My Leadership Document — 2021 Edition
Friday, June 11, 2021
Leadership is a loaded word. We attribute a lot to it; we expect a lot from it; we know when we see it, and yet, we don’t have a concise way to describe what it means to be a great leader due to its many facets.
I’m a student of leadership. I’ve been learning, observing, and practicing different facets of leadership for several years. In this post, I want to summarize how I view leadership currently, as of June 2021. I will describe a few core leadership beliefs that I believe in and behaviors that I lean on and practice. These beliefs and behaviors are neither absolutes nor complete. These reflect my personality, what I learned so far, my experiences, and the context at work in which I currently work and lead. These are subject to change as I continue to learn and practice this craft of leadership.
Belief 1. Leadership is about being a better person
I fundamentally believe in John C. Maxwell’s point from his 2011 book 5 Levels of Leadership that “Leadership is much less about what you do and much more about who you are.” I read it 7–8 years ago and recently read the second half of the book.
I hold on to this belief as I believe that one must learn to lead themselves before one can lead others. As a person holding a leadership role, you face constant jugglery of tactics and decisions that impact others’ careers, growth, successes, and team outcomes. Unfortunately, a leader’s insecurities, opinions, bad habits, and ego come in the way of deciding what’s suitable for the team’s success and growth.
There were times when my insecurities and blind spots obstructed decision quality and positive change. My approach ended up controlling someone’s ideas once. I wanted to approach the problem space differently and ended up overshadowing that person’s enthusiasm. Later on, I realized my insecurities. There were more. I don’t think I’ll ever be out of the woods as I continue to discover behaviors that I must fix. Leadership is a journey, not a destination.
I’ve seen senior managers with a broad scope of large organizations struggle to lead due to their egos and insecurities. One particular manager wanted to take my spot in a technical forum because he felt entitled to that spot given his title. Another manager was hell-bent on getting his way and couldn’t stand the idea of his teams and others in the company taking a different way. Under his controlling leadership approach, the teams in his org got fragmented, and the strategies went nowhere. A different manager wanted to be in the driver’s seat but did not know where to drive. Finally, one particular leader’s strong beliefs on the charter of specific roles set back the careers of a few individuals by years. I’m sure most of you have stories to tell.
As John C. Maxwell writes in the same book, “If you want to become a better leader, you must not only know yourself and define your values, but you must also live them out.”
Upon my coach Janis Machala’s recommendation, I recently read Shirzad Chamine’s Positive Intelligence to discover a few of my saboteurs and lies I tell myself to justify some of my behaviors. I’m glad I did. Finding and dealing with one’s fears, egos, and poor habits is a challenging but necessary part of leadership growth. Such discovery must be a periodic exercise.
Belief 2: To create a high performing team, you must help others grow as leaders
This belief is a well-known leadership expectation, yet it’s often forgotten. You can’t create a high-performing team when you neglect team members’ leadership development. You need your team to grow to be better leaders for you to be a successful leader. Quoting again from John C. Maxwell’s book, “people development empowers the leader to lead larger.” Developing people is a force multiplier.
Easier said than done. It is why this belief is number 2 in my list of beliefs. People in leadership roles get busy day-to-day, and other than occasional feedback rituals, they don’t have enough time to develop their people. Consequently, most team interactions become transactions like meetings, reviews, plans, checkpoints, etc. Paradoxically, unless the leader carves out the time and does the hard work of developing their people, the leader won’t have time to scale themselves.
Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to see managers treating their team members as tools to create success. But, unfortunately, the same insecurities, egos, and bad habits that hinder personal growth also impede people’s development.
I must add that developing others requires investing in many other facets of leadership like listening, empathizing, coaching, inspiring, and even feedback, and managing performance mismatches.
Belief 3: Leaders must set unarguable goals for the team they lead
I’ve been a practitioner of this belief for some time. I first came across this notion of “unarguable goals” from an un-dated (2009?) Paul O’Neill’s talk on “The Irreducible Components of Leadership.” Watch below.
In this talk, Paul O’Neill shares a couple of nuggets.
He starts his talk with the first nugget, “With leadership, anything is possible, and without it, nothing is possible.” I can not help but repeat this in my head over and over. Sure, there are many components to yield positive change, but leadership is among the key elements. The leader’s beliefs and behaviors can make or break a team.
The best part of his talk is where he introduces the notion of unarguable goals — “It’s necessary for a real leader to articulate what I call unarguable goals and aspirations for the institution that they lead.”
