Tue, 22 Sep 2020

My Leadership Style

One of the benefits of gaining years of experience is the principles that you discover in the journey of how to approach challenges. Given we are not defined merely by our work lives, what has shaped my leadership style originates from all aspects of my life experience.

The six aspects that I think characterize my leadership style are:

  • Entrepreneurial Spirit: How to make a big impact with limited resources.
  • High-Standards: Data-informed rationale to justify investing in continuous improvement practices.
  • High Engagement: Credibility through listening to your team, and serving their needs.
  • Creativity: Inspirational leadership is fundamentally creative, and encourages learning.
  • Inspiration: Vision and buy-in to initiatives to see it realized are table stakes.
  • Tenacity: When excellence is a moral imperative, we keep iterating until we reach our goal.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

When one of my favorite professors mentioned that he could see me (then a twenty-year-old college junior) as the founder or cofounder of a company I thought he had mistaken me for someone more courageous or self-confident.

In retrospect, starting a computer club to address an awareness gap of campus resources that students and staff could leverage, lobbying for a technology fee when presented with budgetary restrictions to give every student access to those resources, and building my universityís first web site back in 1994, I think he saw what took me a few years to realize about myself. I love solving problems, and every organization faces the challenges of needing to solve problems with limited resources.

High Standards

The difference between a software engineer and a software developer is that software engineers are aware of the science and method behind building scalable, secure, performing, usable and accessible software. Whereas a developer can pull together something functional, an engineer can build something fit for purpose.

Introducing rigor into the software development process not only produces better business and technical outcomes, it brings structure, order and focus to the software professionals who may have only been lacking for software leadership to bring that attribute to their own craft. In other words, establishing these high standards can often serve to attract and keep top talent because they see their own professional skills and maturity grow.

High Engagement

A facet closely related to High Standards, any sufficiently ambitious opportunity will present challenges. Any scientific, fact and evidence-based management approach is based on the premise that business systems are like any scientific system: one must observe the systemís conditions, propose and implement a change to the system, and inspect the outcome. Rinse/repeat until the outcomes expected emerge and inject learning and adaptation in each cycle to reach an optimum state.

No data point is more crucial than listening to, and taking action on, the challenges your team members are facing, because they are the ones who, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, are "in the arena." Your team is the one whose faces are "marred by dust and sweat and blood", it is they "who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions". It is they who are engaged in the "worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if [they fail], at least fails while daring greatly".

To me, this quote beckons software leaders to heed the call of servant leadership. Our teams enter the arena to grapple with the minotaur of the challenges we place before them. It compels me to see, hear, and experience their battles, and find every opportunity to unblock and resolve their impediments. Doing anything less sends a signal of mediocre commitment to our shared cause, and tepid appreciation for their willingness to enter the ring in pursuit of the noble challenges I would have placed before them.


No sufficiently complex system was built in a vacuum. Whether it was an inventor like Kwolek, Bell & Latimer, Goodyear, or Edison, whether it was the intellectual and reasoned insights of Einstein, Hawking or Helen Quinn, the realm of science and engineering, as problem solving craft, are never far separated from deeply creative thinking.

Some of my most remarkable career accomplishments came not merely from identifying and bringing attention to problems, but to find creative solutions that fit the time, resource and budget constraints we had to address them. Collaborating with and inspiring my teams to achieve similar outcomes is not only a great outcome for the organization, it is deeply rewarding on any team memberís career journey, and in turn, a great way to drive engagement and retention of highly skilled technical staff.


In saying "nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm", I think Ralph Waldo Emerson meant not only that you need enthusiasm to produce great work, but that also any sufficiently challenging endeavor is going to tap out finite resources of grit or tenacity. After all, if the struggle isnít worth struggling for, then why are we working so hard for the achievement?

In any sufficiently ambitious and worthwhile endeavor, articulating the vision, and building buy-in for it from your team are table stakes to seeing them realized.


One concept many ancient Greek philosophies had in common was the concept of "virtue". While there was no unifying philosophy among the ancient city states, one cultural term ἀρετή ("arÍte"), transcended the differences between the philosophical perspectives. While this word had many meanings even then, Iíve internalized this word to mean "striving for excellence as a moral imperative".

The natural antidote to cynicism or apathy for me has been, simply, tenacity. The easy way to make every effort a winning gambit, is to never stop trying, never stop learning, and to keep striving for excellence as a moral imperative.

These characteristics are so closely inter-related for me, that they feel like facets to a singular concept, which because it lacks a commonly known label, warrants articulating them as distinct styles of leadership. For the sake of giving this collection a label, I might offer calling this style "Progressive Humanist Leadership".

Khan Klatt

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