Recently I accepted a management/leadership position, one where I can be the proverbial “player-coach.” It’s a position I’ve actually been doing for some time, and it’s now official.

I’ve always held the view that leadership is a verb and not a noun: meaning that focus should be more on actions and not the “I’m the one in charge” mantra. In The Baker’s Dozen form, here are 13 musings on leadership (and “anti-leadership”):

  1. My first manager was almost perfect. He took the time to show me the right ways to do things. I knew the technologies for that time (QuickSilver, FoxBase, and Turbo C), but he taught me how to use them. He was always under pressure from others to produce, but he never shorted me on quality guidance. If you are someone’s boss (especially someone’s first boss), you can make a difference that may last a lifetime.
  2. I teach and write curriculum in the SQL Server and Business Intelligence areas. Many of my students graduate and get jobs. Sometimes I’ll get requests for references from potential employers. Often these conversations last more than just a few minutes, as employers want many specifics about my experiences with the candidate. No matter how tired I am after work, no matter how much I’m pressured to be at the dinner table, I’ll return a phone message ASAP from a company regarding a candidate. I often think of the movie Dave (Kevin Kline), where he talks about the look on someone’s face when they get a job - they almost feel they can fly.
  3. I’ve gone through periods in my career where I was quite selfish and “out for myself.” A few times it might have been necessary for survival, but more often it was not. I’ll throw out another cultural reference, the TV show My Name is Earl. When I’m pressed for time and someone needs my help, I try to think back to my first boss and Earl’s redemption list. Sometimes when you give, you still get. Yes, I am starting to believe in karma.
  4. If you live anywhere close to a city that holds community events (User Group, CodeCamp, SQL Saturday, etc.), and if you have a story to tell about using a Microsoft technology to solve a problem, then by all means volunteer to speak. Community speaking has so many benefits - you get to share your knowledge, you learn some things yourself, and for me personally, hopping on a train to NYC for the day to talk about SQL Server can be a pretty cool way to spend the day. Like Randal and his go-karts in Clerks, community events often help to center me.
  5. SQL Server people sometimes need to learn a bit of .NET, such as writing C# code to execute an SSIS package. By the same token, .NET people sometimes need to write a stored procedure or access OLAP data. I often draw a Venn diagram for my students and talk about “where worlds collide.” Moral of the story: if you’re a leader, prepare people for situations where they may have to wander outside their comfort zone, and never let someone think it will always be “someone else’s job.” True, you can’t teach every technology under the sun, but you can demonstrate the value of versatility.
  6. As I type this (mid-July 2011), Microsoft just released CTP3 of Microsoft SQL Server code name “Denali” (code name for next major release of SQL Server). “Denali” will be a very important product as Microsoft continues to grow in the database and business intelligence areas. To expand the platform and the customer base, Microsoft must increase the functionality. When functionality increases, the learning curve increases. We are like doctors, almost constantly in a state of going through medical school. “Denali” features new ways to build data models, new methods of data access, new reporting integration points with SharePoint, new features for ETL operations, new data alert features, new Columnstore indexes for data warehouses, and that’s just for starters. If you’re a technical lead, you always need to keep focus on the current technology world and also keep an eye on what’s coming down the pike. It will take some time for market acceptance, but “Denali” will be BIG. Before the end of the year, I’ll pen a Baker’s Dozen article that talks about the major changes in “Denali.”
  7. Related to #6, it sometimes takes more than just one standard demo database to illustrate both new technology features and business application context. Think back to your days as a student - which teachers had you the most engaged? Usually the ones who did things a little differently. Every good teacher and every good leader I’ve known had a level of creativity. I have five demo databases I’ve built that help to demonstrate different concepts.
  8. It is one thing to mentor people on technology, but technology changes. Does that mean your mentoring is outdated? It depends. If you teach them patterns, if you give them systematic methods for troubleshooting, if you subtly increase their intellectual foundation, if you teach them about context and dependencies, they can apply those to other situations - and you’re ultimately teaching your people how to catch more than just fish. Recommendation: read everything that Ted Neward has written. That man speaks the truth (even if he does need a haircut).
  9. There’s a phrase in education that I hate worse than fingernails on a chalkboard: use it as a teaching moment. When you’re in a position where others look to you for guidance, then often EVERY MOMENT is a teaching moment. Whether you’re leading a design session or merely sending an email to set a course of direction, seek to make every aspect of your work a quality event.
  10. I’ve been a manager at different times. Some aspects come naturally and some do not. One that does not come naturally is giving “tough love.” This phrase means different things to different people, but regardless, you want the recipient to turn their head in a different direction - not look down at the ground negatively. My first major application was a data conversion that took ten times longer than it should have, and it had three times the necessary lines of code. So my first boss took me into a room with the code listing, and pointed out every area of improvement. Sure, it was embarrassing, it’s supposed to be a bit embarrassing, but the way he went about it made me eager to do better on the next task.
  11. Another quality I’ve spent years addressing is patience. In prior lifetimes, I had little to none, and lost sight of how much patience I received over the years. Big changes occur slowly and over time. A corollary to patience is being able not just to listen to others, but to truly hear what they are saying. The other day someone went into what seemed to be a lengthy venting session - until I picked up on a few words that helped me to understand that their frustration was more legitimate than I initially assumed. Someone in a leadership role obviously can’t implement changes based on every piece of feedback - but part of being a professional is making adjustments when possible.
  12. Step outside yourself and look at yourself and ask, “Is he approachable?” “Can I come to him with a problem?” “Is he going to make me feel like I’m stupid for asking that question?” If you realize that you would regularly feel trepidation coming to yourself for help, imagine how others feel.
  13. I saved the best for last - another movie quote from a 1940 short movie called You’re Hired. The quote goes like this: “Keep up their enthusiasm. Encourage every man every day.” If you are not enthusiastic, even during the rough times, you can’t expect your people to be either enthusiastic or encouraged. As a leader, you can help set the culture.

I asked a friend of mine to read this. His only comment was along the lines of, “OK, but where are the expectations for your employees?” My answer - it’s a given. This isn’t about employees - this is what leaders should expect out of themselves. People who work for you need your support.