Leadership Lessons for IT Professionals from an Iraq War Hero

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    A lot of IT professionals find themselves in positions they never really envisioned themselves being in: leadership positions. They had always felt fulfilled career-wise by meeting technology challenges, and never really aspired to be leaders of anyone. And yet here they are, with responsibilities involving the professional well-being of other people. To whom should they turn for advice?

    I’d start with Justin Constantine. He knows what it’s like to be in a position he didn’t expect to be in.

    On October 18, 2006, Constantine, a U.S. Marine Corps officer deployed to Iraq, was on patrol when a shot rang out from an enemy sniper. In that split second, Constantine’s life changed forever. The bullet entered his head behind his left ear, and exploded out of his mouth. That he survived is attributable to the miraculous efforts of a brave Navy corpsman on the scene. Today, he can’t see out of his left eye, and part of his tongue is missing. But he can speak, following multiple surgeries to rebuild his jaw with bones from other parts of his body. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury.

    Constantine encapsulated all of that in one sentence: “I’m the luckiest person you’ll ever meet.” If you think that sounds like someone who might have something important to say, and who’s worth listening to, you’re right.

    In his book, “My Battlefield, Your Office: Leadership Lessons from the Front Lines,” Constantine shares the kind of extraordinary insight that can only arise from those who have overcome obstacles that most of the rest of us have no way to fathom. I had the honor of speaking with Constantine last week, and the first question I asked him drew a response that told me I was in for a fascinating ride.

    I said to him that on the battlefield, he confronted a very tangible enemy, and leadership was all about defeating that enemy. “Can you define the enemy that business executives need to defeat?” I asked.

    “That’s a much more difficult enemy,” Constantine said. “It’s complacency.”

    “We saw this in Iraq,” he said. “We actually had a sign right next to the gate, visible as you went out, that read, ‘Complacency kills.’ It was a reminder to stay sharp and stay vigilant, and to always be as attentive as you can be.”

    He said the same is true in business.

    “Business is hard, and no matter what business you’re in, you have a lot of competitors. If you get complacent, you’re not going to succeed against them,” Constantine explained. “If your people are complacent, that’s going to affect your bottom line. I’m an entrepreneur, and I own my own business, so I’m not complacent. But I think in large corporations, and maybe in smaller ones, too, complacency can creep in.”

    Constantine also spoke about complacency in terms of failing to keep employees motivated and inspired.

    “What I talk a lot about in the book is making sure that your people feel appreciated, are on the same page as you, and are in position to work to their full potential. Everyone in the organization is a leader in some sense of the word,” he said. “So if you’re focusing on each one of them, their wellbeing and their betterment, everyone wins. When I talk about empowering your employees, it’s about giving them the tools to succeed, ensuring they fully understand your vision. All that is to make sure they’re actually engaged — present in the moment, but looking downfield with you, as well.”

    We discussed the relevance of all of this to IT professionals, many of whom pursue a technical track in their careers, rather than a management track. Constantine reminded me that “management” and “leadership” aren’t synonymous.

    “They’re members of a team, and someone has to lead that team,” he said. “Someone has to be in charge — I don’t think a completely flat organization, where there’s no one in charge and everyone gets paid the same, is a good model. But I think whatever field you’re in, certainly including IT, you have to be able to lead other people. If you’re in IT, and you have good leadership skills, and you enjoy the challenge of leading people, I think the sky’s the limit for you.”

    I asked Constantine what the one thing is that he most wants readers to take away from reading his book. He said it’s that taking care of your people has to be your No. 1 priority.

    “I say that from a business sense, and I also say that from a human sense,” he explained. “I’ve been extremely fortunate in my recovery. I’m no one special — it’s not because I had some superhuman strength. It’s because of the people around me, starting with my wife, and a lot of other people who helped in many different ways.”

    No one succeeds on their own, Constantine said. “So it’s incumbent on all good leaders to take care of those around them.”

    On that note, here is a list of 10 leadership tips from Constantine’s book:

    1. When you make a command decision, act swiftly, using all the intelligence at your disposal.
    2. Honorable actions are contagious. Inspire others around you by doing the right thing.
    3. Being a great leader means that you are willing to take a good, hard look at yourself and honestly identify your strengths, as well as your weaknesses. 
    4. You cannot lead everybody the same way and realistically expect the same results. You often have to paint with a fine stroke, not a broad brush.
    5. The most productive leaders are often those who regularly engage with their employees.
    6. Remember what it felt like when a leader put your needs first. Strive to regularly replicate that.
    7. Not asking for help is counterproductive, shortsighted, and can adversely affect others.
    8. When someone identifies a fear to you, recognize the strength displayed in doing so.
    9. Never miss an opportunity to pay those you lead a compliment or tell them that you appreciate something about them.
    10. Relationships are critical to our wellbeing. Make the time to invest in them.

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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