How to Become a Leader

Something I occasionally get asked is, “How do I promote up?  I want to be a technical leader or manager so what do I need to do to get there?”

There are lots of things that spring immediately to mind: be a mentor, help others succeed, be a problem-solver instead of a complainer.  I also firmly believe that if you area a good leader, even if you are not “officially” in a leadership position, then it will just happen naturally.  What I mean is, look behind you. Are there people following you? Then you’re a leader.

But one thing that stands out, in terms of getting noticed by management and getting promoted, is this: have the breadth of vision and execute to it.

It’s very easy to get caught up in your individual tasks and projects and be focused on just that.  And that’s ok! Many people love technical and engineering jobs because of just that (myself included).  I love getting immersed in a problem and finally solving it. But if you want to be in a leadership role, then you have to think about more than just your own projects.  In fact, dare I say you think about other people’s projects even at the cost of your own.

Being a superstar at the one thing in front of you can certainly make you valuable to the organization, but doesn’t necessarily mean you are the right fit to be placed in a leadership position.  What makes you fit for a management role is when you can see the big picture and help the organization move forward as a whole. And sometimes that might mean your project suffers a bit.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that, in general, people tend to dislike their managers.  If you look at Slashdot or Reddit, managers are viewed as shortsighted, unthinking, and oblivious.  If you feel that way, then take a moment and stop. Is your manager an intelligent, reasonable person?  OK, maybe not, but in a lot of cases they are. So why would you think that they would make unintelligent, unreasonable decisions, unless there really is a reason for it?

If your manager is making a decision that seems wrong to you, instead of just immediately denouncing it, maybe think about why they are making that decision.  What is it that is in their sphere of information that is leading them to decide that way? I like to say, “there’s always more to the story.” Very likely they know some information that you don’t.  And it might be as simple as, they are being directed to move in that direction. So maybe just ask them, what is it that is leading them to decide that way? What is happening, outside of my project or team, that is influencing this decision?  Maybe there are other things that management feels is more important than my project (GASP!).

OK, so now here’s the REAL kicker.  When they tell you, don’t just take it and try to twist it against them.  I’ve had people question my decisions, and I realized what they were trying to do was catch me in some trap or mistake, so they could go, “AHA! You didn’t think of that!  See? You’ve made the wrong decision.” Instead, take the information and help them figure out how to make their decision a success. Be a key executor of their decision.

I can (almost) guarantee you what will happen.  If you continue to do this, your manager will come to know they can rely on you.  They will start to trust your judgement because they know they can trust you. And eventually it will lead to a place where they will listen to your input, perhaps even just push the decision-making on to you.

The main reason people want to be in leadership roles, I believe, well, is actually probably money.  But the secondmost reason is they want to be the decision makers. They don’t like the decisions being made so they want to be the one to make them.  If that’s you, then one way to get into that place is to be that agent of change. But it may not happen overnight; you can’t just come in to work one day and suddenly tell everyone what to do.  But if you can show people that you can lead them to success, no matter what, then they will follow you and look to you for guidance, decision-making, and leadership.

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