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In this story, I want to provide an overview of the key characteristics of excellent technology leaders who can survive and thrive even in the most critical situations to deliver outstanding business results, keep their team members sane, make their stakeholders happy, and delight their customers.
My aim is to provide a practical guide to aspiring digital transformation entrepreneurs for startup companies and intrapreneurs working in large business organisations.
The context of the leadership in this story is related to new technology business, transformational environments, and enterprise modernisation initiatives. However, these traits might also apply to leaders in other domains.
My views in this story reflect my 37 years of experience working with hundreds of technology leaders and my extensive research in the field. To keep this article at a reasonable size, I extracted, simplified, and summarised my recorded observations as part of my studies in technology leadership domain.
There are other leadership characteristics as well; however, these points which highlighted in the article make over 80% of the impact on the success of technology leaders in rapidly changing corporate transformational initiatives and enterprise modernisation engagements.
Let me give you a quick overview of these key points reflecting leadership excellence.
Leadership start with a vision
Vision is a metaphorical term referring to our mental picture of the future. We develop our ideas for future events and outcomes which establish our vision. Leadership in any area requires having a vision. More importantly, articulating the vision and influencing the followers for a specific vision are the essential traits of technology leaders.
It is the vision which attracts the people towards their leaders. Team members need to have confidence in their leaders’ vision to reach common goals. Leaders’ vision inspires the followers to work for them more efficiently and support them wholeheartedly. It is the meaning added by the magic of vision set by the leaders. We need “visionary leaders” for creative and innovative endeavours. These leaders are known for their visionary traits.
Leadership vision needs to display the values, beliefs, and culture of the organisation. Leaders’ vision brings team members together; hence, they work for the same goals. Without a well-communicated and clearly understood vision, people get lost in complicated process and procedures. Vision sharpens the team members’ focus and empowers them to work in the same direction.
Leaders focus on excellence, not perfection
Excellence may mean different things to different people. Excellence in this scope refers to having or demonstrating outstanding quality for the leaders for making a noticeable impact on other people, especially on the followers of these leaders. The outstanding quality comprises the leader’s knowledge, skills, experience, expertise, and personality traits.
There may be a potential misconception that excellence means perfection. It does not. We need to clarify that excellence and perfection are not the same things. Perfection ironically can be a deterrent to excellence. Those who aim for perfection, as a side effect, can face procrastination and unnecessary effort to achieve so-called perfection, which is usually not realistic. Perfection is difficult to attain, almost impossible human endeavour. The cost of perfection is prohibitive and undesirable. There is even a term coined in the corporate world called “gold-plating”. This term refers to perfection efforts, which results in no financial gains.
Even though some may pursue of perfection in their endeavour, it is not possible to reach consensus for an understanding of perfection. Since we are individuals and all have different filters in our minds, we see perfection differently. For example, an outcome which may be classified as perfect for one person may not necessarily be considered as perfect by another. Different value judgements may have different implications for recognition of perfection.
Leaders tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity
Tolerance to uncertainty and ambiguity is a well understood and accepted leadership attribute. Leaders deal with future outcomes. They make the future. However, the future is unknown to us as humans, as outcomes are affected by a myriad of causes beyond the control of people. Therefore, uncertainty is a reality to deal with future events.
Uncertainty is a closely related term to risk management. Taking risk is one of the necessities and most fundamental characteristics of leaders for success. As mentioned in my previous articles, risk and opportunity are like inseparable yin and yang. We can even simplify at the most basic level that no risk, no opportunity. Leaders know that opportunities are created by taking risks. They take calculated risks using logic and intuition and mitigate them to be able to deal with uncertainty in a systematic way. They learn from past failures and use these learnings to mitigate risks.
Dealing with uncertainties and ambiguities creates new options and choices leading to innovation. Having more options to choose and linking those options in a creative, intelligent, and the integrated way can create new transformational solutions. To this end, the transformational goals, that excellent leaders strive, require tolerance to uncertainty and ambiguity. They take calculated risks to create opportunities leading to desired digital transformation outcomes.
