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The Silicon Valley proving ground

David Flynn
David Flynn is president and chief technology officer of Fusion-io, a leading provider of solid-state technology and high-performance I/O solutions. He is responsible for providing business-focused oversight of the company's research and development efforts, as well as driving the company's short- and long-term technological direction.

During my time in the technology industry I have learned some important lessons about leadership. The rapid cycle from inception to outcome, unique to the tech industry, makes for a powerful proving ground for leadership ideals.

Yet I've come to realize, that the components of good leadership are universal regardless of endeavor or industry. Therefore, the following tenets are fundamental for all types of leaders from CEOs to elected officials--anyone who wants to help people become their best.

Greatness must be inspired not required. In today's world, and especially where technology is concerned, creative thinking and problem solving are the most valuable of skills. Motivating people to develop and bring these ephemeral abilities to bear requires a particular type of leadership. Above all, it requires an environment of trust, autonomy and the satisfaction that comes from confronting a worthy challenge for a collective cause greater than oneself.

To inspire people to achieve, a leader must bring to life the vision of the greater cause--whether that's a technology that stands to revolutionize the storage industry or a political platform. As each person discovers his or her own unique part in the plan, personal motivation takes over.

A good example of imparting a vision to a team was the Obama campaign. Politics aside, it was the people who felt personally inspired by the vision that made all the difference.

Cream rises to the top. To help qualified people achieve their best you must present them with a challenge worthy of their abilities. Create an environment that is conducive to creativity. Make it known that being part of your team will be challenging, require thought and hard work; that transformations and new technologies do not come easily, and the rewards can be outside oneself.

The environment at NASA in its early days didn't just attract scientists capable of putting a man on the moon; it created them. My grandfather was part of the Saturn-V program. My father has been part of the missile interceptor program for nearly thirty years now--since it was called the "Star Wars" program. He continues to postpone his retirement because the challenge is so personally rewarding for him. The culture of challenge and achievement for a greater cause shaped their lives, and mine.

Easier isn't always better. People invest more when something requires work and sacrifice. Giving people ownership and accountability for their contributions ties them to the success of an endeavor. Conversely, endeavors that require too little of their participants can never claim the same dedication.

Take education for example. For years people fought for the chance to get an education for themselves and their children; when they finally obtained this opportunity, the education was valued.

The downside of today's public education systems is that it can be devoid of choice, sacrifice, responsibility, and yes even risk of failure. In the child's eyes, the apparent compulsory nature can place a perceived negative value on it. A lack of autonomy, trust and a worthy challenge are all too common and serve only to further bury our children's problem solving and creative thinking skills.

A system without choice, sacrifice, responsibility and risk leaves parents with little "skin in the game" and often leads to the default abdication of their role. Where parents, who are the most biologically invested in the success of their children, stay actively involved in their children's education students succeed. Where parents are uninvolved, the result is lower test scores, and higher dropout rates.

Placing trust gets results. We leaders tend to be perfectionists. It can be challenging for us to delegate mission critical functions. Yet it is precisely this expression of confidence that inspires people to rise to the occasion.

Trust is conveyed with the level of autonomy given. While metrics and measurements are good for tracking results and necessary to ensure that trust is not misplaced, to get even initial results people need to know you trust they can deliver.

The key to conveying trust and confidence is to actually have it. You simply cannot fake trust. The only way to really trust is to know your people's unique strengths.

Being able to recognize talent and drive is doubly important to a leader. It's absolutely necessary for selecting the right people to compose your team. Finding people who thrive on problem solving and creative thinking is as valuable as having solid investors in this globally competitive environment.

In conclusion, what I have learned about leadership is captured by the following principle: the best people thrive on challenges and live up to the expectations set for them--set high standards and you will be amazed by the quality of talent you attract and develop within your organization.

By David Flynn

 |  January 6, 2010; 6:48 AM ET |  Category:  Leadership advice Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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