Important Features of Leadership
Important Features of Leadership#
“A leader is anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential. Leadership is not about titles or the corner office. It’s about the willingness to step up, put yourself out there, and lean into courage.”
– Brene Brown, Dare to Lead
Leaders empower others to identify solutions and make their own decisions to address the challenges they face. Leadership skill is involving the members of a group (that a leader aims to impact) in decision-making processes and not taking individual decisions for them (Leader as an Activist). Leadership is different from operating individually, managing a task or administering a role in isolation. It is about understanding and enabling the purpose of the project and the process through which people within a team work with each other to reach the overarching goal.
With this basic understanding of leadership, we discuss some essential leadership features, in contrast to task management, in this subchapter.
Like a project manager in a team-based research project or a tech company CEO, there are formally-assigned leadership positions. A company CEO have the power to make decisions to provide organisational resources which can impact the overall efficiency and the ability of teams to deliver on organisational goals.
They hire and assign leaders to lead different teams. Individuals within those teams also inspire other members, and play huge role in keeping team motivated as they make progress in their own rights, and take on leadership roles themselves.
Leadership opportunities in the context of data science often appear in spaces where human interactions happen. As soon as there is more than one person involved, for example, in a group project, community discussions, or collaborative events like hackathons, there is fertile ground for leadership roles to emerge.
Such emergent leadership opportunities allow individuals to explore, learn, and exhibit leadership skills and ultimately become leaders themselves.
Emergent Strategy for Open Leaders#
Leaders don’t come with fully formed strategies. Often open leaders don’t identify or call themselves leaders and don’t engage with projects with the intention to take on leadership roles.
This is where the concept of emergent strategy can help open leaders to navigate their roles in the ever-evolving world of data science, research and open science communities. We have mentioned Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown at the beginning of this chapter and recommend this as a practical handbook on mobilising communities, activism for social change, and nurturing deeper kinder connections in our communities through open leadership.
Emergence is when new ideas emerge with time in a project or a community and as a result of bringing diverse members/perspectives into the team. Emergent Strategy asks leaders to embrace the changes and evolve our planned strategy as leaders based on what seems sensible and needed to facilitate/guide/lead the team towards their shared goals. A summary by Forbes Lab describes emergence as practical instead of theoretical. Brown’s definition of emergence comes from Nick Obolensky: “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.”
Here are Adrienne Maree Brown’s core principles of emergent strategy:
Small is good, small is all (The large is a reflection of the small)
Change is constant (Be like water)
There is always enough time for the right work. There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
Never a failure, always a lesson
Trust the People (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy)
Move at the speed of trust
Focus on critical connections more than critical mass—build resilience by building the relationships
Less prep, more presence
What you pay attention to grows
Leadership is Granted by Others#
Outstanding leadership is often sought and studied because teams, organisations, and people work at their highest potential, building extraordinary results when following good leaders. Yet, one main characteristic of leadership is that it is granted by others who decide to follow someone as a leader in a specific setting. This means that even leaders with formal authority need to build trust and psychological safety within their team to earn leadership. It also means that the ideal environment and culture is established to enable different members to take on roles that align with their skills and interest, and be granted open leadership roles by the formal leaders or the other members of the team.
Creating Structure in Leadership#
A clear structure (often described with an organigram) about different stakeholders involved in the project and how they influence decision making helps everyone understand how they work with each other. Projects without structures can become a victim of what Jo Freeman describes as the tyranny of structurelessness. This term describes the authoritarianism that can emerge in human groups due to the lack of structure and rules, with an implicit and opaque hierarchy developing. A way to fix structurelessness is by bringing governance, policies, or rules in writing accessible to everyone.
Governance is the set of formal and informal practices through which an organisation sets goals, assigns responsibilities, establishes systems, and assesses outcomes of organisational action (find theoretical details in the Handbook of Economic Organization by Grandori, A. (2013)..
Organisations that have good governance use clear decision-making processes, behave openly by reporting on their activities, actively engage with their stakeholders, effectively manage the risks they face, and take responsibility for controlling and protecting their assets, including their reputation. Each of these areas of governmence activity contributes to an organisation’s success.
The governance process should help identify and create accountability for:
Who makes decisions, and how?
Who gets to participate, and how?
Who is responsible to address risks/challenges, and how?
Who controls and protects the outcome, and how?
Governance helps any team-led project to function well, particularly during times of change. This tutorial by Carol Willing on Open-source governance and leadership (supplementary video) is an excellent starter for learning more about forms and models of governance. We have also described governance in the different guides of The Turing Way, especially in the context of data science and open source projects, for instance Ethical Considerations when Choosing an Open Source Governance Model.
Leaders are Made, not Born#
As with any other human aspect, leadership skills can be learned through practice and time.
No fixed formula for leadership works in all scenarios with the same effectiveness. However, individuals can learn some specific traits and adapt these traits as needed in a given situation.
Great leaders in one project or environment, say a data science journal club, may not be leaders in other contexts such as leading a research project independently. It doesn’t mean that specific skills required for a specific profession can’t be learned. Leaders must bring humility and understand where their knowledge might be limited. No matter how many books about leadership a person reads or how many (often expensive) workshops a person attends to learn how to become a leader, no method will guarantee leadership at all times in all contexts. Therefore, in new contexts, leaders should give space to people who are closer to the situation/problem and may have a better understanding of their environment and needs. Indeed, trying to become the leader of too many projects or in all contexts is often one of the aspects to avoid in healthy leadership as we mention in the next subchapter.
The final takeaway here is that learning to become a good leader is a creative process that one can also learn through practice and willingness to learn from failures.