Leadership is not a titleFeb 13th, 2022
Yesterday I got a recruiting email for an Engineering Leadership opportunity, and I had got similar ones before. The title Engineering Leadership makes me quite uncomfortable, although it is understandable why the recruiters wrote it. For years, I was not able to tell the difference between leadership and management, especially in the engineering context. I have, however, come to my own definition over time. In my opinion, leadership is not a title reserved for (senior) management, but a skill that could and should be practiced by every individual.
Leadership versus Management
Leadership is indexed on creating value. Everyone could and should create value. A leader on a team cares first and foremost about how to maximize value creation by the entire team. The leader makes sure everyone on the team is aligned on a shared vision. They take on grunt work passionately if that is what it takes to succeed as a team. They will take accountability when there are signs of failure, but they will not worry about how to split the reward before the team succeeds.
Management is indexed on empowering people. Everyone could and should empower people. A manager on a team recognizes first and foremost that the power of any single person is limited. It takes a village, as they say. The manager will enthusiastically build the right team for the mission, create the right environment and culture for everyone to thrive, and coach each individual to maximize their potential.
Both leadership and management are important skills to have. The term management also happens to be the job title for a manager, primarily because contemporary performance review systems have to be scaled in a hierarchical organization1. Despite not having the term leadership in the title, it is also absolutely critical for managers to possess the leadership skill because the performance of a manager is ultimately evaluated by the amount of value creation by their team. However, a manager’s job will be miserable if they are the only person to demonstrate leadership on their team. As is typical in the tech industry, many organizations have designated Tech Leads who obsess with value creation by their respective organizations.
Leadership is not technical expertise
Leadership is not technical expertise. As is defined above, leadership is not about proficiency in certain technologies or mastery of certain subjects. As a manager, one easy trap to fall into is not to give enough credit to rising leaders simply because they are not “senior enough”. An equally dangerous slope is to blindly require every “senior engineer” to developer their leadership skill. I have learned both lessons the hard way by committing the mistakes by myself. To illustrate, let me refer to the example of true leadership in a different field.
Tom Brady is probably the greatest of all time in American football. He played statistically at the highest level well into his forties and most recently won the Super Bowl at the age of 442 last year. In a sport that is dominated by raw athletic talent, Brady did that by being a true leader. His singular focus is to win, and he is willing to do everything it takes to win: from a very disciplined diet and lifestyle, to being the most hard-working player; from voluntarily taking pay cuts to keep his team competitive, to supporting and protecting the most impossible teammate. My personal favorite is Brady’s debunking of his own father (with a sense of humor) to protect his previous team and coach, who were criticized by Brady Sr. for treating his son unfairly. Brady’s name was never associated with agility, strength or velocity even in his twenties, yet he retired last week with the most Lombardi Trophies in history. It is too bad that Tom Brady, as Patrick Collison would say, is not going to make a few more slam dunks in Super Bowl LVI later today.
Leadership to be continued
I argued what leadership is not in this post. It is already getting long, so I will save what leadership is for another article. For those of you who are going to watch the Super Bowl, I predict there will be no fewer touchdowns scored than slam dunks. Enjoy the show!
Effective performance measurement systems are vital to the life and death of any aspiring organization, as is pointed by Paul Graham in a tweet and an essay. In a large enough organization, contemporary management principles center around breaking down objectives and holding individual managers accountable. This arrangement seems reasonably effective to me, but I would not rule out a future where management stops being a job title, but merely a skill for everyone to practice and deploy. ↩