learning how to be a leader-the hard way
Updated: Feb 20
The first 3 years of my now 7-year career were spent as a developer, technologist, and the junior-most in the team. I only experienced life as an individual contributor. I was a part of a small team in a larger corporate. The dynamics are always different when you are only responsible for yourself. The team knows you are a fresher, and you are doing your best. The expectations and dependencies are low. And all you need to do is be good at your job, continue learning and growing.
Eventually, I found my way to Surge Send in 2018. I was learning how to Lead Product & Strategy. I was now in a place where my existing skills weren’t enough. I had to lead and influence too. This is was my first realisation about how everything about you amplifies when you are a leader.
Wait, was I a leader? Who is a leader anyway? Well, you are a leader if you are looked at like an authority figure, if people report to you directly or indirectly and if people depend on you for making decisions. You don’t need to have a title. You are leading either way. If you are a product manager, and technically there is no one reporting to you, congratulations, you are a leader, and you don’t even know it yet.
Leadership is a time when the stories you tell yourself will be tested, right in front of you.
There is nothing more humbling then been shown by the people around you, that the voice in your head and the image you have of yourself doesn’t hold any ground in the real world. People don’t perceive you from your eyes. They perceive you from their eyes and their experiences. And this could go either way. It can be great for you, or utter chaos. For me, it was utter chaos, and thank god I learnt!
I learnt the hard way that everything you do matters when you are a leader. The way you write emails, the way you reply to WhatsApp messages, even the way you use smilies. Everything is read into and discussed. You will be shown and told who you are. Everything you do is always under the microscope and for this exact reason, you must learn how to bridge the gap between your image of yourself and your actual self.
Passive aggressiveness: I could have never imagined that I was passive-aggressive. I have never been told this by anyone, ever. Till one day my boss pointed out how the words I said out of frustration, under my breath, without not evening meaning them, were extremely hurtful and passive-aggressive. I learnt that it takes away the feeling of a safe space from the listener.
Not being taken seriously: I struggled a lot with this. The first few months were absolute hell. I noticed that people in the company won’t take me seriously and that is because I wouldn’t take myself seriously. I would over commit and not deliver, or deliver poor quality outcomes, or not follow up. And I felt miserable. I felt like a joke, till my boss told me this: “No one takes you seriously because you don’t stand by your word. You should never promise what you can’t deliver. And you must deliver every time.” It took me about a few months to deliver consistently and then one morning, I walk into a meeting, speak about a decision, and everyone unanimously agreed it was the right thing to do. I walked out in tears. To know you were accepted in a team, to see yourself grow, that is the feeling like no other. I made sure I never let the team down.
Taking things personally: I took everything personally. I was extremely insecure too! A missed deadline, an email not responded to, someone not showing up for a meeting on time. I took things personally till I literally couldn’t anymore. I realised that none of those things were about me. I realised that I am not entitled to any of it. I must earn them. When I consistently did the work, showed up on time, delivered, slowly the team automatically starting doing things on their own.
Lack of self-awareness & fragile sense of self: Not knowing what I was feeling, why I was feeling and where it came from made me extremely vulnerable to self-inflicted emotional roller coasters and downs caused by the most trivial things. It directly impacted my work, I couldn’t stay objective. And that is the one thing you must be, objective. That is half of your job. Meditation, working on self, journaling, seeking help when needed changed the game for me completely.
Impatience: I was extremely impatient with actions and results. If I spoke about making a change, it should be done immediately. I realised that it comes from a place of authority and entitlement. This not only created a lot of pressure for me, but it started making others uncomfortable. Thanks to the active feedback I received time and again, I learnt to be impatient with actions and extremely patient with results. I learnt how to ask my team how much time they need before enforcing ridiculous timelines. People don’t act because you are an authority. People act because they see what you are trying to do and they are aligned with you in your vision.
Trusting blindly: I still find myself trusting others blindly. My biggest struggle was assuming everyone will do what they said they will do. That’s just not how people work sometimes. I learnt how to follow up, and how to hold people accountable. Not guilt-tripping them into work, but genuinely asking how I could help them function better and meet their goals.
Not knowing assertiveness from authority: I thought I could use my authority to make people work. That approach just doesn’t work in knowledge workers. I learnt that I will need to learn how to influence.
Not knowing my currencies: Respect and trust are your currencies, and every time you don’t show up for the team, you are losing out on that essential currency. I also learnt that fear is a currency you must never use. The moment you get there, there is no coming back.
Hunger for validation and appreciation: I realised I had a huge hole in myself that was hungry for validation and appreciation. So I would do things for others to fill that hole. I would do something for others with an expectation that they would acknowledge it. I saw someone else in the team do the same to me, and immediately the energies of the generous act done by him changed for me. I realised there were strings/ expectations attached. At that moment I learnt, if I do something for another person with expectations (either of being acknowledged or getting something in return), I am making the relationship transactional. And relationships, can either be transactional or unconditional. You chose how you want it to be.
Leadership has got to do with the people I work with, not about me at all. Who I am, what I have done, what I am capable of, who I can be - none of this matters to anyone. Their story, their growth, their skills, their aspirations, it is always about them.
With everything I say or do, I set examples - good, bad and ugly. Without being mindful of this, I may be creating unrealistic expectations and setting the team up for failure.
It is my job to ensure that the team knows I respect their time and work. Be specific with good words. Show someone how you have noticed them grow. The team looks at themselves from my eyes. It is powerful and it is scary. I am responsible for them.
To have authority is a privilege. You must use it to enable the team, not micromanage. To have authority but using influence as a tool to work with the team is the ultimate goal. This is how you move away from a manager, and come closer to becoming a leader.
Leadership can only be one way- unconditional. No strings attached. The moment counters are kept, I become a manager trying to show carrot to a horse. I must choose either of them. Both of them can not coexist.
Where do you go from here:
Set up a 1:1 with yourself. Ask yourself a lot of questions (some written below). Evaluate yourself as a leader. Learn how to build boundaries and define the nature of the relationship you’d like to have with your team. Build a deeper understanding of yourself. Set goals for yourself and measure yourself against them. Spend time getting to know the team, ask them how they would like to be lead. You can not have the same leadership style for everyone in the team. You must know your team but start by knowing yourself first.
A few questions to ask yourself:
According to you are you a good leader? What are your reasons for saying you are a good or a bad leader? Do you have examples? Do you think that’s the leadership your team wants?
What are your motivations?
What are your team's motivations?
Are you able to process your emotions?
Does your team feel safe?
Is your team showing any signs of distress?
Have you created an open channel for your team to reach out to you?
Do you have a ritual of introspection?
Are you truly present with the team?
Are you enabling the team?
Do you understand what makes your team feel supported? - Is it words of encouragement, is it acknowledgement? Is it money? Is It awards?
Is your feedback useful and actionable?
Is your leadership helping your team grow personally and professionally?
Are you getting clear feedback from the team? How often do you seek it?
Do you have a good leader or coach who can help you become better?
Leadership is hard, but you can decide how much harder do you want it to get.
If you are lucky, you will get feedback and just enough time to work on your leadership skills. Most of us may never truly realise where we go wrong. We will realise that the team is not engaged, they are leaving or waiting to, and that is often on us. People leave bad managers as soon as they can. You must build a ruthless feedback channel for yourself. Take the feedback, analyse it and grow.
A leader needs to be real, not perfect. Be real, become more authentic, and grow. Remember, the only way around is through.
I know I have a looong way to go. Where would you like to go from here?