7 mins

The first steps to leadership

Meet Shawn. Shawn is a software engineer considering a leadership role in the future. Shawn loves writing software, but they're noticing a few peers transitioning to a Tech Lead or Engineering Manager role. Should they too? Shawn is unsure about what would change, or even if they'd be good at it.

You might be considering stepping onto the leadership path, but like Shawn you may be unsure about whether you should or not. In this article, we'll explore some good reasons to step into a leadership role and a few not-so-good ones.

Good reasons to seek a leadership role

Those who seek a leadership role for the right reasons will have greater success. They'll see new and challenging tasks as an opportunity to learn, rather than a chore that needs doing. They'll invest more effort in doing  an outstanding job rather than coasting on the bare minimum, and they'll be curious to constantly improve rather than pretend they are a master  of every leadership skill.

Here are 5 good reasons to seek a leadership role:

1. Desire to have more impact

As an individual contributor you have a limited impact. There is only so much time you have and only so much you can do in that time. Your skills and strengths constrain what you are able to do with that time, and you will be better at some activities than others. 

As a leader, you have a broader impact because you have more than you: you also have your team, and a high-performing team achieves much more than a single individual can. A team has more time to do work in parallel and benefits from the broader team’s skill set and experiences; where one team member has a gap, another can step in and fill it. 

If you seek a leadership role to have more impact, you'll focus less on what you do as an individual. You recognise it's more about what the team can do and how the team works together that matters, and with this attitude you will build high performing teams and lead effectively. 

2. An opportunity to build different skills

Leaders draw upon very different skills than individual contributors. The skills you built as a developer will help you write clean, concise, and well-tested code but these skills won't help you navigate difficult conversations. Nor will they prepare you to give effective feedback or influence other stakeholders. 

When you recognise you need to invest in different skills, you'll grow much faster as a leader and you'll even enjoy it because it will be an opportunity to develop in different ways. You'll have the opportunity to learn and practice leadership skills such as active listening, coaching, mentoring, and influencing. As you focus on developing these skills, you'll feel like you grow much more as a person and into a more capable leader.

3. Interest in watching others grow

Some leaders I know started out because they wanted to positively influence others. They saw that when team members grow, their team's impact also grows. They also realised with the support of a great leader people can grow much faster.

When you have an interest in watching others grow, you'll find optimal ways to make it happen and stretch opportunities for team members. These opportunities give team members a chance to try something new but with a safety net. If the team member succeeds they grow and the team benefits from the outcome and their experience, but if a team member fails with this safety net in place, they have a chance to learn and try again.

Leaders who invest in their team members' growth will long be remembered by not only those who benefitted from the team's outputs, but also by the team members who grew. 

4. Desire to improve the environment

Some people seek a leadership role because they have ideas to improve the work environment and that's a great leadership habit to have. As Grace Hopper once said, "You manage things and lead people." In software teams, “managing things” means leaders constantly improve the environment for their team.

Team members are so focused on work, they often don't have time to improve the environment. Good leaders focus on this instead, knowing it’s where they can have leverage. Imagine a team who waits for three or four signatures from external stakeholders to approve work items. Now imagine a leader who agreed with these stakeholders on a streamlined process involving only one person, resulting in the team being able to achieve much more. 

Work environments can either empower or constrain how teams work. Leaders who want to improve the environment don't wait for their team to complain but rather proactively search for improvements. These improvements translate into better team morale, better outcomes and a much more effective team.

5. Act as a Role Model

Ever hear the saying, "Do as I say, not as I do"? Here's a common example: a leader asks their team to join meetings on time, but they themselves are often late. We call this incongruent behaviour and it demonstrates ineffective leadership. 

Effective leaders know that what they say and what they do matters. Congruent behaviour sends a consistent message to the team about what is important. If you want to be a role model, focus on congruent behaviour and you'll do a much better job than those who don't. As the other old saying goes, "Actions speak louder than words."

Reasons not to seek a leadership role

When someone  seeks a leadership role for the following reasons, they are setting themselves and their team up for failure. At best they will become a mediocre leader, and a mediocre leader produces a mediocre team.

1. Do it for the money

Some people see leadership roles as the only way to make more money. The logic appears sound. A leadership role has more responsibility, therefore the role should  make more money, and  who doesn't want more money? 

When people seek a leadership role for money, they forget it also comes with accountability. This means that it's not enough to have the title. They must also fulfil the additional responsibilities. When money is the motivator  the leader will do the bare minimum necessary, and great leaders don't settle for the bare minimum. 

2. Do it for the power

I've heard some engineers say, "when I'm the boss, I can finally have it my way." A person with this attitude wants to avoid conflict. They don't want to "waste" time on debates and want to decide on the final outcome. While this may sound ideal as an individual contributor, they're in for a surprise. A leader who always gets their way will never make a great leader as they are exercising control over their team.

A leader controlling their team loses out on the benefits teams bring to the table. When team members don't contribute to building solutions they won't feel committed to the solution. Team members who propose alternative approaches will eventually stop suggesting new ideas if they are constantly ignored or overruled. These team members will eventually find a team who welcomes their ideas and this will most likely be in a different company. Those who stay will never propose improvements and they will never go out of their way to support others who make mistakes. In short, a controlling leader never builds a high performing team.

3. Do it for the fame

Some people seek a leadership role so they can always be in the limelight and they want the opportunity to network with people across the organisation. These types of leaders want to claim their team successes as their own.

High-performance teams rely on trust and when a leader takes all the glory, they fail to build trust with  their team. A greater leader is team-oriented and wants to share the credit, and when they do they earn the admiration and most importantly the trust of team members which is necessary for a leader to be effective.

Look deeply to understand your real reasons

Before seeking out a leadership role Shawn asks a friend for advice. "Do you think I'd make a good leader?" Shawn asks. Their friend replies, "Why do you want to become a leader?" It's a good question that makes Shawn think. After some time, Shawn answers, "I want to be a leader because I want to work on the best team I can. I realise I can make that happen by taking a leadership role."

Your reason for becoming a leader is the difference between becoming a great or a mediocre leader. Before you seek a leadership role, look deeply inside yourself like Shawn. Ask yourself, "What are your true motivations for seeking a leadership role?" If the motivations are one of the right reasons, then you can grow to be the best leader you can be and your team will benefit.