Don’t Try To Be A Good Leader

I surely don’t. And it’s probably better for everyone.

The revelation came to me a few weeks ago. And it all started because I share my office with another C-level*.

To most people, this is weird. What, two C-something-Os working within the same four walls?

“Doesn’t your company have enough office space to accommodate both of you separately? “

Actually, it does. We chose to share the same office. We’ve had the occasion to move to separate spaces twice already and refused. We felt it would be more of a nuisance than anything else. Granted, there are times when we need the room to ourselves. No big deal: we just adapt and the unwanted party finds an available desk somewhere on the floor.

Our shared office is small, it gets some light from the sun but it’s clearly not the best office in the building. We made it cosy, though. Step in at any time, and ambiant music, candles and a light scent of vanilla (or gingerbread, if Christmas is around the corner) will greet you. You get the drift: we like our space to feel comfortable and welcoming.

Now that you visualize the environment, let me tell you about my “roommate”: he is fifteen-something years younger than me. He rose through the ranks up to the C-strosphere in record time, much deservedly so. What can I say? The guy’s talented, bright and sharp. I enjoy working and sharing an office with him very much. We complement each other.

One morning, as I was downing my second coffee in hopes it would drag me out of my daily commute-induced grogginess, the aforementioned roommate walked in, his brow furrowed, and point blank asked:

“Erwan, do you think we are good leaders?”

Damn good question. I stared at him for a few seconds before blurting out:

“Good? No. Bad? Neither. I don’t know.
Are we even leaders? Aargh…
What do you think?”

Let me be honest for a minute. First, the fact that he asks this kind of questions is one of the reasons why I like the guy. Secondly, I had never asked myself that question. Not in these terms, at least.

Rewind

When I started climbing the corporate ladder a few years back, we only talked of ”managers”. We expected them to organize our workload, make important strategic plans for us to implement, decisions we did not necessarily agree with, but had to live by. Questioning our managers was not an option, at least not openly. We complained about them among ourselves for sure; we wished we understood where they were taking us and the company, but we did our job nevertheless.

The day I got my first managerial position, I was at a loss. Coming from the lower ranks of people who “do”, with no degree or training in Management, I had no pointers whatsoever on how to make decisions, organize the team or handle crisis. I could not ask the ones above me, the very ones who had given me the job, for help, for fear of being discovered as the impostor I felt I was.

I performed badly, no question. By refusing to be above the team and thinking they would dislike me if I behaved too boss-like, I flew low and stayed close to them, “doing” with them. I aligned with whatever the group was thinking instead of showing the way. I ended up having to compensate my lack of decisions by doing even more, instead of owning my team’s or my mistakes.

My next position saw me going unconsciously the opposite way: I turned into a full blown control freak. I needed to know everything my team was doing. I needed them to check any minute decision with me first. I stayed close to the upper layers of management to understand all the forces at play, all the stakes and expectations of the business. I carried these expectations down, and the pressure with it, always imposing strategies, deadlines and needs on my team, always siding with business, no matter the consequences. “We are paid to do what the company need us to do. Period,” I used to say.

As you can imagine, it didn’t go any better than my previous job. Granted, I was getting things done, kinda, most of the time on schedule but at great cost. Quality was low, bugs piled up, business needs were barely analyzed, let alone challenged, and most importantly, the team’s spirit crashed.

I was feeling bad, useless, incompetent and had no clue how to fix any of this.

Help me, please

Salvation came from a conversation with a career advisor who saw right through me. She detected the impostor syndrome and told me to get over myself. But most skilfully, she advised me to reach into my artistic background. You see, I studied Theatre in college and was trained as an actor and a director. Directing attracted me without warning and the whole process has always felt natural, effortless.

Creating a piece of art like a play is truly a team effort. A show is a well-oiled machine where everyone knows their craft and role and relies on everyone else to perform as best they can to create magic. Even though the role of the director is crucial during rehearsals, it becomes surprisingly useless once the play opens.

As a director, you give stage directions to the actors, share your vision with the designers. You ensure everything fits together, you make minute corrections until the very last minute. But then, the audience walks in and you become powerless. You have to trust the cast and crew will do as planned and most importantly, will react in the best way possible should anything go wrong. After all, it’s live and anything can happen. I mean anything. A stage light may fall, an actor may forget his lines, or worse, hurt himself, the power may go out in the building, the audience may walk out in the middle of the first act… All true stories, by the way.

“Why don’t you apply this approach to your work in IT?”

She had a point. I had to learn to show my guys the way, align on the vision, let things go and not interfere once they started rolling. I had to learn to trust them.

A few months later, I left Paris to move to the North and got a new job. In this new position, I decided to view my team as my cast and crew, and our work as a neverending Theatre production. I also chose to trust my gut and my experience. I gave directions, tips and notes, I listened, learned and mostly watched as the magic happened.

I have acted the same way ever since. I have stopped to try to manage people. All I do is:

  • Set up the stage, share my vision and tell the story of why we do what we do
  • Give time to question ourselves
  • Give autonomy
  • Be a shield, and sometimes a shrink
  • Assume everyone is trying their best
  • Help understand where we can improve

The rest is up to them.

Does this mean I am a good leader? I don’t know and honestly I don’t care. As I read somewhere, I don’t remember where, you can’t crown yourself a leader. Only your teams can decide you are one.

So let’s all stop trying to be leaders. Let’s get over ourselves and focus on what’s important: helping our teams reach their full and greatest potential. All the rest is just words.

Sorry roomie. But thank you for asking the question!

(*) I am CTO of a large Belgian website.

CTO, Writer, Playwright and Director. Proud husband 🌈 Addicted to fitness and plant-based lifestyle 🌱

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