wizard or Project Magician.

What they don't tell you about leadership is that the better you get at it, the more complex the challenge. What's the point of using the best surgeon or the simplest procedure? It can happen, but you almost always look for a challenge to match the challenger. Someone once said to me: this project is like climbing Everest... but barefoot.

The decision to lead at the right time

Leadership is not something that is decided, like love, it just happens. When it comes, each person decides whether to accept or run away. He or she also decides whether to enjoy the process, or suffer it. With leadership an opportunity presents itself, the space that others grant is given and then you must decide whether to exercise or flee, remember that the leader only exists because there are people willing to follow him.

And I want to make it clear that I am not some kind of miracle worker and that I have never suffered defeat or accepted failure. Learning also comes in the form of mistakes and failures. It is not for nothing that John C. Maxwell named one of his famous books "Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn". Accepting the challenge of leadership also exposes us to failure.

Have you ever achieved something, reached a destination, or even failed thinking that you were lucky because of the team or the people who accompanied you? And maybe it is that, intangible, hard to quantify and harder to pinpoint that has me in an unexpected position, far from what I dreamed of when I was learning to program. Many times, with many people, I can say that the path, the walking together with them was marvelous.

Many challenges for the leader

Of course, to talk about the challenges of leadership, one can write about some basic things like the importance of having a vision, the essentials of knowing how to communicate, and many other critical soft skills. However, this article is about something simpler that we overlook. So let's talk about the challenge of leadership by looking at the role of the followers - in this case the team of people who are with you.

1. the challenge of playing as a team

If you have worked with programmers and people with a very technical profile, you know that we are not the best team players on the planet. Many of us enjoy working as individuals, away from others and the variability of human beings and their mood swings. I always share in my sessions that it must have been a programmer who invented noise-canceling headphones, and that group is surely a big part of the market in that industry - very close to musicians and audiophiles.

So the first big challenge of leadership is to accept that to go far you must work as a team and that getting there fast is not always the most important thing. I admit that I still struggle to balance my inner programmer with my role.

2. the challenge of energy consumption in leadership

When you are an engineer, like me, you are educated to do, to build, to lead by example. But leadership consumes energy. And leading by example is the shortest and most limited form of leadership. Leadership is, for many, inspiration and commitment, it is doing and showing others how to do, but they are not always the same. For example, in soccer, the best manager is not necessarily the one who was the best player. Nor does the leader have to be the best at everything, but must be good at bringing out and taking advantage of the best in others. Example is not necessarily doing.

I began by saying that leadership is the projection of the self. The most successful leadership is the natural and honest one. Successful leadership is where the leader is who he or she is and followers value him or her for that. That doesn't mean that all leaders are the same, or that there is a "right way to be." You'll find examples of leaders - and millions of followers - who put us to shame when we read history books. But that doesn't mean they weren't leaders and their followers didn't exist.

Leading requires energy. Unlike a position, leadership can be transferred and shared. Learning to share and distribute that energy consumption is not simple. Sometimes it competes with ego and the idea that leading is directing, commanding or doing. You must know yourself and learn what kind of leader you are or want to be.

3. the challenge of accepting that success is only possible thanks to others.

A leader is only successful because of others. It is the followers of a leader who build great companies, transform societies and move the world. Leaders inspire, motivate, and mobilize. But rarely do they also "do. We love famous leaders, people who appear on the covers of magazines, and we like to think that the success of those leaders is individual, that they are the ones who make the difference. Nothing could be further from the truth. Accepting that the real protagonism in the path of leadership always belongs to the team is a titanic task for the ego.

Nelson Mandela summed up this challenge very well in his famous phrase:

It's better to lead from behind and put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when good things happen. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate the leadership.

Nelson Mandela

The most complex aspect of leadership

I have no doubt that talking about leadership requires several articles and surely many books have been written. Should I write one? Is my journey worthy of being written and shared in a book? I don't know, maybe - I'm just finishing and rambling. But I admit that even today I still feel like a programmer, practice as a CEO and am passionate about teaching.

Leadership is something that happens through who you are. If you are a direct and strong-willed person, you will be perceived as a commanding leader. If, on the other hand, you are a friendly and approachable person, you will be perceived as a gentle and sometimes weak leader to some. Both leadership models have pros and cons. There is no one better than the other. In that sense we would talk about effectiveness: how effective is your leadership style in the particular situation in which you find yourself? could you modulate or adapt it?

Therein lies the most complex challenge of leading, to be a flexible and adaptable leader who understands what role to play at the right time. Appropriate that flexibility without abandoning your own nature, who you are and what you want for yourself and others.


Alberto Dominguez
Alberto Dominguez

Leading teams from theory to real and sustainable delivery of innovative IT products and services.

Articles: 44

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