What kind of leader do you want to be?
Editor's Note: Also see Tom Noser's article, "Taking Inventory: Identify Your Leadership Strengths (and Weaknesses) for Career Success," in the Winter 2020 issue of The Pragmatic magazine.
Product management is a leadership position. You have to influence others and create conditions for them to do their best work. That's leadership.
To be an effective product manager, you need to decide what kind of leader you want to be.
There're a million kinds of leaders, but I'll use a four-square to narrow the field.
Good leaders create conditions in which others can do their best work and the sum of that work creates something meaningful and valuable. Conversely, bad leaders create conditions in which others struggle to do good work and the sum of the work is less than the individual pieces that comprise it.
Most leaders fall in-between these extremes with a greater tendency to be bad than good. Deciding to be a good, selfless leader is a choice that will give you the most personal satisfaction and peace. Though it will guarantee you'll be loved more than if you were to be a bad, selfish leader, it won't guarantee results.
Leadership types and styles are separate from results. It's possible to be a bad leader and still get amazing results, just as it's possible to be a good leader and get poor results. Results are the product of many people's work, and the type of leader you are is your decision alone.
It's important to not confuse good results with good character or morals. Results don't care about morals, but you should. Achieving great results while having high ideals is rightly celebrated because it's difficult to achieve. Athletes emphasize having good fundamentals and following a good process. They recognize that results aren't up to them—a baseball player can hit the ball hard and still make an out. You can control your behavior, but you can't control your results. As a leader, the best you can do is influence the behavior of others. You can't control their behavior, but you don't have to tolerate it, either. You can always send them packing or move on yourself.
Leadership is difficult. The most realistic thing we can hope for from leaders is that they do no harm. Commit to that: Do no harm to your co-workers.
Part of deciding what kind of leader you want to be is to decide the scope of your leadership, of which there are four levels
- Individual contributor
- Team leader
- Group leader
- Organization leader
Individual contributors lead by example. They master their craft, have a good work ethic, take direction well, are curious and coachable. If you aren't a good individual contributor, you haven't earned the right to lead.
Team leaders lead through influence rather than formal authority. Product managers should be team leaders first. Managers often refer to their direct reports as "my team." That's the wrong application of the word "team." Your team consists of your peers, while the people who report to you are who you're responsible for. They're not your team.
Eisenhower's team for the liberation of Europe was not the American Army. His team was the Allied commanders and political leaders who could strengthen the alliance. If you think of your team as your direct reports, managing them is easy—they have to do what you say. But managing a team isn't easy; you must influence and inspire. Be a team leader first.
Group leaders are responsible for a collection of teams, including everyone in those teams. Organization leaders are responsible for results achieved in the market. Because organization leaders can't completely control outcomes, this is a strange job. They're always operating with imperfect information, tweaking and adjusting to change results. Organization leaders get too much credit for success, and sometimes not enough blame for failure.
Once you decide what kind of leader you want to be, acknowledge whether you want to lead a team, group or organization. Finally, be honest about whether you want to be an individual contributor—it's an underrated status, but it's not an appropriate type of leadership for product managers.
And remember: These aren't permanent decisions. You can change your mind. You should change your mind in the face of alternative evidence. Just don't change your mind because you changed your mood.
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