What Is ‘Leadership’ Anyway?

If you spend any time on LinkedIn you’re likely to bump into content about this thing called “leadership”. Many posters fancy themselves as experts in this mysterious quality. Many promote themselves as professional “leaders”.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I think this is nonsense. And now I’m going to tell you why.

Leading Is Not What You Think It Is?

Let’s think of what that word means: “Lead the way”, “Follow my lead”, “Tonight’s leading news story”, “Mo Farah is in the lead”.

When you lead, it usually means that you go first.

Leading is distinctly different from commanding or inspiring, but that’s what many professional “leaders” mistake it for.

Leaders don’t tell people where to go. They show people the way by going first.

I don’t tell people to write their tests first. I write my tests first and show them how. I lead by example.

‘Leader’ Is Not A Job Title

Organisations appoint what they believe to be good leaders into roles where leading by example is difficult, if not impossible. They give them titles like “Head of” and “Director of” and “Chief” and then promote them away from any activity where they would have the time to show rather than tell.

The real leaders are still on the shop floor. It’s the only place they can lead from.

And, as we’ve probably all experienced, promoting the people who could set the best example into roles where they can’t show instead of tell is a very common anti-pattern.

We Are Not Your Flock

Another common mistake is to see leadership as some kind of pastoral care. Now, I’m not going to suggest that organisations shouldn’t take an interest in the welfare of their people. Not just because happy workers make better workers, but because they are people, and therefore it’s the right thing to do.

And executives could set examples – like work-life balance, like the way they treat people at all levels of the corporate ladder, and like how much they pay people (yeah, I’m looking at you, gig economy) – but that’s different to the way many of them perceive that role.

Often, they’re more like religious leaders, espousing principles for their followers to live by, while indulging in drug-fuelled orgies and embezzling the church’s coffers.

And the care that most people need at work is simply to not make their lives worse. If you let them, grown-ups will grown-up. They can buy their own massage chair if they want one. Nothing more disheartening than watching managers impose their ideas about well-being on to actual adults who are allowed to drink and drive and vote.

If people are having problems, and need help and understanding, then be there for that. Don’t make me go to paintball. I don’t need it, thanks.

The Big Bucks

Most developers I know who moved into those “leadership” roles knew it was a mistake at the time – for the organisation and for themselves – but they took the promotion anyway. Because “leadership” is where the big bucks are.

The average UK salary for a CTO is £85,000. For a senior developer, it’s £60,000 (source: itjobswatch.co.uk). But how senior is “senior”? I’m quite a senior developer. Most CTOs are junior by comparison.

And in most cases, CTO is a strategic command – not a leadership – role (something I freely admit I suck at). A CTO cannot lead in the way I can, because I set an example for a living. For all I know, there are teams out there I’ve never even met who’ve been influenced more by me than by their CTO.

‘Leader’ Is A Relative Term

When I’ve been put in charge of development teams, I make a point of not asking developers to do anything I’m not prepared to at least try myself, and this means I’m having to learn new things all the time. Often I’m out of my comfort zone, and in those instances I need leadership. I need someone to show me the way.

Leadership is a relationship, not a role. It’s relative. When I follow you, and do as you do, then you are the leader. When you do as I do, I’m the leader.

In the course of our working day, we may lead, and we may follow. When we’re inexperienced, we may follow more than we lead. But every time you’ve shown someone how you do something and they’ve started to do it too, you’re a leader.

Yes, I know. That sounds like teaching. Funny, that.

But it doesn’t have to be an explicit teacher-student relationship. Every time you read someone’s code and think “Oh, that’s cool. I’m going to try that”, you have been led.

It’s lonely at the top

For sure, there are many ways a CxO could lead by example – by working reasonable hours, by not answering emails or taking calls on holidays, by putting their trust in their people, or by treating everyone with respect. That’s a rare (and beautiful) thing. But it’s the nature of heirarchies that those kinds of people tend not to get ahead. And it’s very difficult to lead by example from a higher strata. If a CTO leaves the office at 5:30pm, but none of her 5,000 employees actually sees it, does it make a sound?

Show, Don’t Tell

So, leadership is a very distinct thing from command. When you tell someone to do something, you’re commanding. When you show them how you do it – when you go first – that’s leading.

“Show, don’t tell” would be – if it had one – Codemanship’s mission statement. Right from the start, I’ve made a point of demonstrating – and not presenting – ideas. The PowerPoint content of Codemanship training courses has diminished to the point of almost non-existent over the last 12 years.

And in that sense, I started Codemanship to provide a kind of leadership: the kind a CTO or VP of Engineering can’t.

Set Your Leaders Free

I come across so many organisations who lack technical leadership. Usually this happens because of the first mistake – the original sin, if you like – of promoting the people who could be setting a good example into roles where they no longer can, and then compounding that mistake by stripping authority and autonomy from people below that pay grade – because “Well, that’s leadership taken care of”.

