Leadership basics I wish I had learned earlier - Part II

This blog on leadership has three sections.  Part I, as Simon Sinek suggests, starts with “why”; why are we talking about leadership at all?  Part II focuses on “what”; what leaders actually do for work.  And Part III focuses on the “how”; how you can develop your leadership values and most importantly habits.

In this second of three articles, I want to be a little more concrete and examine what a leader’s job actually is and how that relates to the concept of servant leadership. Just like most high school students feel pressure to go to college, most young professionals often feel pressure to aspire to leadership positions.  But just like college isn’t the path for every teen, leadership positions won’t be the best path for every young professional.  How do you know what the right path is for you? Well, let’s start to answer that by looking at what people in leadership positions actually do.

A leader’s job, first and foremost, is to ensure

the success of their team.

How you achieve this matters.  Leaders won't take a tyrannical or machiavellian, ends-justifies-the-means approach.  Remember, our foundation is Servant Leadership.  Bosses will resort to tyranny, leaders will not. 

It is also worth noting, leaders and managers, though these terms are commonly used interchangeably, are not necessarily the same thing.  Servant leadership tells us that a leader is someone others are willing to follow.  Companies can label you a “manager” and often they will refer to you as a leader as well.  But its probably best to not let it go to your head.  The only people who can bestow you with the title of leader are those you aspire to lead.

What about the person who is not in a leadership position, the individual contributor?  They don’t manage people or teams.  But can they be leaders?  Certainly!!  Again, leaders are people that others are willing to follow.  If your desire is to have influence, you don’t need a title!  (Though, practically speaking, having a leadership title will instantly give you some level of credibility in the eyes of others that the individual contributor has to constantly work to re-establish when working with new unfamiliar folks.)  Keep this in mind as your career progresses.  Let’s now take a look at what people in leadership positions actually do.

It’s worth differentiating a few broad leadership levels: (1) executives, (2) senior to mid-level leaders, and (3) low-level or front line leaders. The description that follows describes every organization I’ve worked for: from small companies with less than 200 employees to large companies with over 70k, from financial institutions in conservative corporate America to innovative AI startups, as well as public schools, universities and the military.

At the highest level are the executives.  This is the C-suite and senior vice presidents (CEO, CFO, SVP, General or Flag officers).  They make decisions around high level corporate strategy.  Below them are senior to mid-level leaders (VP, assistant VP, Field grade officers).  They typically make decisions around the execution of the corporate strategy, including things like prioritization, resourcing and budgeting.  Below them are the front-line leaders (company grade officers) who are very close to the individual contributors.  They will have varying degrees of decision-making authority delegated to them by their superiors but their primary role is to ensure the individual contributors - i.e. the ones that actually do the work - are productive.  But at every one of these levels, the leader’s primary job is to ensure the success of their team, in particular their direct reports.

Servant leadership tells us that the leader serves those he/she leads.  Listens to their concerns.  Gives them the training and enablement they need to do their job.  Gets them the resources they need.  Removes obstacles that are in their way.  Ensures they are productive as well as happy.  Shows faith in them when things are challenging.  Encourages them in the face of failure.  Has discussions with them to ensure they are aligned with a direction that they find fulfilling. If they don’t know their long-term direction, help them make progress towards discovering it. This just scratches the surface, but doing all of this will require you to spend time with your team, getting to know them, their desires, their motivations and fears, their strengths and weaknesses, etc.  (Will you coach or teach them?  Certainly, but that’s another topic for another day.)

Before moving into a leadership position, you have to ask yourself if this is really what you want to do.  Will you find fulfillment in doing all these things?  Are you truly interested in the success of other people?  If this does appeal to you, then you’ll want to start preparing yourself now.  Often it is the best butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers that get promoted to lead other butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers, but being good at baking doesn’t mean you will be good at leading.  So how do you prepare yourself?  This will be the topic of the next and final article in this three part series.

If you have thoughts you’d like to share please comment below, I’d love to hear from you!


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