Most companies and organizations are now fully in transformation mode, changing continuously on not only the process level, but also in terms of business model, culture, and domain or market. NATO CIO Manfred Boudreaux-Dehmer has seen a lot of leadership philosophy changes in his career: from an autocratic top-down setup to something more consensus-based.

“I think back to the first company I worked for, and how autocratic the leadership style was,” he said. “There is a great contrast between that and leadership by consensus, where leaders quiz their teams constantly for ideas and approaches to different things.”

Consensus, however, is merely the input for Boudreaux-Dehmer. The output – being what leaders wish their people to accomplish – must come from something more subtle than merely barking orders at them.

“Good leaders inspire their people. They tell them ‘This is what I need you to do’ not by actually telling them but by moving them in a particular direction.”

Boudreaux-Dehmer was – and is – surprised by the leadership style at NATO, a political and military Alliance of member states. “There is a military leadership philosophy here. But the longer one works at NATO, the more it becomes clear that it is actually not as top-down as you would imagine it to be.” 

Managers and Leaders

Speaking of surprises, Boudreaux-Dehmer admitted to having had a “pretty naïve idea” about what leadership was when he first became a manager back in 1996.

“Up to that point, I had been an individual contributor, so management meant that there were all these people [under me] now who would do what I was doing,” he said. “I was going to be working without having to put in any great effort.”

Then came the awakening.

“That’s not how management works. Management, I was to discover, is its own skillset; leadership, however, is an entirely different skillset. There may be a correlation between the two, but leadership is its own thing. Leaders recognize a particular need. They recognize where an organization or an environment is, and then help it move forward towards that view – that fulfillment of the need. I cannot pinpoint exactly when I made that jump, when I evolved from manager to leader, but it did happen along the way.”

Working Together

Boudreaux-Dehmer emphasized that one does not simply become a leader the moment one is given the reins of power and decision-making. “It’s not an overnight thing.”

“One learns to listen. Sometimes you can obsess about how you think you should be as a leader – how you should be portraying or presenting yourself. You want to inspire people, and direct them properly, but unfortunately it turns out to be the wrong direction. Leadership really is about listening to people, about the things people have to offer that will help push forward the larger goals of your organization.”

Often, said Boudreaux-Dehmer, an eager leader will think: “I’m the leader and this is my style.” With companies he has worked for in the past, particularly Sierra Wireless in Vancouver, BC, the emphasis was on rapid execution and delivery, and decisions had to be made quickly and decisively. However, Boudreaux-Dehmer is clear on the importance of listening to people, of taking in a multiplicity of ideas and opinions, and of not being afraid of getting one’s hands dirty.

“We can easily forget when it comes to grand leadership concepts, to really dig in as a leader to work together with members of the team. Sometimes that might require you to do things that are ‘below your pay grade.’”

Growing Your People

Sometimes, said Boudreaux-Dehmer, the temptation is there to take over the ‘doing’ of something you know you can do better and/or more quickly yourself. But good leadership will see the greater good in standing off to the side so the team member can learn through experience.

“It’s really hard to do this, and you can suffer if it’s something you know you can do faster. The problem with doing this is that nobody else around will have learned how to do the things you can do. There will be no learning.”

“A good leader brings people along in their work and skills. Not doing the work for them goes into the whole concept of effective delegation and not micromanaging.”

Getting it Done

Boudreaux-Dehmer was clear on mentorship as a powerful force and influence in the shaping of future leaders. “I had mentors who have reached across an entire organization, across the various hierarchies inside the organization, coming up with all these different ideas and new, innovative ways of doing things,” he said.

A good mentor, he said, models success for future leaders by way of action.

“My last boss at HP, who became CIO, had phenomenal energy and focus. For her it was not a question of ‘Should I do this or that?’ but about focusing. Just get it done. Sometimes leaders get so wrapped up in strategy, when really all they need to do is to get started, to have a propensity for doing. Once you get the start, you can learn and adjust – change course slightly, if you must. But first: just get started.”

Be Committed

The biggest piece of advice Boudreaux-Dehmer has for new and aspiring leaders can be boiled down to a single word: “Try.”

“Again, we come back to action. If you don’t try, you end up with a batting average of zero. You get a hit rate of zero per cent of the opportunities that you didn’t pursue.”

A leader has convictions, said Boudreaux-Dehmer, and he or she follows through on them.

“Go for what you believe in, and don’t let anyone talk you out of it. It’s one thing to say you should listen to the people on your team, even down to the intern level – you should always keep your ears open to what people are saying. But that does not apply, at the end of the day, to the things you believe in – to your convictions. A leader knows the power of both listening to others and holding on to one’s commitment and vision.”

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