“Monica, to lead, you need to be tough.” my boss asserted in a one-on-one.
In his view, toughness meant having rhino skin, act like you fear nothing, and locking away vulnerability. That would require an overhaul of my personality.
Little did I know, my journey would unveil a different side to this equation –
“Acting Tough is not the same as Being Tough.”
So, what’s the true test of a leader’s mettle?
Easy! Next time, pay attention to how someone acts in the moment when chaos unfurls its wings, and the unknown looms over like a storm. It’s that moment when you’re handed a sword and tasked with fixing something that’s impacting millions of customers.
Throughout my journey, such instances peppered my path. This story shares a couple of these pivotal moments, still fresh in my memory, which gave me some real insights.
Fuel in the Fire Episode
So there I was, back in my Yahoo days. A Friday like any other, except it wasn’t. We got called into a “War Room” – everyone from Dev, QA, Ops, PM, and Managers, crammed around a conference table, anxiety hanging in the air.
Captain Chaos: (Agitated) “Alright, folks, we’ve got a major problem on our hands. The deployment has gone south, and customers are flooding us with complaints. I can’t believe this happened! Who’s responsible for this mess?”
Eyes darted nervously, conversations were stifled – the room seemed to hold its breath.
Ops Wizard: (nervously) “I… I was the one who handled the deployment. But I followed the process, exactly by the wiki. Not sure what went wrong!”
Captain Chaos: (frustrated) “Well, something went terribly wrong, and now we’re facing a crisis. We better fix this ASAP.”
Action ensued, but so did frustration. Mistakes were made, tempers flared, and the night grew longer as the team wrestled with the mess. It was nothing short of a nightmare, but by morning, we somehow managed to salvage the deployment, despite encountering some major hiccups.
Fast forward a few years to my Amazon stint. Similar situation, different boss – and what a contrast it was! Not that Amazon was the promised land of perfect bosses, but this guy was in a league of his own in how he handled the storm.
A Journey of Calm in the Storm
A meeting invite hit our inboxes with quick details about a P1 issue – “High Impact, Action Needed”, with all of us gathered in the conf room 15 mins later.
Zen Master: (calmly) “As some of you already know, things are pretty intense right now as we have hit this P1 (explains details..). We’ve hit a rough patch, but I believe we can fix this together.”
Dev Dynamo: (Oncall Dev anxiously) “This is a disaster, and based on my investigation so far, many product pages are throwing 404 due to our widget not responding. We have to work with the retail team to understand the exact issue and fix it asap.”
Zen Master: (with empathy) “You’re spot on. No sugarcoating here – this is a tight spot. I know you all did your best, but let’s work on recovering from this together. Lets figure this out step by step. Its 4 pm, and we might need to stay back late, so please make arrangements accordingly at your personal fronts. I will work with the retail team to ensure we have all the support we need from their side.”
And figure it out is what we did, like a bunch of pros playing a symphony of collaboration and shared accountability, and gaining a few more pounds as we munched pizzas and solved the issue.
Xyz setup a call with TPM to gather all the info. Abc booked a conf room for all of us to work together to reduce communication lags. We all deep dived into the bugs, and fixed/tested/deployed the issue successfully just before midnight 😀.
The whole focus of the team was to resolve the issue asap, without worrying about whose mistake it was. A COE followed with details of not who made the error, instead how could we make our code robust and also inventing a new deployment checker tool to avoid such mistakes.
In the frenzy of chaos, it’s easy to succumb to a controlling leadership style – to dictate and demand, believing we’re taming the chaos. Sure, someone might’ve taken a detour into oops-land by pushing a bad code or rebooting a wrong server. But, blaming someone for failure will certainly not improve their performance next time.
What stood out in the 2nd instance wasn’t just the leadership style, but the leader’s ability to be real, to be human and creating a safe space for everyone to perform at the best effectively.
So here are the 3 traits of a Tough Leader from the school of hard knocks:
Embracing Emotions: A resilient leader, like Zen Master, gets emotions – both theirs and everybody else’s’. They get that showing vulnerability isn’t a sign of weakness, but a badge of courage. And this badge fosters an environment where sharing worries openly is like, totally okay.
Real Optimism, No Bull: Zen Master didn’t sugarcoat things. They weren’t pretending this was a walk in the park. Their optimism was real, rooted in their belief that their squad could overcome any challenge. This honest confidence lifted the spirits without downplaying the chaos.
Responding Like a Pro: Amid chaos, leaders like Captain Chaos react impulsively, and that’s when trouble brews. Fear, stress, mistakes. But then there are leaders like Zen Master who keep their cool. They assess, assemble the troops, and find solutions together. That’s teamwork, pure and simple.
In a nutshell, genuine leadership toughness is NOT about wearing a tough-guy mask; It’s about having the guts to be human and to make thoughtful calls when the world’s gone bonkers.
It’s about being a Decent Human Being Who Cares.
And that, my friend, is the real deal!
So, what’s your secret ingredient for leading through the storm? What else have you seen tough leaders do?
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