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Leadership Manifesto Part 1: Be more than a Manager, be a Leader

6 min read

Introduction

The art of being a good leader is equally craved by individuals and organizations. True leaders build healthy, highly cohesive, highly functional teams. Well led teams are motivated to work harder, accomplish more, and enjoy greater levels of happiness and satisfaction across all aspects of their lives, than those simply serving under a “manager.”

There is an often misunderstood distinction between “managers” and “leaders,” which I hope to address here. Simply put: Managers tell while Leaders inspire. In this document, I will walk through some of the patterns and anti-patterns of leadership.

This document is by no means a canonical listing of behaviors or characteristics that make up a good leader. Instead, it should serve as a starting place for junior leaders or those wishing to become leaders to begin their journey. It will also serve as a calibration point for intermediate and senior leaders responsible for larger parts of the organization or those who have been leaders for a long time and may have fallen out of practice in certain vital areas.

Leadership is a journey. An iterative process that continually changes and evolves. A good leader is always learning and evolving; they never “arrive.”

Leaders are not born; they are made

Leadership is not a title or a position. Leadership is the conscious decision to look after the person to your right and the person to the left of you.

There are leaders at all levels of an organization, and leaders come in all shapes and sizes. There are many biological and anthropological reasons why people naturally gravitate to leaders, but the bottom line is that leadership is a choice.

A tribe is defined as “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.” In other words, a tribe is a circle of trust and belonging that unifies a group to provide protection from danger.

Simon Sinek Danger Whiteboard
Credit: Simon Sinek

Evolutionarily speaking, a leader has three primary roles

  • To determine who gets in and who doesn’t.
  • To determine how big to make the circle of belonging.
  • To win, elevating the tribe’s status.

Being a leader can come with many perks. Groups naturally elevate and give deference to their leaders. Evolutionarily speaking, this comes from early human history when the leaders, the alphas of the group, were given the first choice of food after a hunt and the best shelter for rest. The idea being that if the biggest and strongest of the group were given the best food and were taken care of by the tribe, they would continue to be the biggest and strongest and thus be best able to protect the tribe from danger. Able to win.

However, leadership comes with a steep personal cost and brings with it a heavy burden.

The cost of leadership is self-interest. If you are not willing to give up your perks when it matters, then you probably shouldn’t be promoted — you might be an authority, but you will never be a leader.

Similarly, you don’t get to do less work when you become a leader. You have to do more work. That “more work” you have to do is putting yourself at risk of looking after others. In history, you see this as alphas, the leaders of a tribe, running towards danger in defense of the tribe.

In business, we often get this backward.

For example, the military gives medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. Whereas in business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain…

The DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) State of DevOps research program, which is an independent, academically rigorous investigation into the practices and capabilities that drive high performance, concluded that “organizational culture that is high-trust and emphasizes information flow is predictive of software delivery performance and organizational performance in technology.1” In layman's terms, wouldn’t you like to work in an organization where you have the absolute confidence and absolute knowledge that other people who work in the same organization as you would be willing to “sacrifice” themselves so that you may survive?

That is the difference that leadership makes.

Leaders remove individual ego and personal agenda. It’s all about the mission. How can we best get our team to most effectively execute the plan to accomplish the mission?

Managers vs. Leaders

  • There is a strong but often misunderstood distinction between “Managers” and “Leaders.” In its most simple form; Managers tell, while Leaders inspire. Leaders exemplify integrity and inspire trust and respect in their subordinates as well as their bosses.
  • True leaders are able to build highly cohesive, highly functional teams that work harder, accomplish more, and enjoy greater job satisfaction, with far lower rates of burnout, than those that are simply ‘managed.’
  • Good leadership is contagious. Everyone wants to work under good leadership, and peer managers will often see the successes of good leaders as something to emulate. A leader is never above doing the most minor or menial tasks supporting the mission and the team.
  • Leaders, you have a profound responsibility to care for the subordinates entrusted to you. You hold people’s livelihoods and sometimes lives in your hands. You are trusted with a significant amount of influence over the lives of your subordinates, a great burden that should be carried with the utmost reverence and humility.

Ownership

The bear of a team's success falls on the quality of the leader. Highly capable teams may be able to overcome poor leadership, but even the best teams will not be able to excel without good leadership. The leader’s attitude sets the tone for the entire team. The leader drives performance — or doesn’t. And this applies not just to the most senior leader of an overall team but to the junior leaders of teams within the team.

There are no bad teams, only bad leaders

And the right leader for each team may be a different person at different times based on the type of challenges faced.

James Kouzes & Barry Posner2 The Leadership Challenge (2007)

When leaders drive their teams to achieve a higher standard of performance, they must recognize that when it comes to standards, it’s not what you preach; it’s what you tolerate when setting expectations, no matter what has been said or written, if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable — if there are no consequences — that poor performance becomes the new standard. Consequences for failing need not be immediately severe, but leaders must ensure that tasks are repeated until the higher expected standard is achieved.

Ultimately, sound leadership requires knowing when to cut someone loose that can’t perform in a team. One of the more famous practical applications of this principle is Netflix’s “Keeper Test” and formal “360” evaluation tool3.

We must constantly be evaluating our team’s performance. If we aren’t winning, then we aren’t making the right decisions. And the fault for this lies with the leader, as does the responsibility for course correction.

Sources

  1. https://cloud.google.com/architecture/devops/devops-culture-westrum-organizational-culture
  2. https://www.leadershipchallenge.com/
  3. https://insights.dice.com/2018/10/29/netflix-company-culture-termination/

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