Leaders are emotionally intelligent
Dealing with people and leading teams require robust emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EQ) requires awareness and management of one’s own emotions and understanding others’ emotions too. Those leaders with high EQ can handle interpersonal relationships more effectively and with empathy.
Empathy and compassion for others have a magical impact on the leaders and their followers. This natural human need is genuine and experienced in all social settings. We can communicate better by using empathy for the others whether they are our peers, superiors or subordinates. Consideration of other’s unique circumstances with empathy can open the communication channels for leaders.
Emotional intelligence also makes the leaders more self-aware with their fluctuating moods, changing emotions, and drives. This self-awareness makes a tremendous difference when dealing with people. Once they are aware of their moods and emotions, they can take appropriate actions for their communication and interactions with others. Self-awareness also helps with self-regulation. They can make better decisions by delaying their gratifying urges for immediate responses, which may not necessarily serve to their best interest at the times when they are experiencing low moods and debilitating negative emotions.
Leaders are mindful at all times
Mindfulness is a widely researched and well-understood topic for all kinds of leaders. Mindfulness applies to technology leaders, too, and they can benefit from mindful approaches. Arguably technology leaders may need mindfulness more than any other type of leaders due to the additional stresses they have in their lives and rapidly changing complex work environments. Mindfulness enables technology leaders to become emotionally intelligent. Emotionally intelligent and mindful leaders demonstrate empathy, compassion, and acceptance. Mindful leaders behave confidently and develop healthy work relationships.
Mindful leaders can cope with massive stress caused by hectic workplaces, volatile business situations, and ever-changing technologies effectively. Their unflappable attitudes can be inspirational and make them role models in coping with stress in their teams. Mindful leaders also develop strong intuitions due to clarity they generate in their minds.
As mindfulness improves one’s attention, the mindful leaders can also be more productive and creative by focusing on the things that matter for their goals and plans. By using mindfulness, these leaders eliminate distractions and sharpen their mental power for essential matters to achieve their aspirations and transformational goals for their organisations.
Leaders take personal responsibility
Taking personal responsibility in all walks of life is a virtue for all humans. This foundational human attribute is a particular empowering capability for the technology leaders. Taking personal responsibility and being accountable for the situations we create, we can leave better impressions on other people. This positive disposition creates a trust for our integrity.
As opposed to taking responsibility, complaining about situations and blaming others and circumstances for undesirable outcomes create a negative atmosphere in workplaces. Blame removes the power and replaces it with weakness. Blame, whatever the circumstances are, creates an undesirable situation in the workplace as no one enjoys taking the blame even if they are on the wrong side of the fence.
Excellent leaders are aware of the implications of blaming and complaining; hence, they always take personal responsibility for their actions, emotions and results they produce. These leaders also encourage everyone in their teams to do so. The corporate culture shifts to a pleasant situation when people in these teams take personal responsibility for their actions. People become more responsive and transparent. A culture of trust is built. People act with integrity. Because of these empowering benefits of taking personal responsibility at work, technology leaders can perform better and produce outstanding results for their transformational goals with these culturally transformed people.
Leaders are action-orientation
Knowledge and skills without action do not produce any desired outcome in the workplace. Excellent leaders are aware of this well-known fact; consequently, they are action-oriented. Excellent leaders prioritise their tasks and act immediately based on their priorities. They don’t like delaying necessary actions. They dislike procrastination unless something in their list is shallow value, low priority, have other dependencies, and have an extended time to complete.
Actions are taken using practical tools and processes in the workplace. Using a quick phone call rather than writing a long email can be more effective in acting for a priority matter. Sometimes making multiple phone calls with different stakeholders, bringing them in the same room with a clear agenda for a short time can help resolution of complicated matters much more effectively. These practical action-oriented techniques are well known and used by these leaders.
