Being Different Kind of Leader

by | May 4, 2005 | Marketing

There are passengers, and there are drivers—and there are also a few people who ride a bike instead.

In his post Let’s Steer This Ship Together, Will Pate talks about a concept that I’ve also been noodling on for the past few months: “leading” and “being led” aren’t the only two options.

I’ve never considered myself the kind of person who makes a great employee. I’m good at what I do and I work hard, but I’ve always been uncomfortable being in the position of executing someone else’s will. I’ve never felt the need to have “superiors” in my work.

For many years, I thought my destiny must to be a leader in the traditional sense—an alpha male running a team, a department, a company. I figured that since I didn’t like people running my life, that it must be my calling to run other people’s lives.

Then I realized that I didn’t have much interest in that either.

I tried freelancing for a while, but that wasn’t satisfying at all. I want to accomplish grand things, and I didn’t want to be limited by my own personal work capacity. I needed other people to pull these thing off.

Since starting Forty Media full-time in December of 2004, I think I’ve finally figured out where I fit. Will describes it well:

The best leaders surround themselves with other leaders and give them what they need to kick ass; they’re more like all-star collectives.

I’ve held positions of leadership before, but in all those cases I made a specific effort to trust the people I was working with. At first I didn’t realize why I was doing this, since it seemed to contradict my own inflated opinion of myself, but I just seemed to naturally fit into that groove.

I discovered that people tended to excel when trusted to do their jobs, freeing me to focus on managing clients, planning, and other aspects of the project, rather than spending my time managing individuals.

I also learned—while working with those inevitable few people who didn’t perform well when trusted to do so—that I hated managing people. I hated having to motivate, admonish, and educate people who (in my mind) should have been able to do those things themselves.

Some people get a kick out of the power associated with managing people. It’s easy to slip into a Stanford prison-guard mentality, believing that you’re a member of an elite class destined to rule over those who can’t rule themselves.

But I never got into that mindset. I didn’t care. I was interested in the projects more than the interpersonal politics.

As Forty Media continues to grow, I’m realizing that I don’t necessarily want to start hiring full-time employees yet. As a business owner I tend to see hiring as a rite of passage, but I’m coming to realize that I should avoid it for as long as possible rather than seeking it out. With hiring comes the overhead of personnel management, which detracts valuable time away from project management.

So we’ll remain a small company for now, consisting of me (as a project manager) and a stable of brilliant contractors. It’s not as sexy and powerful as having full-time employees reporting to me each day, but my crew can overdeliver on projects as a matter of course.

I know that it can’t work this way for everyone. There are a lot of talented people who need to be supervised, and there are a lot of people who get a thrill out of micromanaging. It’s a great match, and there are a number of successful companies that make great use of that symbiotic relationship.

As for me, though, I’m going to focus on being a leader in concept and direction, not in telling people what to do. The response to our work has been tremendously positive so far, and I plan to keep it that way.

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