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Lessons in Leadership to Last a Lifetime

Lessons from Charles Leiserson

AFTER 18 YEARS on the MIT faculty, I thought I knew a thing or two about leadership. After all, I was tenured and had supervised dozens of students seeking undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. But in 1999, at the height of the Internet boom, I took a two-year leave of absence to serve as director of system architecture at Akamai Technologies, an MIT start-up located here in Cambridge. That position humbled me and taught me lessons about leadership that I still use today, some 20 years later.

Back then, the vast majority of Akamai’s 100 engineering staff had been recruited directly from MIT and other top universities. Like me, most had only worked in academia up to that point, and we assumed our corporate roles and responsibilities with anticipation and a healthy dose of swagger. What could possibly stop this juggernaut of collective brilliance?

Well, one collective deficit could, and did: The lack of effective leadership.

You see, despite their immense talent, our teams were completely dysfunctional. Within weeks, people started to feel disgruntled, and then even worse—angry, jealous, vindictive. Morale sunk, and our productivity did, too.

Fortunately, Akamai’s VP of Human Resources, Steve Heinrich, recognized what was happening and brought in Chuck McVinney, a management consultant with expertise in teamwork and leadership training. Chuck began teaching the engineering leaders about topics we had never been exposed to before: situational leadership, dealing with diversity and conflict, providing effective feedback, fostering creativity, and how to build a motivated team that leverages individual talents. Remarkably, after only two off-site workshops, our teams started to function better. We were able to focus and work collaboratively toward our goals.

The workshop content wasn’t complicated, but if you’re currently running a research lab, odds are, you’ve never seen it. That’s because academia and other research organizations rarely offer leadership and management training—and as a result, far too many engineers and scientists waste their time and resources dealing with unproductive interpersonal issues and unnecessary conflict. To help right that wrong, here are five the most important lessons I learned while at Akamai, all of which I continue to use in my lab today:

Research is a human endeavor
There’s no sense in denying, or ignoring, it: Human nature plays a role in everyday technical work. As a researcher, you simply must value and respect the interpersonal relationships that form the foundation of teamwork.

Know thyself
Senior researchers become better leaders once they understand how they perceive situations and why they react the way they do. Self-assessment exercises, interactive activities, and other tools can help you gain these insights and leverage your strengths.

Mental diversity strengthens teams
If you want your work to have the widest possible impact and be the most meaningful, you need to draft teams of diverse thinkers and then ensure everyone can contribute in a complementary way. This is the best way to pressure test and improve ideas. Of course, as a team leader, you will need to be equipped with strategies to manage such a variety of styles and temperaments.

Communication is key—and it involves effort
It’s too easy for senior researchers to become isolated from more junior colleagues. Make it a point to keep the lines of communication open, so that team members feel free to speak to you about day-to-day operations. Regularly checking in with one another keeps everyone on the same page and enables you to handle small issues before they evolve into bigger problems.

To keep leading, keep learning
Good leaders continue to learn and grow into their roles. Becoming a tenured professor or otherwise moving up the organizational ladder without participating in management training along the way can reinforce ineffective habits and create blind spots regarding performance.

It’s been about 20 years since I returned to MIT from Akamai, and businesses now routinely spend billions of dollars per year teaching employees “soft” leadership skills like the ones I just listed. If universities and other research organizations would invest even a fraction of that, their labs would be a more enjoyable place to work and their teams would be more creative and productive.

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Leading Forum
This post is by Charles Leiserson. He is a Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT. He is lead instructor of the annual MIT Professional Education course, “Leadership Skills for Engineering and Science Faculty,” which has educated hundreds of faculty at MIT and around the world in the human issues involved in leading technical teams in academia. He was formerly Director of Research and Director of System Architecture for Akamai Technologies and was the Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Cilk Arts, Inc., a start-up that was acquired by Intel in 2009. He is currently a Fellow of four professional societies: ACM, AAAS, SIAM, and IEEE.

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