On Leadership

15 Nov 2020

I don’t often write about leadership. This is mainly because I don’t often write blog posts in general. But it is something I talk about often with managers and senior engineers I work with. In my current role, a majority of the people I work with are very experienced and conversations tend toward larger topics like career paths and the state of business fairly often.

Of the managers I’ve worked with over the years—either who I report to or who report to me—many have had a background in engineering or technical work. That path can be difficult for many reasons, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. That said, having an engineering background does tend to skew how we think about our role in a team or at a company. With this background, which typically lacks directed training and mentoring in management and communication, it’s easy to become shortsighted as to what our goals as managers are and how to best lead and manage our teams.

One key element to understand is that anyone can be a leader. The title you hold within a company may have some bearing on the responsibilities you have within a team, but you don’t have to have “Manager” in your title for your coworkers to see you as a leader. This may seem like an obvious point, but I think it’s worth calling out. In any demanding intellectual job, it’s so easy to be focussed on the day to day problem solving and forget that we work with people. Basic group dynamics and human psychology don’t disappear just because we work on computers.

So, what does it mean to be a leader? And why do I think this is an important enough topic to write about after a multi-year blog hiatus? Let me start with a definition. Obviously a plethora of books have been written on the subject and entire degrees are focussed on leadership and specific aspects of it. But for right now, how I think about leadership is: a leader is a person who other people want to follow.

That definition is overly simplistic, but I think it captures the essence of it. A CEO is a good leader if employees want to work for him. But in contrast, an engineer can be a leader as well. If an engineer’s peers look to them as an example of how to act, perhaps when communicating with clients or simply when architecting solutions to problems, and they try to follow the examples they set, then that engineer is a leader.

When working with engineers that get promoted to having Senior or Principal titles, many of them struggle to understand what it means or what they should change. This will be highly dependent upon the organization, but my answer is often: Nothing. Sure, that engineer will take up more or different responsibilities when it comes to workload or projects, but I treat title changes like that as a recognition of existing skills and actions which should not only continue to be practiced, but emphasized.

When I think about people I’ve followed and tried to emulate, a few traits stand out that I think are key to this definition of being someone others want to follow: they took the time to listen to and consider others opinions, they were confident in themselves without being arrogant, and they were able to express themselves clearly to a wide audience. This is a challenging list. Importantly though, these are all attributes anyone can work on. And these are all things I continually struggle with as well.

I could write about communication and how to go about leading all day long, but I think it’s important to start at ground level and understand what leadership is before diving into the how. This approach to problem solving may be familiar to anyone that knows me personally. At the core of the idea is that problems with single individuals should be dealt with case by case, and problems that affect an entire organization have a higher likelihood of being systemic.

So how do you deal with systemic problems in an organization? I think different people will have vastly different answers to this question these days. But my approach in many cases is to (temporarily) skip over the problem immediately in front of everyone and ask what motivated the actions people took leading up to the problem. I try to explore how people understood what they were doing and why they were doing it. It’s at this level that you will often start to see that people have different ways of looking at the world and may have vastly different goals. It’s at this deep level of worldview that I want to inject not change, but clarity.

If a systemic problem at an organization is rooted in leadership, then before recommending changes in action, we need to start with clearly defining what leadership is so we can come to an understanding of where the conflict in worldview is. Most importantly, this needs to be a shared understanding among everyone in the organization. Individuals at all levels should understand what they want in their leaders and why they’re following them.

So then back to engineering, not everyone needs to aspire to be a leader. In fact most organization structures break down when there’s an increase in number of people looking to lead. But we can try to understand what leadership is and what we want out of our leaders. And, managers or not, we should all aspire to have the qualities of a leader and strive to better ourselves in seeking this and help each other in the process.