We talk a lot about personnel and staffing issues in this column—with good reason. As an IT manager, you know that most of the toughest issues you face are not, strictly speaking, technology challenges. Rather, your most difficult tasks involve the people you manage.

A couple of years ago, you struggled to find the talent you needed. Last year, you struggled to train and retain the people you had recruited. This year, if you’re like most of us, you’re struggling to keep up morale and productivity in the midst of tighter budgets. In this column, I’m going to look at perhaps the toughest challenge any manager faces: identifying and encouraging leaders. I’ll look at a common mistake that technical managers make when looking for leaders among their staff and then give my own extremely subjective suggestions on the qualities necessary for effective leadership.

What leadership is not
By and large, IT managers are well aware that they need to identify and nurture the potential leaders among their staff. Unfortunately, managers are often so consumed with the daily crises in their operations that they don’t devote as much time to this effort as they should. (That doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned about the problem.)

All the same, too many technical managers jump to the wrong conclusion when trying to identify leaders. They lean toward their project managers.

Does this mean that project managers can’t be good leaders? Of course not! However, you shouldn’t assume that simply because one is managing a particular project that he or she has good leadership skills. What makes this whole issue tricky is that IT organizations treat project management differently. In some shops, project managers stick to tracking the progress of task completion and updating Gantt charts. This is an important job and critical for a project’s success. However, it’s not leadership. In other shops, project managers oversee the team and the project budget, and have responsibility for the project’s ultimate success. These folks could well be potential leaders.

Before you anoint a project manager as the next leader or manager in your group, find out what kind of leadership skills he or she actually has.

What leadership is
The importance of effective leadership to any organization can be seen by the tidal wave of business books published on the subject each year. You can buy books extolling the leadership tips of Bill Gates, GE’s Jack Welch, or Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett. If you’re looking for something a little more exotic, you can buy books that purport to contain the leadership suggestions of Niccolo Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, or even Attila the Hun.

If you don’t have the money or time to wade through those tomes, I’ll give you my definition of leadership. No matter what the field of endeavor, good leadership consists of the following three skills:

  • Identifying the major challenges that face the organization
  • Motivating a team to meet those challenges
  • Keeping that team focused on the major challenges

Now that I’ve gone out on a limb with that definition, let me saw that limb off by making another observation that some may find almost heretical: Contrary to widespread opinion, I’m not sure that everyone can be a leader. While I do believe that everyone can grow in this area, one could make a case that leaders are born and not made.

Of course, we’ve all run into situations where circumstances confront a group of people and the unlikeliest men and women sometimes emerge as leaders. On the other hand, we’ve all known people who are extremely good at their jobs but have no desire to move into management or even take on an informal leadership role. In fact, I’ve seen great employees ruined by being forced to assume management responsibilities that they neither sought nor wanted. Some fail, while others leave for organizations that promise to let them concentrate on what they like.

Qualities to look for
Since I’m an agnostic on the question of whether we can create leaders, let’s focus on identifying the potential leaders already working for you. Here is my short list of the qualities to look for among your staff:

  • Capacity to put in the necessary time: As an IT manager, you’re painfully aware of the time requirements of the job. To be a leader, you need to demonstrate your commitment by being willing to make sacrifices for the organization.
  • Desire to lead: As we said earlier, not everyone wants to be a leader. Limit your search to those who expressed an interest in assuming more responsibility. This could be tougher than it sounds, since many people seek management roles simply as a way to make more money and not because they really aspire to the job.
  • The proper amount of cynicism: If a leader is too naive, he or she will always be getting suckered by someone: employees, vendors—you name it. However, if you’re a total cynic, you can’t motivate others because you need to be able to believe in the goals that you’re pushing them to attain.
  • Intelligence: I suppose it goes without saying, but while IT managers don’t have to know the technology better than their direct reports, they can’t be idiots either.
  • Ability to communicate: It might not be fair, but real leaders need to be able to articulate the goals of the organization. They must do so, both in one-on-one conversations, as well as in group settings.
  • Willingness to make decisions: One of the toughest things managers have to do is make tough calls, whether it comes to choosing between competing vendors or managing a reduction in force.
  • “Je ne sais quoi”: This is why leadership remains an art as much as a science. There is a certain characteristic that all true leaders have—the ability to convince men and women to follow them. Charisma, personal magnetism, sheer force of will—I’m not sure what to call it. It may be hard to define, but all true leaders, men and women, have it.

If you can find people in your organization who have these qualities, give them the chance to show their leadership skills by giving them additional responsibilities.

Are leaders born or made?

Can you create a leader? Think of it as the business equivalent of the old nature/nurture debate. What other attributes of successful leaders have I missed? Do all managers need to be leaders? Post a comment to our Discussion Center and let me know.