12 Sep 2021 19:54 IST

Scoring captain or winning team?

Leading from the front or behind is a question of capability and style

“I can’t take my CEO to customer meetings; he is not interested in those interfaces and does a poor job of impressing prospects,” lamented my colleague. However, the HR head justified that a CEO cannot be an expert at everything and defended his boss, saying he was good with people and processes, and most importantly, the team was performing.

One of the frequently pondered job interview questions for leaders in today’s frenzied IT hiring world is can they code? Some tech leaders’ frown at this query and refuse to attend the tech assessments. You can’t blame them as they have successfully led engineering teams and built great products. Moreover, their defence is that they can influence or facilitate tech teams through leadership skills than just tech prowess. Fair point, but off late, tech organisations have been keen to hire leaders who can also roll up their sleeves to solve technology problems. A recent argument made by an overseas head of a new MNC tech centre in India was, “we don’t want landlords but leaders who connect with engineers on the tech front.”

Stuck in the corner room

The nature of work, workers and workplace has transformed with technology, millennials and remote work. But some leaders rely on old templates of influencing teams through meetings, emails, town hall speeches, press interviews, or pressuring through reviews. Hence, the push from some of them to get people back to the office sooner as that has been their toolkit to lead in the past. The remote working colleagues are challenging us to change this old playbook.

Facilitating or leading

Often, we have accused our leaders of being micro managers if they did what we thought was our job. However, not all leaders relish doing the desk work themselves when their team is not contributing. One of my sales savvy bosses would pick a day to work with members of our struggling sales team; he would select their prospects and do joint calls. They would end up cracking a few customers, and this would be valuable coaching for team members.

But this demotivated the team as it not only flagged their predicament to the larger team but left them with a feeling of being cornered. Many of us underestimate the pressure on leaders when we don’t perform as a team; we hate it when they direct us but also feel abandoned when they try to support us silently from a distance.

Non-scoring leaders

The impact of leaders not contributing to the team’s cause cannot be understated. There is always stress on the leader and the team when the leader is not directly contributing, especially when the team is in dire straits. For instance, Virat Kohli’s inability to score big is now masked by the Indian teams’ winning streak. In enterprises, the whispers about leaders not contributing spreads like wildfire, especially when the team is underperforming.

The impact of leaders not contributing to the team’s cause cannot be understated. There is always stress on the leader and the team when the leader is not directly contributing, especially when the team is in dire straits. For instance, Virat Kohli’s inability to score big is now masked by the Indian teams’ winning streak. In enterprises, the whispers about leaders not contributing spreads like wildfire, especially when the team is underperforming.

Balancing expectations

So when do we say a leader is leading from the front, and when do we feel they are hiding behind emails or cabins? If your team worked hard to successfully deliver a project while your leader only organised a celebration party, would that be shirking? Or if s/he was working with you during those stretches, is that leading from the front? The challenge for every leader is to balance the team’s expectations on this/her role in their work. When the teams are doing well, they want you to stay away, and when they are struggling, they want you to take the bullets.

(The author is cofounder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing firm)