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Myths about leading
An incomplete list
This edition was inspired by this conversation. In writing about the difference between managing and leading I found myself coming back over and over to myths about leading. Confusing management with leadership is definitely one but there are so many more. These misunderstandings lead to misaligned expectations and friction. Those who understand the rigors of leading are more likely to successfully navigate it. It helps the team understand the role more too.
Note: This is my perspective only. This post is not exhaustive on the topic nor my thoughts on it. This is a place to start conversation on a complex subject.
#1 Management and leadership are the same
We use these terms interchangably. They are not synonyms. While they’re adjacent they’re in different domains. The mechanisms of managing and leading are different.
Leading focuses on vision and strategy, managing on guiding the actions and artifacts needed to bring that vision to life. Managing focuses on doing the work given, leading means taking initiative to spot and resolve problems at an organzational level. Managing trades in motivating others whereas leading means inspiring or influencing. Managing needs good relationships with the team to accomplish a task together. Leading requires strong relationships across the organization in order to navigate friction.
The reason to talk about these differences isn’t just semantics. Defining them is the first step to understanding that managing and leading are different domains. Programs teaching managing skills are plentiful, we invest far less in teaching people how to lead.
#2 All leaders manage people
While many leads manage others, not all do. For example, senior IC leaders like principal or staff engineers. This kind of leading means mentoring others but not necessarily managing on a day-to-day basis. These leaders tend to think in systems, solving problems at an organizational level. Another example is a CTO who focuses on the technical strategy partnered with a VP of Engineering focused on managing the people bits. The CTO is technically the manager of the VP of Engineering though very little true management is likely happening.
In both cases this leadership is invaluable even though they don’t manage others. Successful orgs have leaders who manage the people bits as well as those focus on the technical ones.
#3 Good managers should be promoted to lead
People who are good at managing are often promoted to roles that require leadership skills. Experience managing tasks, people or projects doesn’t equate to success in leading. Though this is articulated in myth #1, there’s one I want to emphasize: relationship management.
Management sits in between the team doing the work and those directing the strategy and vision. Focused on work in our part of the org, we become adept at managing up and managing down. We aren’t adept at working with peers across the company.
When leading you have to know how to build cross-functional coalitions. When leading, we can’t complain about the marketing guy, writing him of as irritating or incompetent; we have to find a way to work together. Those who don’t know how to work across company structures fail.
Note: I hear stories all the time about folks who push for promotions far before they’re ready, especially a jump to director or vp. They don’t recognize the gap in the skills needed to lead organizational efforts. It’s not all their fault, frequent promotions early in careers primes us to expect them. As skills collect and we move into more senior roles, the promotions slow down. Someone might go a couple of cycles or more before being promoted. This can feel like failure.
Part of the problem is a lack of education about what it takes to move from managing to leading at a larger scope. Career ladders often stop near the director level. We haven’t figured out how to express what good leadership looks like but if we want to prepare people, it’s imperative.
#4 Hands-on experience with the work is required
Managing people often means working in areas where you have practical experience. When leading you might be responsible for areas you’ve don’t have hands on experience. This means you can’t rely on your expertise or jump in to solve problems directly. As a lead, being able to do the work can actually hurt more than help. Those who build a career on doing the work can struggle to delegate, jumping in to solve problems eventually they become a blocker. When leading you have to relinquish control and embrace building capacity in others.
While context is helpful, practical experience with each part of the work isn’t necessary. Leading requires an ability to build strong relationships outside your area, ask good questions, know how to delegate and handle ambiguity. Those aren’t necessarily skills you’ll learn with hands-on exerience doing the work.
#5 Anyone who leads is ego-driven
Everyone has some sort of ego, it’s necessary building block for confidence and can help us be more resilient. Yes, some do get seduced by the authority the comes with leading. You don’t need to be narcissus to lead. Like this ancient greek, a big ego can be your downfall. Many who lead seek to diminish their ego in service of the team, often known as servant leadership. Wanting to serve others is why I became a COO. The nadir of my experience came when I wasn’t able to use my authority to change a situation causing pain, not because my ego wasn’t stroked enough.
Those who lead with ego struggle. There are more powerful ways to lead. Putting ego aside eases work collaboration and can bring the best ideas forward.
#6 Not everyone can lead
This one frustrates me the most. There isn’t a leadership seed that comes with you at birth. Leaders aren’t rare unicorns. Anyone can lead. Underneath this myth is an assumption is that there’s one right way to lead. This leaves out many styles of leading, especially those that don’t fall in line with the idea of what a “traditional” leader looks like. Leading doesn’t only mean being stoic and pushing past every obstacle no matter the cost. Leading sometimes can look being vulnerable or pulling together a coalition of people. Many styles of leading get results. The very best teams use a variety of styles.
There isn’t one right way to lead. I’m tired of narratives that paint one leadership style above all others. It’s a sea of sameness. Pernicious beliefs favoring one style of leadership over other equally effective ones is why I created the leadership archetypes framework. I’m doing leadership team experiences (workshops) and will be launching a product so more about this soon.
How about you. What’s a myth about leading that you want to bust?
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.