Leadership as an Individual Contributor
Or: How to lead if you’re not a manager
In the time of empowered and self-organizing teams, it feels like a given, that everyone should be taking on leadership. Not only the people in management positions. Some organizations even require their teams and senior developers to “be leaders”. Without giving them any kind of formal authority.
But, like many others I’ve asked myself already: What does leading mean? How do people, who don’t have explicit authority handed to them, show leadership?
So, when I discovered Tom Bartel’s post “How to Exhibit Leadership as an Individual Contributor”, I felt
excited. It felt like “Finally someone answers this age-long question” to me.
In his article, Tom gives very good guidance on how to lead without formal authority. He lists several behaviours that all contribute to being a leader.
Yet, I find some leadership aspects are missing from his list. I’ll try to describe these in my opinion crucial aspects below.
Please be aware, when reading my points, that I’m not disagreeing with Tom. Some of my points are already contained in his list of behaviours. But it’s important for me to emphasize different aspects of them. All in all, I’d like you to understand the below list as a supplement to Tom’s list.
Put your team and its deliveries first
“Software is a team sport” or as Yulia said in the most recent cto.coffee episode: “Coding is predominantly a social activity”.
From this follows: The output of a team as a whole is always more important than the output of a single individual. No
matter how experienced or productive that single individual might be. And as such, one can exhibit leadership, by
putting their team’s output before their own.
So, measure yourself by your team’s output, not by your own output alone. And you sure are on the right track to show leadership.
But be aware, that depending on your team, this might result in your own work getting less recognition. Because you might do work, that’s not as tangible as code. Such as writing onboarding documentation for new developers. Or you might make a process explicit by writing it down. Or you do a pair programming session with a peer on your team and help them get better.
Be proactive and take ownership
Taking ownership is closely related to “Put your team and its deliveries first”. One might say, the one is even a subset of the other. Still, proactiveness is important enough to warrant standing on its own.
There are challenges and problems in every team. And you can show leadership, by addressing these challenges and acting
Acting on problems and challenges can take many forms. It ranges from raising the issue with your manager or in a retrospective and following up on it. Or if you’re able to fix it yourself, make the time and do it.
Please be aware though, that not taking action on a problem you see, does not mean you don’t care or do not take
ownership. Reasons for not acting on challenges you perceive can stem from various reasons.
But if you feel comfortable, have the means to address problems in your team and do it: Then you’re on the right path to demonstrating your ability to lead.
Have an eye on the big picture
It’s very common, that some members of a team slide into a kind of tunnel vision after a while. Especially individual
contributors make this tunnel vision their own. After all, it’s considered as productivity, if they spend the largest
part of their day in the details of code.
But it sure leads to problems, if nobody is having an eye on the bigger picture.
So, you can lead, by breaking out of this tunnel vision from time to time.
Do a check of the current position of your team, with regards to where it should be at and where it should be going.
Bonus points, if you see a deviation between the current state and the wished-for state, and you have suggestions on how to fix it. Yet, realizing there’s a gap is more important than coming up with ways to fix it on your own. More often than not, it’s good practice to involve your team in finding a solution. If only to avoid putting too much effort into an idea, only to not see it supported by your team.
Make sure everyone is heard
By now, it’s a given, that diverse teams are not only the right thing to do but also a smart thing to do.
So to make the best out of your team, you should make sure their knowledge and experience is used. After all, what good does it do, if you have smart people on the team, when they don’t contribute?
A good first step to do that is to make sure everyone on your team is heard. And I really mean everyone’s opinion should be heard. If the matter is relevant to them. You can exhibit this kind of leadership behaviour, especially in team meetings. Start by asking everyone around, before making a team decision.
Of course, this does not mean, everyone should have a say in the tiniest decisions. Rather, leaders ensure that everyone who is affected by a decision has a say in that decision. Leaders make sure no one is not drowned out by other, louder voices of the team.
Seek out differing opinions and solutions
One can exhibit leadership by seeking out opinions that are different from their own.
These differing opinions don’t necessarily have to be from people on the same team. Rather, they can come from all sorts of places.
When seeking out and receiving these opinions, one should also not only tolerate them. If anything, one should listen to them actively, and actually consider them.
The goal of this is to make better-informed decisions. Decisions that are based on more diverse opinions and viewpoints.
Bonus: Lead by example
Diligent readers will notice, that Tom’s list already lists “Leading by example”. So you would not be wrong to say, this is not an extra point to Tom’s list.
Nonetheless, this one is so important that I need to list it too. Plus, it’s kind of a multiplier to all the above-listed leadership traits.
That is, show any of the above traits in a way, that makes other people on your team want to behave in the same way. Then you have the strongest indicator, that you are a leader.
It’s hard to emphasize this enough. You don’t have a formal authority of an organization bestowed upon you? Yet, people follow what you do? Then you are a textbook definition of a leader!
Also, I recommend the book “Manager’s Path” by Camille Fournier. It goes well beyond what I describe and does so with way more eloquence and depth.
Apart from that book, I assume there must be way more resources, be it books or blog posts, on this topic than only Tom’s post. The most I could find until now, where about explaining leadership in general. And not so much for individual contributors in software/operations teams.
So I’d appreciate it a lot if you send other resources in this space my way on Twitter or contact me.
I’m aware that reality is messier and more complicated than the shiny, easy world of everyone being a leader. So please don’t understand the above list as any kind of checklist one needs to fulfil in order to get recognized as a leader.
Rather, be aware that systemic and unconscious biases affect how you perceive people.
Biases may result in you perceiving behaviours of some groups of people differently than the behaviours of people from the group that’s most common in your organization.
You might not perceive people from underrepresented groups as leaders. While they may actually be leading. So, consider sponsoring people from underrepresented groups, to compensate disadvantages these groups experience. Plus, consider looking into overcoming systemic and unconscious biases, and learning about related concepts such as the glass ceiling.