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Stepping Up to Leadership: Lessons From Harry Potter (Rhythm of Testing)

On April 30, 2011, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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I was thinking some time ago about how people can be leaders without having the word “lead” or “leader” in their title.  What is it that makes a leader?  Do leaders become a leader intentionally?  Well, I expect some folks do.  Some of those, however, I don’t really consider real leaders – maybe managers, maybe bosses, possibly control-freaks. 

I’m reminded of a line from Robert Heinlein about the advantage of hereditary monarchs is that on occasion you get a reluctant ruler who simply wants to do a good job.  Its the ones who really want the job that you have to look out for.

In the rather interesting meanderings of my mind I was thinking back to discussions I had many years and a few jobs ago.  There were, in my opinion then and now, an awful lot of managers and directors and not nearly enough leaders.  Real leaders.  The kind of people that colleagues turn to, not because of official channels or management chain, but because they know that person, or people, might just be able to help.

In pondering just where these thoughts might go, it dawned on me that there were many, many examples of the kind of leadership that I was thinking of.  As I was pondering what it was that I was trying to say and how to say it, a weekend movie marathon featuring a certain young wizard kicked off and I had my answer. 

I got to thinking that many “leaders” don’t intend to be leaders. 

Start by Deciding to Start

Some feel like they don’t quite fit in.   They want to, they try to, and yet they simply don’t feel satisfied with what is around them.  They start looking for something else, something that maybe they can’t quite put their finger on.  They are still trying to fit in, not knowing why they don’t or can’t and then the Owl shows up.  Well, maybe not an owl with an admission letter to Hogwarts, but something clicks.  Something triggers, well, something. 

For those of us without an owl, that “something” can be a decision that there is more out there – that taking charge of your own career is what you need to do.  Maybe the feeling that you have had enough of other people making decisions for them about your career. 

It is more than making you better at you job or making you more valuable to your company.  It is making you more valuable to you.  It is becoming a tradesman and craftsman instead of a laborer.

The first step when that “something” happens, is to find a mentor, a guide to help you.  It may not be Albus Dumbledore, but someone with the experience and patience to guide and teach you is needed.

Study and Self-Education

Then, when you have found a mentor, study the craft of software testing.  Online materials, blogs, articles, testing forums, all can help you find information.  Books and magazines are great and many are available for download to e-readers. 

Begin your learning by self-education.  Then, you can turn to your mentor for guidance and clarification. Seek out ideas new to you.  Challenge what you have been doing and what you are reading and focus on learning your craft.

Harry studies and is willing to branch out beyond what the various professors are teaching in class.  If a 12 year old boy is brave enough to do that, what is stopping you?

Learn by Doing

The next step is to find the guts to actually try stuff new to you.  Now, it may be new to the company as well, but that is OK.  Now, it might be a really, really good idea to have a more experienced person looking over your shoulder when you try this the first time.

Doing something the first time, whether its the first time for just you or the first time for the company, can take a fair amount of courage.  Reaching out and stretching to try and extend your abilities can be a little scary sometimes.  Particularly if your expected results are uncertain. 

Now, while it is unlikely that a hippogriff might rip your arm off if you are too forward, it may be that your pride may take a hit if your first attempt does not succeed.  Not to worry.  Trying something new always takes courage.

If results are “less than optimal” then look to what happened.  Look to see where you went wrong and correct it the next time.  If there is not a next time, it means that those who were making decisions for you will continue to always make decisions for you.  That is why you stepped out, right?  So try it again! 

The fact is, sometimes the results can be absolutely astounding.  You and those around you may very well be amazed at what you can achieve simply by trying to achieve it.  Now, it may not be riding on the back of a flying animal most folks consider mythological, but it may be astounding in a technological sense for your shop and your company.

Networking: Building Relationships

One thing you must do, find some “friends.”  Now, many of us have “friends” we can hang with.  That isn’t what I mean.  I mean that you should find people you can talk with about what you are trying to do, what you are trying to learn.  Chances are, they will take an interest in it and share what they are trying to learn as well.  They can be valuable to help compare notes and share experiences with. 

The amazing thing is that they don’t have to be in the same company as you, not even in the same city or town as you.  Conferences (local, regional, national and international) are great resources for this – but may be rather pricey if the boss does not agree to foot the bill.  Local testing groups can be a great option as well.  If there is not group around you, START one! 

I bet that you know people who work at other companies.  I bet you know people at other companies who are testers or know testers or work with testers.  Get in touch with them and bounce the idea around about starting a local testing group.  (See how easy that is?  You just started building relationships!)

Yeah, there may be some folks who know more than others do, or think they do (Hermione…) and that’s OK.  There is no reason why they won’t have valuable insight into what you are talking about. 

The thing is, be patient and grow and nurture your contacts list – your network.  You may find yourself having others in your circle reaching out to you while you continue to learn.

Helping Others While You Learn

Now, you may think that won’t happen.  You may think it can’t happen (“What do I know anyway? I’m no expert!”)  That’s OK.  You don’t have to be an expert.  You may need to think carefully.

Someone will ask questions of you, based on your experience.  When that happens, and it will, see this as another opportunity for you to learn yourself, and teach others what you have already learned.    Now, you may not be learning the same thing.  Its possible, but it is not a certainty. 

They need help in an area where you have learned something.  You may be able to provide it.  You may also learn how to help others and in doing so learn another skill.

It is also OK if you express you own reservations to them.  You can say “Yeah, I did this but I had people helping me…”  The fact is, you did it and now you can help others.

Achieving Things You Never Thought You Could

The more you learn and the more you can apply what you learn, things that once seemed impossible for you will become regular occurrences, if not commonplace.  Activities and events and practices that you once would not, or could not, dream of doing will become the norm. 

You will then be able to reach out and impact things you never dreamed you could do.  When this happens others will congratulate you – and encourage you to greater bounds.  Others may turn to you and seek advice on things you have not thought about.  Still others may ask you to help them with their problems, even if it is only to talk with them while having a coffee or tea or, something a bit stronger.

Being a Leader

The process of becoming a “leader” is never ending.  There are always new areas to explore and new ideas to consider.  Sometimes the ideas are revisiting old ideas and challenging some of the presumptions.  

The point is, learning never ends.  No person can ever learn everything there is to know on a topic.  Speaking for myself, and not Harry, the more I learn, the more I realize I do not know and want to learn about. 

I don’t consider myself a leader, or an expert.  Some other people have called me both.  If they need a bucket to fit me in for their understanding and defining a relationship with me, that is fine.  That part is not about me.  The part that is about me is that I can learn and share what I have learned with others.

Mischief Managed.

 

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