Sometimes acting for complicated matters can be a daunting task for the team members. These technology leaders can help the team members to deconstruct the enormous tasks to smaller components and deal with each piece in priority order. Besides, excellent leaders check the progress actively, encourage people to keep going with their actions, and they do regular follow-ups to ensure they succeed at all times. Excellent leaders are not only action-oriented by themselves, but they also enable others to become action-oriented by facilitating the activities, making the approach easier, clearing the hurdles, and providing a clear vision.
Leaders are socially intelligent
Social intelligence, related to emotional intelligence, knowing about one’s self and the dynamics of other people around us. Interacting with people and feeling comfortable with many personalities is a core requirement of social intelligence. Excellent leaders are socially intelligent people. They participate in social situations and enable other people to engage with others socially in the workplace.
Some necessary social skills for excellent leaders are listening to others authentically, being emphatic, responding genuinely, sharing thoughts openly, and influencing them to realise their goals. Excellent leaders bring people together for an event to celebrate an occasion, to share some typical past times and have pleasant conversations on points of interests for the team members.
Social intelligence not only happens face to face but also on the phone and through online media such as social forums internal and external to the organisations. These online forums also require social intelligence to take benefit of communication and shared goals. There are some ethical and moral dilemmas involved in social situations, especially in online forums. As it is in the face to face social situations, politeness and courtesy are also vital principles to survive and thrive in social media.
Leaders are resourceful
Resourcefulness applies to maintain current good progress for the things working well, resolve ongoing issues for problematic areas, and create insights and new opportunities for growth. A resourceful technology leader can find creative ways to maintain working functions, deal with stressful situations, overcome challenges using well-formulated tactics, and at the same time have a strategic view for the growth, new insights, and generating new revenues.
Resourcefulness is closely related to leaders’ knowledge, skills, capabilities, traits, and experiences in a broad spectrum of services and business models in organisations leading towards digital transformations. Some individual leadership characteristics, such as being mindful, energetic, uplifting, passionate, having emotional intelligence in dealing with people, having social intelligence, applying design thinking techniques to visualise the goals, and many other such attributes can increase resourcefulness.
Resourceful technology leaders are capable of understanding the current situation, having a vision for the future state, articulating the needs to all stakeholders, and developing a pathway to reach the target state effectively using the talented team members who are following them. To this end for resourcefulness, excellent technology leaders are scarce resources and talents that organisations are aiming at technological transitions and digital transformation goals.
Leaders prioritise based on the importance
Priority management, as opposed to time management, is a well-understood necessity for leaders. Excellent technology leaders manage their priorities rather than their time. Priority management is focusing on essential tasks which make a real difference for desired outcomes. Focusing on things that matter, avoiding distractions, removing roadblocks, creating enablers are fundamental characteristics of leaders to set the prioritisation for the digital transformation.
Excellent leaders don’t complain about too much to do in too little time as they primarily focus on their priorities. Setting priorities, switching priorities and shuffling between priorities are the primary focus of their day to day work engagements for themselves and their followers. They ask whether something is essential to do now, or can it wait. They take immediate actions to resolve an issue, to create a plan, to help a team member. By using this systematic action-oriented approach, nothing important accumulates; hence, they prevent any time management concerns.
Another essential technique they use to manage their priorities is to be able to delegate necessary actions to the right people in smart ways. The smart delegation not only allows them to free their times for other more critical duties but also it empowers the talented team members to engage and grow by undertaking additional duties and tasks.
Leaders aim to reach consensus
The consensus is an arrangement bringing all parties to an agreement for discussion of a topic, a matter or a problem to be solved. Consensus brings all parties on the same page and creates a win-win situation for all stakeholders. Excellent technology leaders are aware of this essential social necessity to create social productivity at work.
Reaching consensus for a large group of people requires exceptional communication skills, respect to other’s viewpoints, meaningful negotiations, pointing out blind spots respectfully, using precise definitions, articulation of details even more structurally and methodically, and providing logical representations of situations.
