All Leadership Is Tactical

I want to write a book about leadership from a tactical vantage, from the everyday engineering project leader's point of view. Not a book that you'd read and put on a shelf. Something that was practical, a reference book that every engineering project leader could keep on their desk, right next to their Kernighan and Ritchie Programming in C book. They would run into a problem -- How do I get Joe to deliver the code he promised when he promised? How do I decide which design option to make? What's the best way to find the bugs? -- and they would reach for this book to find a tool, a tactic, that addresses their problem. OK, that's a lofty goal to say the least, but a goal worth aspiring for.

There are many books written about leadership by highly successful people -- politicians, CEOs, and celebrities. Most of those books tend to be inspirational (or worse, egotistical); I also suspect many of those billionares have never lead a small engineering project. Inspiration is important, for it is in reading about the successes of great people that we can learn about the personal attributes it takes to be successful. But I have yet to find a practical book on how to lead a software engineering project. I have a bunch of books about project leadership, but most were read one, then sit on a shelf collecting dust.

The late Dr. Armand Hammer's autobiography Hammer epitomizes the sort of inspirational yet impractical leadership examples typical in so many books on leadership, when he wrote about his first "project". He took the $1M that his father gave him for a medical school graduation gift and formed a joint venture with his college roommate who had just invented a new method of artificial insemination in cattle, and made millions. [Or something like that. It's been a few years (decades) since I actually read the book, but this story has stuck in my head.] It may be a good example of vision and risk taking. However, my father didn't give me any million dollars for graduation, and my college roommate, well, he never did anything patentable with insemination. When I need to analyze the return on investment of a certain project, I never reach for that book.

Highly successful people have vision, opportunity, and leadership. Vision is strategic -- they see a future and a strategy of how to attain it. Opportunity may rely somewhat on chance, but also on the person's ability, drive and motivation, to create opportunities for themselves. Then there's leadership.

All leadership is tactical. In the business world, leadership is by consent, not decree (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld). Good leaders find ways to motivate people to achieve their vision. In the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." Note that there is no implication of deceit here -- Ike is not suggesting we trick people into doing things for us. Instead, he's pointing out that a leader comes up with a practical plan, charters a path to success, and clearly shows people why it is in their best interest to participate.

Even great individuals, remembered for their strategic vision, needed the tactical leadership to achieve their vision. Ronald Reagan, love him or hate him, had a strategic vision, but he also had the tactical leadership to move a nation toward his vision (one of Reagan's strongest leadership talents was surrounding himself with better tactical leaders than himself). History books are filled with examples of visionaries who were also great leaders. And I'm sure the history books omit millions more visionaries who lacked the tactical leadership skills to get the job done (I've worked with a few, before joining Sun).

This blog is not about strategic vision. It's not intended to be inspirational (I don't want to write a bible, just an encyclopedia). This blog is about tactical leadership -- how to get things done -- in an engineering development environment.

In this blog, I plan on covering the following topics

  • The basics
    • Methodologies
    • Processes
    • The role of a leader
    • Examples of leaders and leadership
  • The Art of Project Leadership
    • Know your enemy: Identifying the problem
    • Know yourself: A look at the resources that make up an engineering project team
    • Know where you're going: Project planning
    • Know where you are: Project execution
  • Battlefield Tactics and Weapons
    • Brainstorming Techniques
    • Inspections vs Reviews
    • Inbound information: Collecting status
    • Outbound information: Communicating skills
    • Dealing with difficult people
    • Collaborating at a distance
    • Lead by leading
    • Lead to the end
    • Leading past failure

The content is not intended to be Sun-specific, since it is based on my 20 years of experience leading hardware and software engineering development projects at a handful of different companies ranging from aerospace to consumer electronics to computer systems; however, my experiences are certainly more heavily weighted by my last eight years at Sun.


since u have read the autobiography Hammer , can u just download it for me, i know it't ridiculous,but see, i am in china, and got no way to achieve that. thanks anyway.

Posted by apity on March 12, 2007 at 11:47 PM EDT #

Thank you very much for the great information.

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Posted by 511 pants on August 08, 2008 at 10:09 AM EDT #

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Bob Hueston


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