Once I heard this, I kept seeing examples. Consider the unarguable goals that leaders in history like MLK and Mahatma Gandhi set for the people they led. Imagine back in the 1920s a lean guy coming back from South Africa to India and setting a goal “I’m going to get freedom for this country.” “Crazy!” others might have said at that time. Establishing such an unarguable goal takes courage and conviction.
I’ve had the most professional and team growth happen when the goal ahead was challenging with no clear path to success and plenty of reasons to give up midway. These are the kinds of goals everyone would agree with, but most would remain skeptical about reaching those due to the hurdles involved. Even in my current role, when I picked up a particular goal last year, more than half of my team were not convinced about reaching the goal. That changed over time, and innovation kicked in.
Unarguable goals drive creativity. Under a genuinely inspirational leader invested in their team’s growth, people go to great lengths to innovate, solve challenging problems, and endure difficulties. While doing so, people develop the skills necessary to deal with ambiguity, obstacles, and setbacks. With the experience gained, they go on to solve even more significant problems.
Positive transformational change starts with unarguable goals. It is the leader’s job to set such a goal for the team they lead. In the absence of such a goal, leadership dissolves into busy work and the illusion of progress. As a result, people don’t get a chance to discover their potential. I recall a particular discussion back in 2016 when a database engineer said that “we don’t know how to run databases well in the data center, and we would never be able to run them on the cloud.” But today, teams at work run large online databases on the cloud in multiple regions. That’s because we had an unarguable goal to be on the cloud.
But articulating unarguable goals does not mean you makeup goals that you don’t believe in and move on when the going gets tough. For example, a senior leader picked up an ambitious target for a metric for his org in a previous company. Large screens showed the progress in real-time. After a few months, the metric slowed down, that particular leader moved on to another pasture, and the screens disappeared.
On picking an unarguable goal, you must be honest to highlight brutal facts, invest in tackling the hard problems first, be grounded in reality, and continually persuade, inspire and walk with talk. You should expect criticism and pushback from peers and your team members. You must show empathy and patience to talk to people who don’t believe in what you’re saying.
You might say that the particular problems your team is dealing with, the constraints that the team is facing, or the size of your team does not empower you to set unarguable goals for your team. I beg to differ. See my Behavior 2 below. Look across your team and work areas, and you will find opportunities to set unarguable goals.
My Leadership Behaviors
Let me share how I think of leadership behaviors at this time. These are my beliefs in action. These behaviors are far more grounded in my current context than my leadership beliefs. As that context changes, I expect to refine and tune these behaviors.
Behavior 1: Setting the Pace
I was reminded of this phrase recently, and hence is at the top of my list. A crucial part of a leader’s job is to set the team’s pace. As we see time and again, as teams grow and change, organizational inertia sets in often. An issue first noticed by a team member could linger for weeks and months without a solution.
Setting the pace includes goal setting, tracking progress, timely decision making, continuous progress towards outcomes, hiring, addressing performance concerns, tackling lingering topics, anticipating issues, and asking lots of questions like there is no end. The leader and their leadership team must create a flywheel to keep things moving.
How might setting the pace appears in action? It depends.
It usually starts with a watch for lingering topics and chasing and resolving those as quickly as possible. Nobody likes to work in a team when problems remain for too long. By resolving lingering issues rapidly, you provide direction and a positive working environment for the team. When you let issues linger, you let apathy develop. People stop believing their leaders. They stop caring and move on.
It also involves some processes or rituals to check the pace regularly. Some time ago, one of my friends and an ex-colleague explained the idea of bringing information to you to scale better. There are several ways to do this. For example, in our team, we run a weekly portfolio review where we review all people-related issues like lateral movements, departures, hiring, balancing investments across different initiatives, etc. We have deep dives to go through strategic topics. Other areas require other rituals to bring information, uncover problems, and manage the pace.
Above all, setting the pace requires following the instinct and asking questions. Practicing this behavior requires coaching skills. My mantra is to try to ask five more questions when you think you’ve no more questions to ask.
Behavior 2: Watching for excuses
Nobody likes the word “excuse,” but the reality, we may not realize when we’re making excuses. But where do excuses come from? There are several sources, but let me share some patterns.