The excellent leaders employ various techniques to reach consensus. They can clarify rules of engagement for all parties, operating models in the organisation or departments, and underlying processes and procedures. Using these simple yet essential techniques when needed, can help the team members to reach consensus effectively on any circumstance and situation.
Leaders are effective communicators
Excellent technology leaders are effective communicators. Effective communication is an inevitable aspect of leading people, dealing with situations effectively, and setting the strategies for transformations.
Effective communication requires unbiased listening, understanding others’ point of views and conveying the message to the point in the right context. Clarity is one of the critical enablers of effective communication. Using the right words in the right context, refraining from jargons and ambiguous words are essential to effective communication.
Excellent leaders articulate the situations; however, they do not just trust the power of their communication, but they also find ways to validate the understanding of other people. More importantly, they follow up with team members and other stakeholders, whether the message is understood, and appropriate actions are taken and in place.
Leaders are quick learners
Learning is a lifelong process. Excellent technology leaders are self-learners in formal and informal settings. They already gained discipline from years of formal learning from schools and other formal learning environments. They also interact with people regularly and participate in informal learning activities.
Every situation creates a learning opportunity for these leaders. Excellent technology leaders learn new situations quickly in the right context. They adjust themselves to the situations based on their capability to learn quickly, respond intelligently, and follow up efficiently.
In addition to learning, these excellent leaders are also great teachers. They pass their messages clearly and enable their followers to learn quickly. They use multiple senses and ways to convey their messages as they know that people have a different style of learning. More specifically, they try multiple senses such as visual, audio, and tactile.
Leaders are quiet achievers
Excellent technology leaders are known as quiet achievers. The term quite in this context is that they don’t highlight their achievement and success overtly. Most of the time, they leave it to others to recognise and appreciate them rather than self-promoting their cases.
There may be a misconception about quiet achievers that they are introverts and may not talk much. Being introvert or extrovert is not directly related to this context. For example, quiet achievers may like listening more than talking. However, this doesn’t mean that they are silent all the time. They only talk when needed with precision, context, brevity and impact.
Paradoxically there are extravert types of quiet achievers who don’t like small talks but can do fantastic outstanding presentations such as public speaking for the points that they are passionate. They are confident to raise their hands to ask essential questions when needed in prominent public forums. However, they do not dominate or bog down conversations with their agendas.
Leaders inspire others to think and change
Leaders can make followers think in the right direction. They don’t tell them what to do, how to do something, and when to do things, but they inspire them to think productively using various supportive techniques. Active listening and asking probing questions can help others think more clearly and effectively.
It is a subtle skill to make other people think. It is like the proverbial ‘you can force a horse to a river but cannot make him drink’. This approach requires psychological knowledge and skilful refinement through years of working with people at various levels. Making other people think in the desired direction requires extensive psychological understanding.
As mentioned in earlier sections, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and mindfulness are three of the necessary capabilities to inspire other people to think effectively. Paying attention to people’s current moods, body language, tone of voice and other clues from their conversations, excellent leaders can steer conversations in healthier and productive ways.
This inspirational skill of excellent leaders can be useful for the team members during the problem-solving, performing complex analysis, making assessments, and critical decisions. Providing them with some clues, asking interesting questions, encouraging their thoughts, showing interest in what they were saying are useful techniques.
Leaders are influential
Leaders focus on the influence rather than power to cultivate creativity, make an impact on their goals, and desired outcomes. One of the primary influence areas for excellent technology leaders is related to the self-efficacy of team members. These leaders know that self-efficacy for their followers make a tremendous impact on the followers’ performance, which can affect productivity positively in the workplace.
Influence requires several leadership characteristics and capabilities. One of the primary characteristics is building trust with people. Trust is believed to open all communication channels in the workplace. We open ourselves and show our authentic self to trusted leaders. Establishing the right trust is not easy, and it takes considerable time. These leaders focus on creating trust with their team members.
