The Culture of Leadership

At Armory, we talk a lot about empowering people at the edges of the organization. This idea states that the most actionable data exists at the edges, not within some executive’s head, and therefore more efficient decision-making will occur there. We have come to live and breathe this philosophy and now that we have some experience under our belts, I believe a more descriptive way to articulate our culture is to say we have a leadership culture.

But what is leadership, and how does it relate to empowering decision-making within your company? The term leadership is used superfluously. Some people think leadership is the ability to make decisions quickly and effectively; others would say leadership is the ability to inspire; or could it be to coach and guide others to become leaders in their own right? My personal answer is that all of the above are true and that leadership, like many skills, progress along a spectrum. Based on my own leadership journey, I’ve organized that spectrum into the following stages.

The Stages of Leadership Evolution

Stage 0: Leadership Potential: The ability to identify problems but not yet execute on solutions

Stage 1: The New Leader: The ability to identify problems and solve them independently

Stage 2: The High-Leverage Leader: The ability to identify problems and convince others to help solve them

Stage 3: The Leader of Leaders: The ability to inspire others to identify problems they are passionate about solving

What I came to realize is that decision-making is just one piece of leadership. Leadership relates much more directly to ownership, and Stage 3 Leadership is purely about helping other people discover how to truly own the initiatives they care most deeply about. The strongest leaders I’ve encountered act as coaches and advisors. They rarely make firm, top-down decisions in favor of helping other people come to realize that they can and should act on the intuition and data they’ve gathered within an area of passion. These leaders have the rare ability to mint new leaders, who in turn become coaches and turn around and do the same with a new generation of leaders. As I’ll describe below, striving for Stage 3 Leadership within an organization breeds alignment, self-management, and new levels of output you never thought were possible in your organization.

Let’s dive into each stage in more detail and with specific examples that we can wrap our heads around.

Stage 0: Leadership Potential

How you know you’re here:

  • You are an individual contributor with proficiency in the core skill related to your job title

In the general population there are leaders and there are non-leaders. Amongst the non-leaders, there are those who possess both the desire and ability to become a leader (Stage 0 Leaders), and those that wish to follow others. Those in Stage 0 are able to point out inefficiencies, blockers, and pain points within their organization but haven’t been able to identify the root cause of those issues yet. As a result, their manager or other senior members of the team are typically the ones who end up crafting solutions that the Stage 0 Leader will implement.

How to progress to the next stage:

Stage 0 Leaders are on the cusp. To enter Stage 1, they need to be able to identify the root cause of the problems they already know about so they can solve them. This can be achieved by asking why a problem exists. If you ask “why” enough times, you often end up at the root cause. Good managers, coaches, and advisors can also help a Stage 0 Leader unlock their thought process by asking the right questions.

Stage 1: The New Leader

How you know you’re here:

  • You are an individual contributor or manager that requires little direction from your own manager

Stage 1 Leaders default to action. In matriculating from Stage 0 to 1, they’ve developed a new skill — the ability to identify root causes. This unblocks them from building solutions and they are often busy doing just that. However, Stage 1 Leaders, while productive, are also bottlenecks because they assume complete ownership over specific initiatives. This is counterintuitive. One would think that assuming ownership is a good thing. It is, but if this person goes on vacation or gets sick, all progress stops. Strangely, many VP-level execs at large companies are still Stage 1 Leaders. They are consumed by their fiefdoms and cannot cede control to anyone else. All decisions must be approved by them, thus slowing down progress.

How to progress to the next stage:

Distributing ownership to others who share your passion will remove you as the bottleneck.

Stage 2: The High-Leverage Leader

How you know you’re here:

  • If you left the company today, the primary initiatives you are driving will continue to progress

Stage 2 Leadership is a 10X breakthrough over Stage 1. At this stage, you are no longer a bottleneck to progress. If you were to leave the company, your projects would continue on and thrive because you’ve convinced other passionate people that your ideas are worth fighting for.

This is very difficult. Convincing others to see what you see requires a combination of data analysis, collaboration, passion, and salesmanship. Where many Stage 1 Leaders fail here is in relying on emotions or feelings when making a case. “I feel like we need more engineers. Everyone is busy” is not a valid justification for hiring them. An alternative approach could be to categorize the buckets of work engineers are doing each week and setup agreed upon hiring triggers (between engineering, finance, and HR) when a specific type of high-ROI work crosses the pre-defined threshold. All of a sudden, the initiative (growing the team) is now automated and key stakeholders are aligned. And, if you left the company, the engineering team would still grow according to the framework implemented together with other stakeholders.

Another example is a large tech company that employs just one documentation writer. This large organization manages to generate volumes of crisp technical documentation, surely well beyond the capacity of a single author. The approach this singleton takes is one of distributed ownership. They’ve convinced an engineering organization of thousands that documentation is critical to the success of the business — and that the documentation should adhere to specific quality standards. Instead of hiring an army of tech writers, this unique leader made a compelling case to engineers that they should own the docs related to the products they build because it will result in a faster release cycle and a better user experience.

Similar real-life concepts are test-driven development (TDD) and service-ownership (a fundamental DevOps best practice).

How to progress to the next stage:

Moving to Stage 3 may be the most difficult shift in mindset, but it also has the largest potential gains for your organization. In order to unlock Stage 3 Leadership, one must focus less on projects and more on people. It’s a pay-it-forward investment in helping Stage 0, 1, or 2 Leaders get to the next level.

Stage 3: The Leader of Leaders

How you know you’re here:

  • You spend a significant amount of your time developing other leaders

Stage 3 Leadership is something I personally struggle with everyday. I’ve made a living on Stage 0, 1 & 2 activities and it never occurred to me until recently to invest in the growth of others. Reflecting on my own career as a serial entrepreneur, this could be because my past startups never made it out of infancy and thus I didn’t need to invest in others — executing was always my #1 priority. But since I’ve shifted my own focus to Stage 3 initiatives at Armory, I’ve also realized there’s nothing more rewarding. Most people come from command & control backgrounds and are comfortable with being delegated to or “running an idea up the chain” for approval. Stage 3 Leadership breaks down that mode of thinking. Stage 3 Leadership says: I’m going to help this emerging leader identify problems in the business she didn’t know existed and enable her to own it soup to nuts. I’m not a bottleneck and hopefully she isn’t either because she’s distributed ownership to other passionate people who care about solving it.

When you achieve this, even at a small scale, you realize that you could never go back to the old way of working ever again. When you cultivate a team full of leaders, problems are being solved all the time, without artificial blockers (command & control leadership), and without a false sense of alignment driven by a tops-down mandate. Alignment is achieved up-front because a team full of leaders won’t simply work on a project because you told them you to — you must convince them it is the most important thing to do by using data, collaboration, passion, and salesmanship.

When you see this working at a small scale, you wonder, what could be possible if we had a company full of leaders? Imagine Armory at 250, 1,000, or 5,000 — every person a leader.

Father, husband, and also a founder of Armory.io

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