I’ve survived in leadership positions for almost a decade now. In large corporations, small companies and quite a lot of other setups outside my regular job. They all stretched my people-skills and put me in numerous uncomfortable and tricky situations. Sometimes I miss the good old times when I had simple tasks in front of me. Its success was in my hands (mostly), and I could live in the comfy introverted world. Then I remember why I moved away from being a sole contributor to help teams and lead leaders.
I’ve recently started asking myself — Am I a good leader for my team? Can I get better? What “good leader” even means?
“There are only two types of leaders. Effective and ineffective.”
These are some tough questions, but worth asking if I’m planning to become the best, I can be. Self-awareness is the first step to change, and I should question my default behaviours and responses. The second step? Put it in writing what I think a good leader means to me. This process always brings clarity in thinking, and only then will I truly understand my actions, attitude and relationships between my team and me.
What being a good leader means?
I’ve spoken to many people and asked about their experience, trying to understand what a “good leader” means to them. Understand how it compares to my vision and if there is anything I missed and I can learn. Answers were different with occasional overlap, as I suspected. We all have a diverse understanding of how a good leader looks like.
“Bad leaders believe their team works for them. Great leaders believe they work for their team.” — Alexander Den Heijer
I was also surprised to learn that so many people don’t even think about it and couldn’t explain why they like (or don’t) their current boss. Ignorance is bliss, right? This indifference would surely make them bad leaders, or at least not helpful in the future. And maybe that’s why some of them have such a big problem finding a job they love, always choosing a lousy company, wrong team, and bad leaders (it’s like karmic relationships). They don’t stop to reflect on what they truly want from the future, so instead, they cruise through professional lives without purpose or goals.
A good leader…
What I’m looking for and what I want to give back to my team. Each of the below points deserves a lot more comments and could be potentially a blog post on its own.
… Listens to what we are saying.
It’s essential to distinguish between “listens” and “hears”. When we’re sharing important information, challenges and concerns, we hope for actions, advice or simply a meaningful conversation. It’s not very encouraging when someone pretends to listen, agree with us and then do something different (or nothing).
… Empowers the team.
Helps the team to lead the change. Allows us to make mistakes and makes sure we learn from them. Let the team take the majority of decisions and puts great ideas over hierarchies.
… Gives us WHY and WHAT.
We act well if we truly understand and believe in what we do. It’s crucial to know WHAT needs to be done and WHY — how does it fit in the bigger picture. It’s leaders role always to give us WHY and make sure we understand it. It is our job to ask if you don’t!
… Tells HOW only when asked.
People with plenty of experience behind their belt, like to jump into action and help before being asked for advice. That’s not the way to teach team independence and responsibility. We know how to do our job, and we can figure it out. If not, we should not be afraid to ask for help and guidance. All we need is support.
… Doesn’t bullshit us.
Honesty, transparency and vulnerability are what builds trust. Trust is what makes a group of people a team. That’s how a bunch of individuals become a high-performance team.
… Always has time for us.
If they don’t, it means the priorities are somewhere else, which’s never a good sign. We should be wary of leaders who move meetings frequently (it can say a lot about their ego), don’t have time for 1-on-1s and always pretend to be busy.
… Practices what he preaches.
Leaders very often use fancy words and sell beautiful stories — Talk is cheap. A true leader acts what he preaches, and we should never have doubts that it’s otherwise.
… Gets his hands dirty.
Being a good leader means getting involved and working with the team, not above us. Leading the charge into new projects and impossible tasks. Providing goals, direction and clarity by moving obstacles off the way so the team can focus and be the best we can be.
… Seeks efficiency in the smallest tasks.
Especially when these small things are very time consuming or very stressful for the team. If something can be improved, the leader will identify it and make sure it is taken care of.
… Provides mental safety.
We all make mistakes, and our leaders make them too. How we deal with errors is one of the most important things. We want to be in a position when we can say “Sorry, I screwed up” without hiding it. If we can’t, we will never admit to failures, which might lead to severe consequences and a missed opportunity to learn something new.
… Has a blueprint for amazing team.
Knows how a high-performance team should look like and can lead us on a path to get there. It’s going to be a team effort, and it might be one of those rare moments when we all hope to hear not only WHY, but also HOW to get there.
… Is not afraid to look stupid.
We want our leader to have the courage to speak up and put his ego aside. They don’t need to know everything (it’s impossible), but needs to ask questions (up or down) and challenge assumptions to provide the best guidance and work more efficiently with the team.
… Shields the team from the outside noise.
Knows what is important and shields the team from the outside noise. To be clear, that doesn’t mean blocking all the communication with the outside world.
… Takes responsibility for the whole team and their actions.
Leaders own the tasks given to their team and know if they fail, they are responsible for that — nobody else. The team will work only as best as their leader is, and they are always his reflection.
… Rewards and acknowledges exceptional talent.
It’s important to recognise talent in the team, future leaders and outstanding contributors.
… Involves the team in the hiring process.
The whole team will work much better if we can meet future colleagues and managers, build trust and influence the decision.
… Seeks talent, not only technical skills.
One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. If the new person has technical knowledge gaps, these can often be easily fixed with a little bit of training. Changing a person’s character is almost impossible, and can easily drag down the whole team down.
… Works for the team, not the other way around.
“To lead” — to guide someone or something along the way. Leaders are working for the team, not the other way around and their role is well defined (or at least should be).
Am I a good leader?
I hope I am, or at least I hope I’m on the right path. It is not for me to say if I tick all the above boxes, but I listen to my team, ask questions and learn quickly where I suck and what needs my attention. That’s why it is vital to build a rapport with people I work with, not only by talking about technical aspects of their day-to-day tasks. I need to learn who the person on the other side is, what they like, what they enjoy, what makes them sad, and how I can help them make their daily life more comfortable and the job more enjoyable.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good [leader] should be.
Be one.” — Marcus Aurelius
Notes to myself
- Follow your definition of true leadership.
Always have the end goal in your mind. If you know where you are going, it will be easier to find a way to get there.
- Don’t complain.
Don’t argue about how good leadership looks like . Lead by example and show how it’s done. People will naturally follow.
- You are the point of failure.
The single and most important factor in a team’s success is its leadership. Deal with it and take responsibility for yourself and people you work with.
- It’s not a reward.
If you are here for rewards, you are in the wrong place. That’s how bad managers are born. Those type of people you see in high positions, and you ask yourself “how the f*** did they even get this job??”
- It’s a service.
Being a leader is serving others, often people better than ourselves. Ultimately, you work for your team, and you can’t achieve a single thing without them. Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.
- Ask questions…
I am a London-based software engineering consultant and change-maker who helps companies solve genuine challenges and remove limitations. From guiding how a healthy organisation looks like, including the best structure, attitude and culture, to find the right balance between creative freedom, processes and true passion amongst teams. The #oneteam culture is at the core of everything I do and everything an organisation should strive for to succeed.
I help individuals to become better leaders and professionals. I’m coaching and mentoring software engineers and teams to help them reach their goals and prepare for the future unknown. I went through this journey myself, and I understand how hard it is to let go of who we are to become who we want to be.