About the author: Jaroslav Bláha specializes in building complex, international IT systems, as well as executing innovative technology initiatives. Among others, he was Chief Architect of NATO, Global Program Manager of DB Schenker, CIO of the Swiss electrical grid operator, CIO/CTO of Solera Holdings (Dallas), and Co-Founder/CEO of CellmatiQ, a startup for AI-based medical image analysis. He is the CIO/CTO of trivago since March 2022.
The Path to Leadership
So, you want to become a leader, for example, of an engineering team or of a large project? Do you have what it takes? And what would that be? Countless books have been written to address the question of what makes a good leader and whether leaders are born or made. I don’t believe in the “greatness by birth” theory of leadership and many anecdotes of supposed leadership prodigies support this belief:
Napoleon Bonaparte? Won his first major battle with a promotion to general at age 24 – but he enrolled at age nine in a military academy and underwent 15 years of officer training until he was ready.
Ferdinand de Lesseps? Successfully led the harrowing 15-year mega project to build the Suez Canal in Egypt – but prior to that, he spent 23 years on increasingly challenging international diplomatic missions.
Bill Gates? Has led the development of the Windows operating system; arguably one of the biggest software systems ever written – but at its initial launch in 1985 he had already spent 17 years (since age 13) programming software together with various groups that he influenced and led.
While birth is certainly a pre-condition, there are other factors that allow leaders to flourish:
“Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them."
I believe some relevant factors and associated recommendations for a path towards leadership are the following:
A dedicated education and specialization in a challenging discipline
Be it medicine, computer science, civil engineering, military, etc., which builds the foundation to participate in interesting projects, work on challenges that expand the understanding of complex technical or organizational systems, and accumulate a decent number of errors. While the often quoted 10,000 hours rule of practice appears arbitrary, several years of collected and applied expertise seem useful.
Also – and this is crucial to me – it establishes a solid basis in at least one domain needed to build self-esteem and project confidence as a leader. For example, I have been programming since age 16 (then on a Commodore 8032) and have until now utilized almost 30 programming languages. Even if I don’t know all the latest technologies and frameworks on a detailed level, I am confident that I understand the basic principles and can ask interesting questions in front of any software engineering team.
Boredom with the status quo
While we fully appreciate the high value of professions and people who keep our organizational systems stable through routine tasks and standard procedures, whose bosses are called managers, in contrast, leaders are those who detest too much stability. They push the envelope, develop crazy ideas, motivate their teams to new levels of performance, try uncommon solutions to novel problems, and take risks. I have been a soldier, a government official, a regular employee, unemployed, had multiple startups (even some mildly successful), and have worked in ten different industries. That might be extreme, yet, if some aspect of that sounds appealing to you, that might imply leadership potential.
Most leaders have regular doubts about their abilities and their chosen path. Still, they control this fear and overcome their anxiety because they know that calculated risks must be taken, decisions must be made, some level of failure is inevitable… and their team is watching. Unfortunately, leaders are not normal members of their team and being in front of everybody implies a degree of organizational and human loneliness.
There is no innovative activity without problems or failures
“Resilience” is the modern term for the ability to deal with stressful events, whether caused by own misjudgment or adverse external factors. How can one improve their resilience? Mountain-climbing or similar sports may offer a good model. Mentally, an ever-increasing sequence of challenges (e.g., in project size) and their associated problems will train a leader on how to recover and learn. With that, what was stressful in the last project will become the relaxed normal in today’s task. While leadership challenges - especially in IT - are nowadays rarely of a physical nature, there is a lot of value in physical fitness, health, and good sleep. Since age 18, I’ve been doing some kind of regular physical exercise and believe that it helps me to handle acute stress, as well as to relax faster when difficult situations wear off. Unless you are into extreme sports, it might be difficult to “enjoy” a similar opportunity. Yet, military survival training, while not being funny in the least, has shown me how far body and mind can be pushed. A day in the office is always easier…
Divide and decide
The most critical skill of a leader is the ability to make decisions while handling information deficits. Despite being somewhat simplistic, the military adage of “better a wrong decision now than no decision” is worthwhile to be kept in mind. Yet, decisions should be made at the lowest organizational level of sufficient competency – this is applied delegation. Rarely has a leader all the necessary expertise to make good decisions at the required speed. But a good leader has assembled a team of qualified people who will be empowered to make plenty of decisions on their own. This eases the leader’s cognitive load and allows them to focus on the really hairy decisions and their consequences. Be prepared to decide when it becomes necessary and stick with the decision unless changes in the environment or new information justify a change.
“I don’t know” is, in my experience, the best way a leader can establish trust with a team
If the team is good, they will recognize when you are guessing or bullshitting, so don’t! Nobody knows everything; being able to identify your weak areas as a leader and to “outsource” these to qualified team members is a sign of strength. In return, when you confidently claim some knowledge or information, the team will trust that you know what you are talking about. Pre-condition is the first bullet in this list. Grow your expertise through fanatic learning!
There are some leadership philosophies that I do not fully embrace:
This is the idea that a leader serves the team with their efforts. Almost by definition, a leader’s role comprises the need to set goals, to provide the necessary resources, and to resolve issues that jeopardize success. Yet, to serve goes too far. When necessary, a leader must be willing to make tough or unpopular decisions. While the typical IT department is a much more benevolent environment than a battlefield, even a leader in that safe space must accept, endure, and resolve conflicts to ensure that their visions are implemented. It is nice when it works by serving, but don’t stake your success on it.
Leading by numbers
There are several approaches attempt to represent leadership using quantitative means. The most popular are OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). While those were developed by the military in the mid 18 th century and modernized by Peter Drucker about a hundred years later, they are just a systematic way to define goals and measure the status of their achievement. That might be a valid part of managing (!) activities, but this does not constitute leadership. In software engineering, we could say that those methods cover the “happy path”, i.e., when everything goes according to plan. Yet, OKRs, Earned-Value, and similar methods do not provide any mechanisms for how to deal with adverse events, breaking systems, non-functioning technology, problematic employees, or any other events that require inspired and brave… wait for it … leadership.
This is certainly not a complete nor a step-by-step instruction on how to become a leader. Still, I aim to identify a few areas which need to be covered by a seasoned leader. I am also convinced that these areas make the difference between a leader and a manager or administrator. While my history and original leadership education come from the military, I believe that the above topics are sufficiently generic to describe the challenges across many industries.
The readers of this post are probably at their initial steps into a new career in IT or software engineering and I propose that you observe your leaders and learn from their good, bad, and their ugly. It is entirely legitimate to establish your career as a staff engineer or individual contributor/expert without leadership responsibility but if you aim to take the leadership path, the above explanations might help you to prepare for this equally scary and rewarding challenge.
To answer the original question: Leaders are made - or maybe better – molded and you yourself play the biggest role in this endeavor.