HumanOps leadership: giant man bends over to talk to a tiny man

I have been a system engineer in IT for about a decade now, working for over 10 different companies and teams. I have seen my fair share of leadership, rarely good, mostly bad. In the first couple of years as a young professional, I learned that a leader is measured by the volume of his/her voice and the level of assertiveness (or should I say: aggressiveness). I was young, naive, and wrong!

Emotional Intelligence

The intelligence quotient (IQ) is the way we measure intelligence, which is an accurate measurement that largely impacts your talent in engineering and science. It’s your IQ that (usually) impacts how fast you grow from a junior to senior position. Once you reach a senior level you are often required to take on a leadership role, coaching and managing teams are usually the first step. It’s at that point where your IQ will not help you anymore, it’s your emotional intelligence that will help you flourish in your leadership position.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the capability of individuals to recognise their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s). (source:

Emotional intelligence is what will help you become a better leader, an enabler instead of a dictator. If you’re lucky you are born with a high EI, becoming a good leader will come easy for you. Fortunately (for people like me) it is also possible to train your emotional intelligence!

Debating as a Sport

podium first place: boy stands on a podium on the first place step and celebrates

After I graduated from college with a degree in computer science I quickly found my first job. Being a young kid stepping into a team of engineers with years of experience made me insecure. It is only now, years later, I realise that the leadership in this team led me to this insecurity, making me lose all sense of assertiveness I had.

The first team meeting I was a part of I felt like I needed to prove myself, so I actively took part in the discussions regarding various technology problems we were facing. It was at that time I started to understand why other team members were not actively involving themselves in these discussions, the seniors & leader of the team were so aggressive in expressing their opinion that there was simply no other possible solution then theirs. If I would suggest another solution they would overwhelm me with extremely difficult questions about the technology which I was simply not able to answer, discarding any valid input I might have had. I quickly became a part of the “junior kettle”, quiet and submissive.

It is unfortunate that debating solutions to problems is mostly motivated by winning the debate. Instead of focussing on finding the best possible solution to the problem, we tend to prepare our arguments good enough to win. It is in these types of situations where it is easy to identify if you are led by a dictator or an enabler.

Debating is where empathy is important (and one of the pillars of emotional intelligence). Good leaders can see and understand that the alternative solutions offered by team members might be valid and should be valued as such. Good leadership is defined by many things, but understanding and having empathy will get you most of the way.

We have to start somewhere

Becoming a good leader has many aspects (many of which I am also still learning about), but we have to start somewhere, so here are a few tips that will help you in debates and meetings.

Tip 1: Challenge, but not Overwhelm

If one of your team members has an opinion or solution to a problem, you can challenge them with questions about it, but don’t overwhelm them with technical questions that are beyond their experience level. Make your team member aware that there are questions that need to be answered, but don’t break their spirit.

Tip 2: Allow Multiple Ways of Communication

Not every decision needs to be made in the meeting room. Some people are not assertive enough or don’t feel confident to express their opinion when all other team members are staring at them. Allow them to respond to topics in a way they feel comfortable with. Some people might want to write their opinion in a well written e-mail.

Tip 3: Positive Reinforcement

Even though the offered solution might not be the best, it doesn’t mean it’s invalid. If the argument is correct, acknowledge it and show some appreciation. It will reinforce people to keep expressing their opinions.

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