I provide a surrogate technical leadership service that shouldn’t need to exist. I’m the CTO who never took that promotion and has time – and up-to-date skills – to show you how to refactor a switch statement. I know people who market themselves as an “Interim CTO”. Well, I’m the Interim Old Programmer Who’s Been Around Forever.

I set myself free by taking an alternative career path – starting my own company. I provide the workshops and the brown bag sessions and the mobbing sessions and the screencasts and the blog posts that you could be creating and sharing within your organisation, if only they’d let you.

If only they’d trust you: trust you to manage your own time and organise things the way you think will work best – not just for getting things done, but for learning how to do them better.

People working in silos, keeping their heads down, is antithetical to effective leadership. Good ideas tend to stay in their silos. And my long experience has taught me that broadcasting these ideas from on-high simply changes nothing.

Oh, The Irony

I believe this is a pretty fundamental dysfunction in organisational life. We don’t just have this problem in tech: we see it repeated in pretty much every industry.

Is there a cure? I believe so, and I’ve seen and been involved with companies who’ve managed to open up the idea of leadership and give their people the trust and the autonomy (and the resources) to eventually provide their own internal technical leadership that is self-sustaining.

But they are – if I’m being honest – in the minority. Training and mentoring from someone like me is more likely to lead to your newly inspired, more highly skilled people moving on to a company where they do get trust and autonomy.

This is why I warn clients that “If you water the plant, eventually it’ll need a bigger pot”. And if pushed to describe what I do, I tell them “I train developers for their next job”. Would that it were not so, but I have no control over that.

Because I’m not in charge.

I’m A Slacker, And Proud Of It

That probably sounds like an unwise thing to put on your CV, but it’s nevertheless true. I deliberately leave slack in my schedule. I aim not to be busy. And that’s why I get more done.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, that’s the truth. The less I fill my diary, the more I’m able to achieve.

Here’s why.

Flash back to the 1990s, and picture a young and relatively inexperienced lead software developer. Thanks to years of social conditioning from family, from school, from industry, and from the media, I completely drank the Hussle Kool-Aid.

Get up early. Work, work, work. Meetings, meetings, meetings. Hussle, hussle, hussle. That’s how you get things done.

I filled my long work days completely, and then went home and read and practiced and learned and answered emails and planned for next work-packed day.

A friend and mentor recognised the signs. He recommended a I read a book called Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork & The Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom DeMarco. It changed my life.

Around this time, ‘Extreme Programming’ was beginning to buzz on the message boards and around the halls of developer conferences. These two revelations came at roughly the same time. It’s not about how fast you can go in one direction – following a plan. It’s about how easily you can change direction, change the plan. And for change to be easy, you need adaptive capacity – otherwise known as slack.

Here was me as a leader:

“Jason, we need to talk about this urgent thing”

“I can fit you in a week on Thursday”

“Jason, should we look into these things called ‘web services’?”

“No time, sorry”

“Jason, your trousers are on fire”

“Send me a memo and I’ll schedule some time to look into that”

At an organisational level, lack of adaptive capacity can be fatal. The more streamlined and efficient they are at what they currently do, the less able they are to learn to do something else. Try turning a car at its absolute top speed.

At a personal level, the drive to be ever more efficient – to go ever faster – also has serious consequences. Aside from the very real risk of burning out – which ends careers and sometimes lives – it’s actually the dumbest way of getting things done. There are very few jobs left where everything’s known at the start, where nothing changes, and where just sticking to a plan will guarantee a successful outcome. Most outcomes are more complex than that. We need to learn our way towards them, adjusting as we go. And changing direction requires spare capacity: time to review, time to reflect, time to learn, time to adjust.

On a more serious note, highly efficient systems tend to be very brittle. Think of our rail networks. The more we seek to make them more efficient, the bigger the impact on the network when something goes wrong. If we have a service that takes 30 minutes to get from, say, London Waterloo to Surbiton, and we run it every hour, if there’s a delay, there’s 30 minutes of slack to recover in. The next train doesn’t have to be late. If we run it every 30 minutes – at maximum “efficiency” – there’s no wiggle room. The next train will be late, and the one after that, etc.

My days were kind of like that; if my 9am meeting overran, then I’d be late for my 9:20, and late for my 10am, and so on.

When we stretch ourselves and our systems to breaking point – which is what ‘100% efficiency’ really means – we end up being rigid (hard to change) and brittle (easy to break).

We’re seeing that now in many countries’ handling of the pandemic. After a decade of ideological austerity stripping away more and more resources from public services in the UK, forcing them to become ever more ‘efficient’, the appearance of the unexpected – though we really should have been expecting it at some point – has now broken many of those services, and millions of lives.

Since the late 90s, I’ve deliberately kept my diary loose. For example, I try very hard to avoid running two training courses in the same week. When someone else was managing my diary and my travel arrangements, they’d have me finishing work in one city and jumping on a late train or flight to the next city for another appointment the next morning. This went wrong very, very often. And there was no time to adjust at all. If you’ve ever tried to find a replacement laptop at 7am in a strange city, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

So I highly recommend reading Tom’s book, especially if you’re recognising the symptoms. And then you too can become a more productive slacker.