Success as a Leader, Without the Ego (or, As Long as the Project is Successful, Do I Really Need to Take Credit For It?)

One interesting thing about being a leader is dealing with different types of conflicts. I’ve talked a lot about when there are various aspects or different goals that directly contradict each other. How do you deal with that healthy tension between different competing priorities?

The reality is that we all have our personal goals. But there’s a natural tension that comes with supporting your business. You might be trying to help a company or organization succeed, but at the same time, you need to manage and grow your career. Generally speaking, in business, you need to focus on producing and delivering products and services for your customers. So if you look at it through that lens, there’s an interesting perspective here: you need to be focused on the results for your customer, not necessarily how you got there.

Now, what do I mean by that? Let’s say that you have some great idea, but your team, for whatever reason, just isn’t listening to you about it. Your thoughts and suggestions are not being heard. But through gentle prodding, whispering, and guidance, the team suddenly finally comes around to the idea, goes and delivers it, and now has a successful and happy customer. Meanwhile, one or two people on the team are sitting there thinking that they thought of this idea, and they’re all super proud and happy about it.

Of course, your ego is going to be a little bit hurt; it was your idea after all! But if you’re a strong leader, do you care? Your goal is to deliver a successful outcome to the customer, and who cares whether you get the credit or some developer on your team gets the credit. But on the other hand, and let’s be pragmatic, you are trying to curate and manage your career. You want to make sure that you are getting noticed for your good ideas.

One thing I’ve learned is that as a leader, it is about ultimate success and output altogether. I think of it as, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” As a leader or manager, I worry less about my specific personal goals. Instead, I focus on the success of the projects for all teams and people that I’m leading. I’m working to ensure that their projects will be successful at the end of the day. And I genuinely believe, if you have a strong management team above you, they will notice. It is my experience that they will see that the teams and projects you are directly related with are successful, and they will see the common factor is that you are involved with them. And then you can have those conversations behind closed doors with your management chain to talk about that. Be candid and say you are not here trying to take credit, but you want them to understand that a lot of the success is because of your leadership skills.

The challenge can be, of course, that many people maybe don’t understand or don’t see how you were able to guide them. (I call this the invisible hand approach.) And so, from their perspective, they might see you as just trying to take all the credit. You have to be careful to make sure that you are giving honest credit where credit is due, especially when your teammates do a lot of the heavy lifting. But also be candid and forthcoming with your leadership about how your guidance, coaching, and mentoring led to this.

You don’t need to worry too much about pushing that narrative downwards because it doesn’t matter at the end of the day. But I can say in my experience that it does get noticed if all the projects you’re attached to tend to be successful, and it does get noticed that the common factor is that you are the one involved. And this will help lead to the recognition of you being someone who can deliver successful outcomes. It may not be recognition for some specific success, but you can show that you have a track record of success by being involved with successful projects.

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