Grabbing the lead

At the risk of contradicting myself from earlier in the week when we looked at the arriviste problem and how to deal with it, I’m going to tell you that sometimes stealing a leadership role is the right thing to do.

OK, ‘stealing’ is probably the wrong word. I think I mean ‘grabbing’. As you might grab an opportunity, rather than grab another person :awkward-seal:.

Sometimes it’s clear that a situation requires someone to step forward and take the lead.

We can’t always expect that exactly the right leader will be anointed by management at exactly the right moment. This rarely happens.

Official promotions and appointments are often reactive in a fast-changing organisation made up of knowledge workers. I could give you a few examples from my own career where my job title was changed as a corrective measure to reflect the role I had been doing for the past 6 months or a year.

Senior managers are dependent on their reports to:

  1. Tell them what is really happening in their organisation
  2. Take initiative to act on problems without having to be told

In other words, a great way to manage upwards in knowledge organisations is to create and fill leadership opportunities as they arise. These opportunities can be big or small, but it’s wise to take on smaller ones at first.

Good leadership opportunities look like this:

  1. There is some local consensus around a specific problem.
  2. Solving the problem is strongly aligned with primary organisational goals.
  3. Short-term band-aids for the problem are available, but the ‘right’ fix for the problem may not be obvious to all and may involve some pain, tedium, advocacy and lobbying.
  4. Impacting the problem will take the effort of at least two people working together.
  5. Improving the situation will be visible to others.

It’s vital that you don’t take on opportunities with a solo hero mindset, at the expense of the work you’ve committed to. But at the same time ask forgiveness, not permission also has some basis in truth. Be mindful of the balance here.

In a startup or scale-up, there are countless opportunities like this just lying around. The hard trick is choosing the right one to focus on given the above criteria, and balancing it with the vital work of keeping the company alive.

For more established organisations, the opportunities may be fewer or farther between, but there are usually large and scary opportunities available that have been left untouched for years.

Reply and tell me one big leadership opportunity you would like to grasp right now. How does it match up against those criteria above? What’s stopping you from taking it on?

All the best,

– Jim

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