Leading Without a Leadership Title in Solutions
Leadership is a term we hear a lot about these days. Many people have made their career talking and consulting about leadership. Simon Sinek comes to mind. Jocko Willink is a personal favorite of mine since he’s battle-tested.
Who has not heard of the expression “Be a Leader, not a Manager”? There are so many memes and infographics talking about the differences.
As you can see from the title of this blog, I want to talk about how individual contributors, aka ICs, can be leaders. So let’s start with what leadership is all about.
Here’s the definition of “Leadership”, according to Google.
I’m curious about what this means to you. When I see this definition, I see a top-down approach. There is someone at the top who leads their people to do things.
What qualities do these people at the top have?
- Selflessness (Simon Sinek)
- Empathy (Simon Sinek)
- Grace under fire (Simon Sinek)
- Active listening
- Persuasion and influencing
If I were to define leadership, especially for individual contributors, I would define it as the willingness to solve problems that no one else bothers solving and sharing that solution.
I’m not getting paid the big bucks, why should I want to lead?
Reason #1: To do something about the things we don’t like.
Many things happen around us that we do not like. Here’s an exercise: try to count how many times in a day you complain about something. As I am writing this, Zoom did something to piss me off and I complained to the next person I talked to.
When asked why not do something about it, we say it’s just the way it is (more on this later).
I once heard a saying that goes like this: “No one complains about things they cannot control, no one complains about gravity.”
Getting back down to earth here, what is it that you’ve complained about today and how would you do it differently? If you can figure out a way to do it differently, and more importantly, a way to do it better, then you would want the power to change it. This leads me to my next point.
Reason #2: Leaders make an impact.
So far, we’ve established that there are some things you don’t like, and you have a better way to do it. You can change the way you do it yourself, but leaders have a way to help their colleagues change the way they do things as well.
At this point you didn’t just improve yourself, you improved the team, and potentially the company. You had an impact on the individuals around you, made it easier for them to do their jobs, which in turn leads to more profit for the company, and then the individuals you’ve helped can ask for a raise. The change you’ve created can make an impact on so many levels.
Reason #3: Get paid the big bucks if you want—impact radius improves and so does salary.
As your impact radius increases, you as a leader can get paid more money. Even if you don’t want a leadership position, many great organizations will pay based on the impact radius vs your rank. If the company you work for doesn’t, then you can have your pick at other companies to go to due to your achievements.
Reason #4: Solve problems and build relationships.
Many SEs I talk to love the role because they get to solve real problems. However, we always think of real problems as technical problems or customer problems. Yet, there are many human or process problems that we face every day that we don’t even think about. We assume that it’s the way it is. Nothing we can do about it.
Reason #5: Maintain Your Mental Sanity!
The worst feeling in the world is not being able to do something about an issue that is bothering you. So just knowing that you can do something to control the issue is a much more hopeful position than thinking that nothing can be done and we’re stuck with whatever situation we find ourselves in.
As leaders, we start to think differently.
One of my clients came to me with problem after problem. More importantly, he came with the mindset of fixing them, not complaining about them. Whether it’s the account team going after the wrong customer set, the implementation team not talking to the presales team, or not having a presales process, to begin with. He started tackling these issues one at a time with the goal of making his own life better. His goals:
- Not having to jump on a demo with a non-qualified customer.
2. Reducing the time that implementation responds to a feature request.
Once he solved an issue, he’d share the solution with his teammate and boss. It becomes a standard operating procedure. A few months later, he became a Field Engineering Manager, leading both the presales and the implementation team.
All this by working on solving problems.
Now that we’ve established the why. How do we lead without any actual authority to lead?
“Leadership is a choice, not a rank,” says Sinek.
1. Lead yourself!
No one would ever follow someone who cannot even do their own job. So if we want to be leaders and influence change, we should hold ourselves to the highest standards. We have to be so good that people cannot ignore us (paraphrasing Cal Newport’s book). If you cannot be accountable, then find an accountability partner.
2. Don’t Settle.
The worst statement I’ve heard is “it’s just the way it is”. I’ve even heard myself say it. But is it? Really?
If it’s just the way it is, we would still have wood wheels, ride horses, or never have discovered fire, etc.
Problems are opportunities waiting to be solved. And if you start solving problems, your job gets easier. If you are running into the same problem over and over, it could be that people tried to solve it and failed, or it could be because people are so in it that they don’t realize they have a problem.
Identifying the problem is the first step. You also don’t have to solve it alone. You can recruit some teammates who are seeing the same problem and solve it together. Now you’re being a leader and a teammate.
3. Experiment and share.
Solving problems happen from experimentation. It takes research, reiterations, and a few aha moments along the way.
Give it a try with anything in your life. If you’re performing a demo to a customer, that same demo you’ve done about 100,000 times so far, can you think of anything you can tweak? Should you tweak it? You will never know until you try. Track the results and see what yielded better results.
Finally, share those results with the team. It’s not bragging or maybe it is. There is nothing wrong with that. Bringing attention to your accomplishments is usually frowned upon; however, in my experience, people don’t get raises or promotions unless they do that. So why not do it while genuinely helping others get better at their jobs and increasing your impact radius.
4. Be a great follower.
Some would say it’s counterintuitive. If you want to be a great leader, why should you be a great follower? And here are some more controversial thoughts that always pop into my head, great followers don’t just do as they’re told. It’s not blind obedience or compliance. Great followers question their leader (maybe not in front of others) and understand the purpose behind doing something. They can function as consultants to the leader, a springboard, or a confidant.
Badmouthing the leader doesn’t help. I can almost guarantee that if you badmouth your leader, people will learn of it and badmouth you if you ever become a leader.
The main reason I say you have to be a great follower is that it helps you build a relationship with the leader, and in turn, this will make the leader want to teach you, help you and push you to become a great leader within the team.
In the end, we should aspire to be leaders. At a minimum to lead ourselves out of bed and into a healthy life, and at a maximum to lead a group of people to a better life themselves.