If you're heading in the wrong direction, every step you take will be wrong
Whether leaders are born or made, I do not know. What I do know is that if you are a leader, you feel your pulse quicken when you see the opportunity to create order from chaos and rally people to achieve an important goal. In such situations, I find myself so eager to charge in that I'm reminded of the black Labrador retriever my family had when I was in high school. Her name was Bebe.
On walks with Bebe all I had to do was lift my arm with a ball in my hand and she'd get so excited she could hardly contain herself. She wanted so much to charge off and retrieve it. Sometimes I would only pretend to throw, but Bebe would race off anyway, looking for whatever she thought I had thrown.
It's good to feel excited when an opportunity arises that calls for your leadership. But I have learned to make sure there really is a stick or a ball out there before I charge off. Experience has taught me to look at the factors shaping a situation before I leap in, particularly whether the strategy being employed is right for the goal I am trying to accomplish. For in the service of flawed strategy, even great leadership will fail.
The Eager Leader
This lesson became apparent to me some years ago when I was asked by a financial services company to review a high-profile system development project. The company had embarked on a project to re-create a financial reporting system that at the time ran only on its own mainframe. The goal was to rebuild the system using new software so that it would run on smaller and less expensive servers. Then the company would add new features and sell the system to many of its existing customers, as well as new customers.
But there were problems. The reporting logic used by the legacy system was not properly documented, so it was hard to re-create it in the new system. Also, the new development software was complex and required a lot of user training.
The first release of the new system often ran very slowly. It took 15 to 20 minutes to run some important reports. And customers had questions about the accuracy of some of the report calculations. Those customers who saw the first release made it clear that these problems had to be fixed.
After a two-week assessment of the situation, I made my recommendations. I advised that the company organize the project using rigorous project management and that it adopt a more specific set of system development objectives. Working with the development team leaders, I used these objectives to put together a high-level plan showing the tasks, time frames and budgets needed to finish the system.
My recommendations also addressed problems the company was having with the development software. This was the first time the software had been used for such a large system. Not only that, but the company's development teams were not fully trained. I recommended that the software vendor send its experts to work onsite with the financial services company's development teams.
The senior managers of the company were so pleased that the COO asked me on the spot to lead the project. I felt the adrenaline rush. "Yes!" I thought, "I can whip this project into shape. I'll show them what a real leader can do." The company needed to have its system ready to demonstrate at an industry trade show in three months. I charged in to make it happen.
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