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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Closing Leadership Gap

Closing Leadership Gap post image

A theme that pops up every now and then is a leadership gap. An organization or its part finds itself in a situation where they need more leaders that there potentially are available. They might outgrow the old model and the existing leaders just don’t scale up. They might be facing challenges when someone had left the organization. It might be a simple consequence of evolving how the organization works. A list of potential reasons is long.

A list of potential solutions is surprisingly short though. Typically it’s either hiring some people or promoting a bunch of folks to leadership positions. The former often means a lot of uncertainty. We don’t know whether a candidate would fit existing culture and pretty frequently we don’t even know how to verify that they have the right traits and skills.

The latter, while it seems safer, is commonly a root cause of having the wrong people in leadership or management positions.

What is a leader anyway?

The problem of a leadership gap is actually deeper than we think. A part of it is how we constrain our understanding of leadership. In vast majority of situations when I hear about leadership debt a story is about leadership positions.

You know, it’s about a position of a technical leader, line manager or something along these lines. This will never scale well.

Even if scaling wasn’t an issue a situation when a team relies on a single leader is a huge risk itself. I would simply question that any single person is competent to make all the leadership calls you can think of. For example, on any given team I’m likely one of the last folks you want to enlist to lead with a technical issue.

My answer to leadership gap starts with defining leadership as a contextual role and not position. This means that depending on circumstances anyone can act as a leader. It doesn’t matter what position they are in, what their tenure is or how much formal power they have. The only thing that matters is that within a given context they are the right ones to lead a team.

Suddenly leadership gap doesn’t exist anymore as basically everyone is a leader and acts as one in appropriate moments.

Where Leaders Thrive

Obviously it’s not that easy. The magic won’t happen without a right environment. There are two critical bits to make it happen.

The first is empowerment. Everyone has to know that they are supposed to be leaders whenever they feel like it. It starts with formal leaders, people in leadership positions, ceasing to execute their power. It’s not dodging the responsibility. Pretty much the opposite. It’s taking responsibility for decisions made by someone else. That’s quite a challenge for most of us.

The best summary of such attitude are Grace Hopper’s famous words:

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.”

If your people believe in that and act accordingly, they truly are empowered. It also means that from time to time they will make you willing to yell at them: “Why the hell hadn’t you asked before you did something so utterly dumb?” What you should do instead is shut up. Don’t ruin that.

The second bit is trust. If you don’t trust your team you will always be struggling with a leadership gap. Without trust the empowerment part would be meaningless empty words. No one would attempt to play a role of a leader and even if they do it once there wouldn’t be a second attempt.

This is difficult because it means giving up control. But wait, we want more leaders so we are talking exactly about this – giving up control. How is anyone supposed to lead if their every action is double-checked by someone else?

Closing Leadership Gap

I have an idea for you. Instead of asking how to close a leadership gap think whether your people feel empowered or rather carefully managed. Ask yourself how you react when they screw something up and how it affects their future actions. Finally, be brutally honest with yourself: do you trust your people?

The leadership gap problem is never solved by getting more leaders. The solution is creating an environment where leadership thrives.

In other words the key to this puzzle is not outside the system but within it – in a way existing leaders act. And obviously the more senior the leaders the more they influence the situation. If you are complaining that you lack leaders in your team it’s likely your fault.

in: software business, team management

3 comments… add one

  • Weronika Ł. January 20, 2014, 6:31 pm

    I’m really confused about this post. At first you say that what we define as “leadership” is very limiting. Then you write “I’m likely one of the last folks you want to enlist to lead with a technical issue”. Doesn’t it perpetuate the myth that the “leader” is the most competent person in the room? Even if we acknowledge that various people have different areas of competence that honestly doesn’t make the situation much better.
    Obviously, when you feel an expert it’s easier “to lead”, to give direction, to take the responsibility and advise. But this is something that everyone does on a daily basis and it doesn’t make them “good leaders”. Once they hit the borders of their competence area it all falls apart.
    I consider a good leader somebody who is able to lead a team DESPITE their incompetence in a given area essential to complete the task or project. They’re not the smartest people in the room, they just know how to get the best out of other people. That’s the only thing they should be good at and I believe this is pretty universal skill (contrary to the notion of task-specific leaders).
    Or did I just got it all wrong?

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 21, 2014, 2:49 am

    @Weronika – I think the vocabulary may be a bit limiting here, but let me try to rephrase. If we think of a leader as of a position we think of someone who is a leader all the time. Like me, being a CEO of a company. It’s definitely a leadership position.

    At the same time I can take one of our developers, who definitely doesn’t have a leadership position. Nevertheless they would act as a leader when solving a complex technical problem, or organizing a new initiative, or introducing a new practice, or addressing a problem with their fellow team member. Does it make them a leader?

    Yes and no.

    Yes, if we are talking about contextual role of leader. No, if we are talking about a position.

    Now, building on your comment, are all these examples something they are most competent with? Highly unlikely. Sometimes the crucial bit is courage, sometimes they care of well-being of their colleagues, and sometimes it is the end result of organizational culture–everyone does that so this is the norm here.

    Obviously, as you point, it has something to do with relevant competence, but this is neither the only nor the most important part.

    Now, what I’m trying explain here is that as long as we understand leadership as a position we will be looking for someone who is always leading, despite their technical incompetence, etc. Given how few people are talented in that (I don’t agree it’s a universal skill) we won’t close the leadership gap.

    I’m going to be a bit extreme here but if we ban this notion of leadership suddenly we have no formal leaders. At the same time everyone would start exercising their leadership skills on relevant occasions, thus everyone plays a role of a leader.

    I guess it’s closer to what you call task-specific leader but I don’t like that description as it limits itself only to a task. Conversely, leadership acts happen most frequently when there’s no tangible task or a goal, but base on everyday observations, ideas and behaviors of everyone around.

    Bob Marshall proposes an idea of fellowship and Tobias Mayer one of citizenship. While I don’t think we need to reinvent the concepts around leadership both ideas are along the same lines I cover here. It’ about giving up power, or rather making it available for everyone for benefit of a group. This is how we turn everyone into a leader.

    A role of a leader, not a position of leader.

  • Simonas Razminas January 23, 2014, 10:39 am

    Hey Pawel, thanks for the great post (again!).

    When it comes to leader I feel that people also forget what does it mean to be a leader (w/o using authority, in other words acting in role of leader). Acting as a leader is actually about leading changes or making changes happen while being followed, involved and followed by others. And other would do so, because leader is not only telling them to change, but because he has convinced. I often find people to find an excuse for not taking leadership because they didn’t had authority to do so, while what they need is to convince others and therefore get support and this way become a leader.

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