Other essential attributes of creating an influence on others are the consistency, reliability and principle centeredness of the leaders. Excellent technology leaders pay special attention to their behaviour to be consistent and aligned with the organisation’s culture. They depict reliability by keeping their promises, acting reasonably, behaving assertively, and treating people fairly.
Leaders are principle-centred
Principles are essential factors in all walks of life. Principles are fundamental truth and value propositions for systems, reasons, and behaviour. In my understanding, principle centeredness means to look at things based on truth. We set our principles and consistently adhere to them.
We accept principles as determining truth for our conversations, actions, and interactions. It is useless to argue against principles because they are based on truth. We cannot change the truth whatever the cogent argument is posed. It is an essential duty for the technology leaders to utilise established principles to influence their team members to reach their transformational goals.
Followers respect principle-centred leaders. These types of leaders reflect trust, reliability and integrity. Principle-centred leaders behave ethically in all circumstances. They are transparent to the outside world. Their inner truth is reflected in their external actions and interactions. They don’t compromise their integrity even when they face the direst situations.
Leaders are change catalyst
Being a catalyst means to cause an intentional change. This change can be for an event, a project, an initiative, or behaviour of people. Excellent technology leaders are change agents. They embrace change and influence others to change for their common goals.
These leaders create a meaningful sense of urgency to change people to better versions and situations to better conditions. They create compelling reasons which people cannot ignore and naturally collaborate to change.
Digital transformation initiatives certainly require leaders as catalysts for constant change. Excellent technology leaders are ideal people who drive this frenetic change as a catalyst. They are the catalyst for every piece of change, modification, iterations, and transitional activities comprising the overall transformation initiative.
Leaders are self-aware and self-confident
Self-awareness is knowing one’s capabilities and limitations. Self-awareness is also related to the term self-confidence. Self-aware leaders naturally have self-confidence. These two interrelated terms are essential characteristics of excellent leaders. The vital attributes of leaders are reflected in their day to day interactions with others.
One manifestation of this is that self-confident leaders take more calculated risks to create better opportunities. Self-aware and self-confident leaders connect better with other people. Since they are confident, their communication styles are noticeably bright and articulate. They are optimistic people, and they focus on good things to happen.
Self-confident leaders have a positive image of themselves. They also influence other people to be confident with them. They have self-assurance and self-esteem. These terms are all interrelated reflecting positive characteristics of excellent leaders.
Leaders are energetic
Life is based on energy. Our energy is the fuel for us to survive and thrive in this world. Physical, mental and emotional energy is essential for leaders to shine. They know how to energise themselves at the right dose and right times. Their noticeable energy also inspires other people to gain energy to achieve their goals.
Excellent leaders exude positive emotions. Their positive emotions, especially passion and enthusiasm, are critical success factors to influence their followers and the people around them.
Energetic leaders are distinguishable in all walks of life. They deserve respect. They are influential and convincing for their passion points. Excellent technology leaders can create a sense of excitement for even the most mundane things in life by showing the interesting aspects stemming from their witty and bright minds.
Without energy, leaders have the risk of depicting lethargy. Lack of energy is the most undesirable situation for technology leaders. To this end, these leaders need to be mindful to look after themselves and balance their life to gain the required amount of energy to be successful in their endeavours.
Leaders can deal with distractions
Distractions are undesirable situations. They affect our productivity. Excellent leaders focus on their priorities and are capable of avoiding distractions. They recognise the distractions, especially hidden ones, and don’t waste their energy on them.
Focusing on priorities naturally lowers the impact of distractions. Surrounded by technological devices may generate a considerable amount of distractions. Social media create substantial distractions. It is reported that a considerable percentage of workers use Facebook or other social media tools at work.
There are several other factors creating distractions in the workplace. For example, people’s unreasonable demands may create distractions. Activities which have no value for the specific goals may create distractions. Leaders are aware of these types of distractions and stay away from these distractions and keep the team members focused on priority matters.
