Fifteen Things I Learned About Leadership* and Teamwork

Versión en español

In the short term, I will move on to another chapter in my career, so it seemed like a good time to see what I had learned about leadership in these +20 years working in media and turn it into something that could serve those who are on, or want to take, that journey. I thought, pondered, and wrote down the following with the goal of making it useful.

This is my experience thanks to what I learned from many leaders I crossed paths with, having held many different positions (from cassette transcriber👴 in 2002 to executive director in 2022).

I don’t claim it to be a universal truth. I arrived at this synthesis in 20 years and with several setbacks, but I believe it can be a guide to working as best as possible: it is designed for medium-sized teams (between 2 and 50 people) in collaborative and innovative environments. I thought about it and I’m sharing it because if it saves a couple of people some headaches, I will have contributed something.

Hopefully, it will also help someone who doesn’t dare to take charge because they are in a toxic organization, and this serves to denaturalize that present. If I missed anything big, let me know.

1. It is very valuable when the team leader conveys clear goals and objectives. Without that, you don’t get anywhere, and besides being kind of useless, it logically confuses the team. Communicating clearly and calmly despite the usual chaos is a plus that humans value. Avoid ambiguity and clarify when something said by third parties is confusing.

2. Nothing is more important than the quality of the team members and the culture. A great idea with a bad team will crash sooner rather than later. As the saying goes: culture eats strategy for breakfast.

The organization must take care of those with the right personal/professional profile and invest a lot of time in choosing new hires well (nobody is perfect, but hiring quickly/poorly generates serious problems).

3. It is a luxury to work with people who want to eat the world. In high-performance teams, you have to work to prevent those people from burning out, and at the same time, that is much easier than trying to motivate someone who doesn’t feel like it (for whatever reason).

4. It is also easier to work with good people who are sponges for learning the technical aspects they don’t know than with excellent technicians who are “bad” people. The cynic/provocateur, which some confuse with intelligence, can be entertaining for an hour at a bar, not in daily life. Working with curious, initiative-taking, self-demanding people who know when to control themselves to avoid burning out is like winning the lottery, among other things because it makes delegating and avoiding micromanagement much simpler.

5. Incentives are key and make things happen with less friction. A good leader tries to align incentives so that the ship moves “on its own,” or with fewer problems, towards where it wants to go. Obviously, I’m not just talking about financial incentives.

6. Ideally, support publicly but criticize privately. Although I agree with the cliché that success and failure are impostors, it’s always a plus to take the time to celebrate your achievements and those of the team, which is ultimately what is sought (mistakes should not be sought, although I have seen it happen 🤷‍♂️). Whoever is in charge lives to solve very diverse problems, they have to like that, if they don’t like it, they will have a hard time. Personally, it’s part of what I enjoy.

7. Minimize mistakes and, above all, avoid unforced errors. Identify where there is more room for error (as a leader, you can’t make mistakes in paying salaries, but you can in a product that operates in unexplored territory where you can recalculate) and always learn from “failures.” Systematizing that learning before turning the page is worth gold and very few people do it. Do that and deliver on time, and in many places, you will already be on the radar.

8. There are bosses who are leaders, bosses who are not leaders, and leaders who are not bosses, they are by no means synonymous although many use them interchangeably, and that leads to problems. It is also not necessary to want to be one or the other.

9. There are people who do not want to lead or grow “up” in the organization chart, and that’s okay, the art is to make them shine and improve their situation where they prefer. Spending a long time in a role does not automatically make that person the right one for the next role. Whenever possible, it is better to prioritize internal team members for promotions, and if it is not possible, explain why (don’t act like nothing happened). Aligning the team and strategy is vital.

10. Manage the ego. Outwardly, raise the profile when the project and team need it, but inwardly, keep the ego as low as possible. Actions speak louder than words, and both are necessary. Explaining decisions, even when someone disagrees, helps to understand the reasons. If you can decide based on data, even better, but sometimes you can’t, and you have to know when to avoid paralysis due to over-analysis. An art that you have to like. Leading is as much about choosing what as when.

11. Innovation and creativity are not necessarily opposed to method and processes. Finding the balance point in dozens of dimensions, the correct equalization, is part of what you have to do leading a team knowing that something can be useful today and useless in two years (in between there is everything).

12. The mission, impact, team, and mystique of an organization are crucial, and at the same time, it is very noticeable when, for that reason, or for whatever reason, the leaders do not include topics related to money/benefits in conversations. Beyond the fact that negotiation is always possible, it is a leadership plus that I liked to include it early in the conversations (instead of pretending that this dimension does not exist).

13. Do not normalize work or contact for non-urgent matters outside of working hours or on weekends. Yes, every discipline has peak days in the year, with more work, but they are few. If it is sustained, it is wrong, and everything will soon crack. Have a clear idea of what is urgent (it is usually not more than a couple of things) and what can wait (they are the majority).

14. All of the above I have seen in frontline teams and I believe it helps to create a good atmosphere. There are also opposite examples of vertical, old-school functioning with a bad atmosphere that generates results, but it is not the type of place that many of us prioritize.

It is clear that at the same time, every number one in an organization or area has to generate results (for example: impact in NGOs, profits in companies, etc.), but there are thousands of texts about that. On this, and even less in Latin America, I haven’t seen so much, and I consider it central to having better organizations along with sustainability and the strategy I worked on and will work on even more soon.

15. Sometimes you have to ignore the above points. Only sometimes. In the role you are in, you were chosen in part for your judgment, you will know when to do it. And if as a team you manage to create a place with a good atmosphere, creative, innovative, with impact, and good results, I recommend that you talk about it because it is full of good results with opposing cultures (and it may seem like that’s the only way).

* I know that the word “leadership” or “leader” sounds very corporate in some writings or organizations like NGOs, but I couldn’t find a better one (although I hear options).

Thanks for reading this far and thanks again to those who showed me with their example that it is possible to make a healthier organization not only in numbers.

If it helped you, I invite you to share it with someone who might find it useful.

P.S. Thanks, Lau, for reviewing the first draft of this text.