Leadership. We hear this term thrown around but I think few people actually know what it means to be a leader, let alone an effective leader. Personally, I scoffed at the idea that I would ever be a “leader”. I was perfectly content being in the background and being a good worker bee. Then incidents happened during the early days of my professional development that I now know forged the beginnings of what I believe to be the leadership genes I have today. So, let’s fire up the way back machine and describe some of these instances and how they came to make me into who I am today.
Back to College
Ah, college. That wonderful time where, hopefully, you get away from what you know and go out and start to discover how the world actually operates. While I was in college, I always had work study programs as part of my tuition package (the sorts of things you can get when you have zero parental contribution to your higher education bills). I originally applied to work as a lab attendant in the fine computer centers on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa. Unfortunately, I had heard nothing back from the persons doing the hiring and for my first semester as a college student, I held down two part-time jobs. One was as a worker in the dining center nearest to my dormitory. The second was as a glorified shop clerk in my dormitory. Neither were that intellectually stimulating, but I was able to meet new people and get lots of studying done (as the shop clerk). This changed when a gentleman on my dorm floor, Brent, recommended me to work on his team within the university’s ITS (Information Technology Services) group. He was a student technician that went around from various university departments and the computer centers, fixing various software or hardware issues as they were reported into the call center. Pretty standard entry-level IT work, for what it’s worth.
Now, I worked there from that point on until graduation. I developed a lot of skills that eventually lead to a consulting position post-graduation. However, there was a summer were different skills started to materialize. My supervisor had to miss most of that summer. She was recovering from major surgery and was not expected back until well after the fall semester started. During that time, we have a temporary “manager” but while they were an assistance from higher level administration perspectives, they did not necessarily lead the group in the same way that my ailing supervisor did. During the first few weeks, we found ourselves floundering around and the queue of work was growing at an exponential rate. I remember that we had upwards of 120 workstation replacement tickets that had come in, as an entire department was able to finally obtain enough budget for this project. This project also came with new challenges as we were migrating away from a Novell-heavy core to a Microsoft-heavy authentication core. This meant instead of Windows 95/98, we were now having to deal with the animal known as Windows NT 4.0. We had very little experience and had to get up to speed quickly on this.
Enter the opportunity. While the temporary supervisor was busy with her own challenges on the backend, I decided it was time to step up as the most tenured individual on the team. With much reluctance, I organized a few internal training sessions on Windows NT 4.0 and started to better delegate the work to the right individuals. I already knew who was liked by various departments and who would be best suited to spend 3-4 hours working in those locations between shifts. I found myself actually leading my team in ways I didn’t realize I had within me. By the time the middle of the summer came around, we had heavily reduced our backlog of outstanding tickets to the point where we did achieve Ticket Inbox Zero for a brief time before the fall semester start. I did receive a lot of kudos from not only my absent supervisor, but the temporary supervisor and many in the department. I was also given a raise that made me one of the highest paid students on campus, second to the gentlemen who had overhauled many of the computer labs on campus and got them working in much better order.
However, that new semester came along and the department hired two new full-time employees. My newly found leader powers were stunted when one of those individuals had a meeting with me and informed me that he didn’t appreciate that I held so much clout within the group and asked that I back away from many of the duties that were now just coming naturally. To play the peacemaker, I did so. I held some animosity towards that individual (we all do when we are asked to relinquish positional powers we earned), but we were amicable towards each other for that semester. I graduated shortly afterwards and moved on to post-college life. I also did not flex any leadership capabilities for quite some time.
Along Comes a Video Game
Strangely enough, it took a video game for me to get back into a leadership role again. Back in 2004, World of Warcraft hit the PC gamer world. This game had a ton of player interaction and eventually, you worked your character up to what is dubbed the “end game”. This involved teamwork between many people (some of these end game raids either needed 20 people or 40 people to complete). Many players had certain roles and all that was required was some preparation and execution during the fights in the raid locations.
As one of those roles, I played what was called a “tank”. This type of character is effectively the guy who gets beat on the entire time with these major raid bosses. They get to control the pace in which damage can be done to the raid boss without the raid boss turning attention towards that person doing the damage (who typically could not take a hit without major risk of in-battle death). This role required a lot of skill between threat generation (dubbed “aggro”) and damage mitigation. All the while, keeping up with the ever-changing battle landscape (moving the raid boss out of areas that are very harmful to the overall party, as an example).
So, why did a video game help with leadership skills? After many early failures in execution and preparation, I started to voice dissatisfaction during some of our initial raids. Now, it’s easy to point out what’s wrong. What separated my diatribes from others, was that I offered to help fix those problems. On top of all the things that were asked of me during the in-game battles, I also organized and helped configure the parties so that we could better prepare and survive the encounters. I helped, in other arenas in the game, to help some underperforming individuals to become better by doing trial runs with them for practice. I also called out battle plans, in mid fight, for when things needed to be reacted to. In essence, it was like being a brigade leader in a military branch.
Scoff at the references to video games, but many people have learned a lot by organizing a guild within some of these games. It’s almost on the job training without the ramification of losing a source of income (well, unless you never went to work because you were playing World of Warcraft 24/7).
Leadership genes can be born and bred in a vast majority of places. You could be a teenage working in a fast food joint and becoming a shift manager. You can play a silly video game in which you fight non-existent monsters and where the spoils of beating those monsters doesn’t matter to those outside of the game. You can be thrust into an unfamiliar spot, like if someone on a team leaves suddenly and you are now tasked to fill their role and lead by example for the rest of the team. You don’t necessarily have to be predestined towards this role. You can learn these skills. These skills make you a better teammate and usually land you on fast tracks for promotions or even spring boarding opportunities external to where you might be currently employed. The point is they can come from anywhere and they can help define a better you. I never thought I’d be thanking Blizzard and World of Warcraft for where I might be today, but I also have an excellent amount of respect (both ways, not just towards me) with my teammates and they know I can help lead them in getting past the challenges that are presented to them day-to-day. I challenge you to find your leadership genes and help make your teams and organizations better. Remember that inspiration can come from anywhere; even in leading 40 people you know only in a video game to beating evil black dragons. 😉