Leaders are reliable, trusted, and have integrity
Trust is essential for human interactions. We only deal with people with trust. If we don’t trust a person, we stay away and keep our distance. No communication occurs when trust does not exist. Trust is essential in the workplace.
Trust opens the doors, but when there is no trust, nothing happens. Excellent leaders build trust on purpose using their multiple leadership and interpersonal skills. Their actions demonstrate trust. They refrain from action which may break the trust.
One of the vital enablers of trust is integrity. Excellent technology leaders create trust based on integrity. Trust and integrity are fundamental human traits which apply to all walks of life. Trust and integrity are crucial for leadership, especially in complex digital transformation initiatives.
Leaders are transparent and open
Being transparent means not having surprises, secret agendas in the relationships and having clarity of thoughts for all parties. Technology leaders are open about their thoughts, views, ideas, vision, goals, and objectives. These leaders openly share their goals with their teams and people around them in an inclusive way.
Openness also includes respecting other’s views and opinions and embrace diversity in a team. They ensure that no one in their teams is discriminated or distanced based on their age, race, sex, look and other human traits.
They even encourage opposing views shared with respect. Embracing opposing views on things can be very useful for igniting creativity and innovation. Encouraging people out of the box and awarding them for the alternatives they generate for innovation.
Leaders show modesty, humility, and vulnerability
No one likes arrogant people; this is especially more important for leaders. People respect modest and humble leaders. Modest leaders take criticism as feedback, and they don’t tend to punish who criticise them.
Modest leaders admit their mistakes with humility and open vulnerability without self-degrade. They embrace new ideas and don’t resist their views as being superior to others. They refrain from dominating the conversations and discussion sessions.
Modesty, humility, and vulnerability attract followers towards leaders. People feel at ease when they are around modest and humble leaders. They know that their views and opinions can be taken seriously without being judged. Corporate cultures built on modesty and humility have stronger team relationships.
Interestingly, people find modest leaders as charismatic. People are attracted to modest leaders. Followers of these leaders feel comfortable around modest leaders. They open themselves with no fear or concern. They even find it as a therapeutic activity. This friendly and pleasant atmosphere created by modesty has a tremendous effect on productivity and success especially attracting a diverse set of views and ideas.
Leaders are charismatic
We can define charisma as compelling attractiveness that can inspire devotion in leaders. Sometimes small things in life can generate attractiveness, which leads to charisma; for example, a genuine smile, a simple handshake, calling people with their names, correctly pronouncing foreign names are few to mention here.
In general, charismatic leaders are effective communicators — people like listening to them and follow them with passion. They hardly question their credibility as people are mesmerised by their gentle attitudes, engaging conversations and other pleasant characteristics.
Many attributes we pointed earlier, such as modesty, vision, persuasion, have a tremendous impact on creating charisma. Even though in general charisma is a personal thing, some aspects of it can be acquired and learned by following critical attributes of leadership. Two significant contributors to charisma can be emotional and social intelligence and mindfulness. Especially empathy aspect of mindfulness makes a significant impact on people.
Leaders have a growth mindset
Our mindset reveals our personality. Mindset can be defined as a set of assumptions and beliefs one hold as their world view or personal trait. As a distinguished researcher, Carol Dweck, pointed out, people primarily have either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. There are, of course, different mindsets in between reflecting different attributes of people.
Excellent technology leaders naturally have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. Leaders with a growth mindset are more resilient in life, more motivated, can deal with situations more effectively, develop better relationships, communicate more clearly, hence achieve better results.
These leaders have a desired transformational mindset to shift their organisations to better consumer experience, cleaner data, reliable infrastructure, well-functioning systems, secure environment, gaining insights, speed to market, and more transformational goals.
Thank you for reading my perspectives.
I hope this story provides you with a useful overview of the critical leadership attributes from my observations and experience in a specific setting. I’d love to obtain your views and insights based on your observations and experience for leadership attributes in your domain.