First, constraints offer a great way to make excuses. Think of everyday examples — “we lost this particular person to attrition;” “we’re not able to hire quickly;” “we have such and such unmet dependency;” “our team is not trained to do this;” “a particular person is on vacation,” etc. Yes, you wish these go away and that everything will be great afterward. You will only have new constraints to replace old mitigated constraints. Recognize that leadership is a constraint management game. Of course, your parental instinct might indulge you in listening to those constraints and sympathize. But I believe that, as a leader, you can’t accept such reasoning as inalienable and must probe into why and let the team come up with multiple options when no option seems possible.
Second, making decisions to suit convenience. When making decisions with incomplete information amidst constraints, I ask if you’re making a decision because it is convenient (say, to avoid some difficult people, org or technical problem) or believe it is the right decision. Unfortunately, convenience can be an enemy of good decisions. Convenience-based decisions tend to come back and haunt.
The third one is stopping at boundaries. As organizations grow and multiple teams form, people tend to stop at team boundaries and make excuses of why such and such is not working or slow or not meeting some other expectation. I often remind my team that stopping at such boundaries limits the outcomes we can get for the customer, but it also limits personal growth. When we stop at team or org boundaries, we grow apathy and sion. That’s because you are signaling your team that poor outcomes are somebody else’s fault.
Behavior 3: Using your leverage
The titles that come with leadership roles are not privileges bestowed on particular individuals. Instead, those are expectations on those individuals to use those titles effectively as tools of leverage to get things done. Unfortunately, people with such titles sometimes forget to use those titles for good use.
I recall one particular situation in a previous job when the team I was part of had multiple opinions about the future tech strategy. There was no clear plan, and people were debating for weeks. It was chaotic. One of my close colleagues pulled me aside and reminded me, “Subbu, I think you should be the one setting the direction. Why don’t you draft it down and share?” I worked on it for the next couple of weeks and presented it to everyone. I ended up using my role to align the team towards a particular direction and a path. I’m thankful for that reminder as we executed on that path to produce solid outcomes, though I took some arrows because not everyone agreed.
To this day, when someone brings a problem to me, I remind them their roles and titles give them the power to solve the problem themselves.
Behavior 4: Following through with commitments
I won’t delve into this behavior beyond emphasizing that producing timely and quality outcomes is an essential leadership behavior. I believe that people in leadership roles grow as leaders when they help their teams make difficult results possible quickly. Likewise, when leaders take quality and timeliness seriously, teams develop creative options when they find obstacles. It’s a win-win approach.
Behavior 5: Sharpening your knives
Here is my belief. I work in the technology industry and deal with certain kinds of technologies. Therefore, I must understand the technologies in use, how we’re building our systems, their strengths and deficits, and trends in the industry. Moreover, I must ask good questions, immerse myself in details when necessary, and know what types of strategic bets to make for the future. Since there is a limit to how much I can understand and grasp, I must know what questions to ask. In other words, as a technologist, I must keep my technology knives sharp.
I know not everyone agrees. I’ve worked with managers who view themselves above technology and details and consequently fail to ask the right kind of questions or set a direction for the team. I like Apple’s approach of experts leading experts. However, it does not mean that the leader must be a superior expert above the team. The leader must be able to speak the same language and capable of zooming in when necessary. You don’t see tennis players coaching football teams. Do you?
But watch for pitfalls. Managers with deep technical experience tend to chase details, offer opinions, and tell their team how to solve their technical problems. Nobody likes to be told. The trick is to curiously ask questions and let the team explore. Use your expertise to ask better questions to promote thinking but not dispense opinions.
Behavior 6: Picking up the hard parts of growing people
Unlike influential leadership, positional leadership puts managers in charge of precious assets — these are the people who bet their careers on and their company and their reporting managers. In this era of opportunity in the technology industry, people choose companies and managers. Managers can nurture them, grow them, and help them do great things. Or, they can use them as tools, not care for their development, not help them make lasting contributions, and let them wither away and not succeed.
However, growing people does not stop with learning and development activities, providing autonomy, coaching, mentoring, etc. Those are all necessary things. It also must incorporate hard parts:
- Continually stretching your team beyond what they think they are capable of and making yourself and your team uncomfortable every once in a while
- Setting unarguable goals for the team and challenging them with care and respect.
- Providing timely feedback without sugarcoating
- Active performance management. When you let someone go with a development mindset, you will favor that person to discover a future elsewhere.
These are my leadership behaviors and beliefs as of now. As always, I’m writing these down as writing is clarifying. I’m sharing these, hoping that they might help someone on a similar journey as I’m.