I was thinking about the most important traits a leader can have. Among many I thought about three.
- They act as a buffer for their team. When problems come they don’t pass the stress downstream. They are usually pretty good at removing signs of confusion and bring what’s useful to the team so they can work on it. But beyond protecting the team from unhelpful actors, they are also good at removing stress from situations. Situations where conflict exists are common. Just think about a tech meeting where engineers disagree with each other on a solution. These can easily escalate where people are close to being angry at each other. A good manager is able to diffuse the situation and bring the team closer to a compromise.
- They bring problems, not solutions. People like to think that managers should be technical - they should share a background with the people they manage. It is helpful to emphasise with the people you manage, but non-technical managers can bring other things to the table. They can try to understand a problem from first principles, without carbon copying past experiences. I have fallen into this trap of bringing a solution that has worked for me in the past and thinking it will work again in a different context. Good non-technical managers don’t do this - they can’t really. What they can do instead is to provide clarity to a problem and allow the people to find a solution on their own. It’s not self-evident, but this builds trust between the manager and their team. The same thing applies to technical managers: you should still allow the team to find a solution on their own. This doesn’t mean you throw the problem over the wall and wait for a solution. You should still challenge the team if the solution doesn’t make sense.
- They are open to criticism. They created an environment where any person can come to them and tell them what they think. They will take the feedback and instead of a knee-jerk reaction, they are thankful. They are also not defensive about difficult feedback, because they understand power dynamics. They understand that if a person they manage said this to them, it means that they care and want things to get better. But it’s not just about listening, it’s also about doing something with the feedback. They take it seriously and they hold themselves accountable. They know that a manager needs to operate at higher standards than the people they manage.