To lead, you have to follow.

May 25, 2020. Filed under management 114

Years ago, the company I was working with hired a new Director of Engineering, and the CTO was talking about why the new Director was an amazing hire. The new Director’s clinching accomplishment? The best ever explanation of the distinction between leadership and management. This turned out not to be a particularly effective way to evaluate hires, but it is an interesting topic.

Defining leadership and management is such heavily trod terrain that it’s hard to add much to it, but roughly management is a specific profession and leadership is an approach one can demonstrate within any profession.

The way I think about leadership has evolved a bit over the last few years though, coming to focus on two specific attributes. First, leaders have a sufficiently refined view of how things ought to work that they can rely on their distinction between how things are and how they ought to be to identify proactive, congruent actions to narrow that gap. Second, they care enough about the gap to actually attempt those narrowing actions.

If you only see the gap without acting on it, you might be a visionary but you’re inert. If you take action without a clear view of the goal, many will consider you a leader but your impact will be random, arbitrary and inefficient. Combining both with some luck is likely to take you a long way in your career, and are they’re characteristics common in folks I’ve worked with who successfully navigate the transition into staff engineering or senior management roles.

But this sort of leadership can only take you so far, and personally it took me years of blundering to understand why my approach to leadership created so much early success for me when first joining a company but slowly eroded how my contribution was received over time. The lesson that I slowly learned was that you can’t be an effective long-term leader until you learn how to follow.

I think this is the most important lesson I’ve learned over the past few years: the most effective leaders spend more time following than they do leading. This idea also comes up in the idea of the “first follower creates a leader”, but effective leaders don’t split the world into a leader and follower dichotomy, rather they move in and out of leadership and follower roles with the folks around them.

There are many ways to put this approach into practice.

  1. Be clear with yourself what your true priorities are and don’t dilute yourself across everything that comes up. If there’s something you disagree with but only in a minor way, let others take the lead figuring it out. A helpful question here is, “Will what we do here matter to me in six months?” If it won’t, take the opportunity to follow.
  2. Give your support quickly to other leaders who are working to make improvements. Even if you disagree with their initial approach, someone trustworthy leading a project will almost always get to a good outcome. If someone trustworthy is leading a project and you’re still uncomfortable letting them move forward, consider why you lack confidence in your ability to influence them, and if you’re bad at giving feedback.
  3. Make your feedback explicitly non-blocking. This can be classifying a code review comment as an “optional nit”, but it can also be writing up detailed feedback but delivering it to someone mentioning that you wanted to share your perspective rather than necessarily change their approach.

If this is something you’ve struggled with, I’m sympathetic, I’ve struggled with it too. When you have a strong enough worldview to lead, you’ll start to collect others around you who rely on you maintaining that world’s physics, and tolerating any deviation from your vision can feel like you’re letting them down. But this is the epitome of something that’ll get you to one level of success but block the next: continued growth requires learning to incorporate your worldview into the worldviews of those around you, accelerating overall progress around you even if it means tolerating a detour from your vision.

What you can accomplish alone is far from what you can accomplish by creating leaders. To be a great leader, take your time learning to follow.


Some of these ideas also came up in Staying aligned with authority.