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Do you have the courage to be a team lead?

It’s a hot summer. You and a small team of developers are trying to put your product to the cloud.

You work hard, but it’s a huge, never ending amount of work. It’s never done… The worst part is – you and your team have no real cloud experience. You are used to write the code, but not maintain a production environment. And there is no help in sight, not in time.

Your startup company depends on you, investors ask about progress.

You work harder, summer is soon over and your work is finally done. The application is in the cloud and ready to serve customers. Your investors are not happy it took a long time but glad it’s over and you start planning new features and other work that will bring money to your small company.

Success?

Success story? Job done? You can feel the but don’t you?

One of your teammates quits after this summer. 25% of your small development team. A great guy, with good knowledge, proactive and willing to help, a guy that will try to help and will always try to smile and laugh. He leaves.

He left because of me.

I knew he was struggling, he was working on a part of the code that he was unfamiliar with. He has shown he could deliver, but the quality wasn’t good and he knew that. There was no help for him, we were all so busy and had so much to do! He knew what be did was not good enough, that bit will have to be rewritten and done again, so time will be lost. Time was lost.

I trusted him to do a good job. Yet he failed. The question was – could he ever succeed? It was obvious he was struggling, and he shared that with the team and me. Other people also told me. I ignored it. I was busy, busy working, busy coding.

The moral of the story

First – I was the leader of this team. Did I lead it? No. When it was tough, I left people alone. This is the opposite of leadership. I continued to do my own thing, convinced it was the right thing to do. I did not listen, closed my ears and worked harder and harder. My job was important and our survival depended on it.

I did not have time to lead.

I should have made that time.

We were much worse because I didn’t.

The second takeaway was something else.

But before I told you that second takeaway, I want to share…

A similar story

In this second story, many things are the same. Again – a small team. At the start there are exciting times, new ideas, many projects. Dreams about the future.

Soon we realise – its too many things at the same time. Too much work! It’s an invisible pile and no end of it. Again working hard and you working some weird hours.

Does it sound familiar?

It’s even more familiar – it’s the same team from the previous story! Same people, same company!

And its not getting better – your boss and investors keep talking about new and new stuff and ideas and adding to the invisible pile of work that you have.

What to do?

One day, after your CEO explains a great project destined to solve many of your problems, you had enough. You start to think. You talk about it with your teammates over lunch. An idea starts to form and takes shape.

You knew your colleagues well and they know you. After you finish lunch, you go back to the office and you clean up the glass wall.

There was a glass wall inside the office, used to divide the office in two with a door between the two parts. Dev team will sit on one side, while the business team will sit on the other. You will be able to see each other, but have some isolation.

It was noisy on the business side 🙂

We loved to use the glass wall as a whiteboard, it was great.

So we cleaned it.

Then we wrote every single project on it, every single pile of work that we had, on that wall. All of it. It was quite a long wall and we managed to fill most of it.

It was months, years of work for us.

We then invited our CEO to look at the wall and all the work. He agreed that yes, this is what we are planning to do and that he had no idea it was that much. He thanked us.

The invisible was made visible.

We made a plan on what to focus, what to cut, and what to postpone, suddenly the pile of work was not only visible but small.

The goal was now clear. The motivation was high again. We were ready to act toward the goal.

Leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal

One of many definitions

Differences between the stories?

The stories were similar

  • same team and company
  • almost the same situation

The outcome was different. And the main difference between the two was one simple act – this time there was time to think. This time, even under pressure, there was time to lead. To reveal the problem. And not only uncover the problem, but act on it, solve it, show it to our CEO.

Showing this to the CEO was the Danger Zone

Telling people uncomfortable truths is scary

Boy that was a scary moment! What he was going to tell? What was he going to do? For me, that most scary part was – is he going to do anything at all?

And here is the surprising part, he was grateful! Not disappointed, but grateful.

The truth is everybody was postponing this conversation with him – it wasn’t comfortable. Nobody was speaking up. Problem was getting worse and worse. It was harder and harder to tell about the problem.

In the end, the difference between the two stories, was courage

The courage to enter the danger zone.

You should not be afraid to enter “the danger zone”, do something uncomfortable – a tough conversation, delayed decision, something not in your job description.

Not when it could be difference between success and failure.

The second takeaway from our “failure” story was – I was too afraid to go into that danger zone. I was hoping that by working and coding – things I was good at and comfortable, I would solve it eventually. It will go away. Fade. Gone!

Unfortunately staying into my comfort zone meant I was hiding and not doing my job and my job was to lead.

Do you like entering the “danger zone”?

We, developers, leaders, managers, no matter – people – most of us.
We do not like entering the “danger zone” much. Most of the time, we avoid it. Human beings have evolved to minimize risk. Yet, when we do, if we care, the result is usually great. I, as a lead, don’t do it most of the time. Even great leaders don’t like it.

If we do not like it, why are we so often thankful when we finally it’s over? Isn’t it better?

If you want to have one takeaway from this

If you want to have one takeaway from this, just one – remember that – next time you catch yourself in an uncomfortable situation – ask yourself – “am I avoiding the danger zone again?” And if yes, make that last step forward and act.

  • make that decision
  • do that tough conversation
  • set time aside and think ahead
  • say no to your manager
  • say yes to your teammate
  • ask for feedback
  • etc

Courage is a skill

Everybody can cultivate it. Everybody can can do it.

Everybody can and must practice it.

You can start right now!

Finish the sentence: “I wish I have done…” With as many examples you can think of.

It is likely it was a repeat of a situation you had before. So make a decision on what you are going to do right now when this happens again.

Courage is an essential skill for a leader

To lead means you have people that follow. To lead you need to have courage.

That does not mean you also need to be confident. I have a strong dislike for “fake it till you make it” as what you get from it is a lot of fake confidence, instead of the real thing.

Remember our two stories?

The second story, the “successful” one. I was not the leader of that team. That team did not had a designated leader at the time. It wasn’t just me that did this. It was a collaborative effort involving other members of the team. There was a lot of – one person starts a sentence and others finish it. It was amazing.

You do not need to be “the leader” before you lead.

To lead, you need no title. You need only two things:

  • to care
  • to have some courage

Courage is a skill.

Practice it 🙂

Part II of this is now published!

Thank you for reading!

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