Let's Be More Precise With Our Language
What happens when we conflate management with leadership
I'm just back from giving a keynote at RubyConf. It was my first in-person keynote since the pandemic. I spent the week talking with software engineers, managers and leaders from all over the world. I had so many insightful conversations. I heard so many stories about the challenges of leadership from leaders and those being lead. What an incredible experience.
My keynote focused on how being a leader can feel like being lost in the wilderness. A big reason leaders feel lost is because we conflate management with leadership. We (society, media, regular folks) use these terms interchangably. Except, they are the not the same at all. They’re different disciplines. Not all leaders manage others and not all managers are leaders.
When we aren’t precise with our language, things get fuzzy. Conflating these two disciplines makes leaders feel unclear about their role. It also confuses the team. Fusing together management and leadership also leaves out a whole group of leaders who don't manage — namely senior ICs. In the engineering world these are staff, principal, chief architects, advisor to the CTO and the like. These folks exist in nearly every discipline. While we might call these folks ICs, they need the same skills as other leaders who operate at the organizational level. When we conflate these two disciplines we’re less likely to recognize their leadership. We also invest in them less.
This is a real mistake. The entire org feels the impact.
Thankfully there's more recognition of the importance of these leaders and the role they play. Currently Senior Principle Engineer at Squarespace and a former Googler, Tanya Reilly wrote a fantastic book, The Staff Engineer's Path. If you're thinking of taking this path, manage or lead these folks, highly recommend it. In the meanwhile, here's an interview I did with Tanya for the LeadDev Bookmarked series.
P.S. This is not the first time I’ve written about this nor the the last. I'll write more about the difference between management and leadership in the future. Consider this your appetizer.
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