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10 steps to better leadership I discovered by not knowing what I was doing

Leadership is a group effort that is marked by the risk of taking the first steps forward. To be an effective leader in any industry, especially in technology - you need both a knowledge of the domain (e.g. business and technology) and a connection to your customers and partners. It is a curious mixture of academic prowess, diligent application of methodology and passion.

I’ve always had a compulsion to explore and follow new ideas, and this has led me to some wild adventures and opportunities. It’s difficult to draw any kind of straight line through 15 years of a career, to ‘connect the dots’ as Steve Jobs put it, but looking back I realised that I’d learned a few lessons about how other people lead.

New ideas go nowhere without leaders. Over the years, I took an interest in how people were able to lead others to something more, greater or new. I wanted to understand the guiding principles of what it took to create something significant in the world. Eventually, this led me to work with technology companies, but I didn’t take the direct route…

Here are 10 steps to better leadership I learned from mentors and colleagues while I was finding my own way:

  1. Experiment
  2. During my studies in science and biochemistry, I saw that leadership called for experimentation and trust in the results of those experiments. Peer review and accepted practice had to be mastered before innovation could be taken seriously. Diligent application of process and the scientific method marked leaders and separated them from crackpots and pretenders. You had to know your stuff.
  3. In computer science, I learned a leader has to be prepared to put in the time to learn. Working out problems and collaborating with others takes time, and sometimes it can be frustrating. Working the problem can take a long time, but there’s a rush and reward when that code compiles and everything (finally) works. What fuels me in these situations is the passion of 'flow' - that sense that I'm absorbed in a problem and that it can be solved if I work it, let it gestate, work it some more, until the answer eventually pops out.
  4. Listen
  5. In university I was elected chairperson of the Science Day Foundation. We raised over 100,000 euro for charity and broke two world records, recorded in the Guinness Book of Records. These were students who volunteered to work for a charity instead of boozing and partying all day (although sometimes we did both). I learned the only way to lead was by listening, and being open to people's suggestions. My job was to support their ideas. We all learned by experience. I had to trust that the people I was working with were reliable and committed, and we all had to remember to have fun, even in times of extreme pressure. I can't say I got it right all the time, but it was the best training ground for stressful situations I found myself in later. Nowadays I can see how a cool head is a signature trait of leaders I like being around most.
  6. Be vulnerable
  7. I decided to become a film producer (!) as I'd always loved film and wanted to be more creative in my career. I jumped in at the deep end and created an international film festival using an innovative '24 hour filmmaking' model I'd imported from Chicago. I wanted to express my creative side after putting myself through 6 years of science, but I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was totally out of my depth, so I had to lead while still learning. I learned that my vulnerability and lack of knowledge could be a strength - that I didn't have to know it all. I learned to rely on others to do what they're good at - to simply direct and encourage, rather than dictate and criticise.
  8. Maintain balance
  9. In the United States I got a job as a marketing intern. I didn't know much about marketing back then so again I learned to play to my strengths in technology and carve my own niche. My boss was supportive - especially because he could see he was getting an overqualified computer science graduate for cheap! My advantage was an ability to research and apply technology to solve marketing problems. Digital marketing was in its infancy, but I got a head start by focusing on what we were trying to achieve for our customers and reverse engineering the technology to get results. I learned a lot from that small boutique agency about productivity management and breaking large projects down into smaller chunks. My mentors were ruthless when it came to delivering excellence and exceeding client expectations. I learned about physical burnout and not listening to my body. After that experience, I saw that sustainability and long-term growth are just as important as short term gain. It's when I began to link the body to the brain - to listen more to both.
  10. Be yourself
  11. In Vodafone my boss (now Global Head of Analytics) showed me that leadership is not about appearance and posturing. He surfs every weekend and mountain bikes most evenings, yet was able to lead our small department of misfits in the mobile content department from a sideline business to a billion dollar revenue generator for Vodafone Global. We were the first in the world to explore analytics and big data at such a scale in mobile. I became a product marketing manager for the first time, helping to develop a prototype of what was to become the Now Factory, eventually acquired by IBM for $100 million as their mobile analytics platform for Big Data. I couldn’t have anticipated my involvement in these projects because they didn’t yet exist - luckily the Vodafone leadership were open to new ideas and allowing me to be involved!
  12. Creativity loves constraint
  13. Because I'd founded a film festival, I got the opportunity to work on an experimental film with Lenny Abrahamson, an Oscar nominated Irish director. I learned about how an artist works, and how to collaborate with painters, poets and filmmakers, combining their talents around one vision. Technology, structure and logic are all important, but for ideas and creativity to flow, you’ve got to trust the process. It pays to have a genius director to guide the electricity when it becomes blocked or there’s a choice to be made. Creativity loves constraint, and artists can be led by simply making it clear what the boundaries are and letting them at it.
  14. “Practice, practice, and all is coming”
  15. Studying at the Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India, I learned a leader must be humble, practical, and disciplined. I found that I’m not alone in my desire to understand ancient wisdom and meaning - there are plenty of people out there seeking. They’re fun to be around too! There are yogis, sages and a lineage of guides to follow in order to find ways to navigate the world. Sri K Pattabhi Jois and his grandson Sharath teach the importance of family, daily ritual and practice. Abundance comes from sharing your gifts with others, from the distribution of wealth and service to the community.
  16. Teach by getting out of the way
  17. One day I was asked if I would be interested in teaching on a Masters programme in digital marketing and entrepreneurship. It began in a university (IADT), then I moved on to work on a program (WebElevate in the Digital Skills Academy) that hoped to reactivate the workforce with Masters level students newly equipped with digital skills and qualifications. We had to think about the practicalities of designing a program that would work for hundreds of students in a very short time. What we knew was that the participants were already highly qualified, just in different skills. The answer to rapid, sustainable learning for these students was in the practical application of marketing concepts in real-world projects. We explored it in the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Design and Technology (IADT) but Webelevate was on a much bigger scale. Partnership with industry made it more real - there were potential jobs at the end, and the apps, content and models developed by students would be seen by real-life customers. After those experiences, I believe it’s better to teach with suggestions rather than prescribed actions. Project based education that relies on practical application of theory, teamwork and presentation is far more effective and significantly faster than any other method of instruction. Providing a framework within which others excel, I got to experience the personal satisfaction that comes from seeing a student do well.
  18. Create systems
  19. Repeating tasks over and over takes time that I could be spending out in nature or with my friends. The smartest people I know have managed to transfer their knowledge into automated systems that run smoothly even when they’re not present. There’s a difference between being ‘tactical’ and being strategic. Being able to objectively choose which approach to take helps leaders design approaches to common problems that are easy to replicate, allowing them to multiply out those solutions into technologies that can serve more people. Stay cool and think about what you’re doing.
  20. Dream
  21. Most importantly, leaders dream. I've been lucky to work with some very successful people, and one thing is true of all of them - they are full of passion for their vision. The more enjoyable experiences I’ve had have been with those that are deeply concerned about the people around them. Trust and respect for others inspires them to get behind even the most crazy ideas.

I’m grateful to everyone who crossed my zigzag path over the years. I aspire to represent the best of all of the people who’ve guided me along the way - to foster ideas of an open culture, the formation of companies and organisations that make a positive difference to the world, to follow the excitement of forging a future that is better for humanity.