Leading yourself as a leader

Nick Smith
3 min readSep 13, 2021

This is cross-posted to my blog — fuhton.com/leading-yourself-as-a-leader

As part of the leadership experience, there will be times that you don’t receive direction or a mission statement to follow, but are expected to lead an organization or department regardless. Success is obvious, but rarely defined or attributed to specific outcomes. There is no single mission statement to follow, no “Will it make the boat go faster” guide. In order to succeed you must understand your place in the broader system and then articulate a direction with some key results, metrics, or projects.

“Will it make the boat go faster” is about a group of individuals with a singular focus — winning the Olympic Gold as a rowing team in 2000. As they trained leading up to the Olympics, the team did everything based on a binary response to that question. It is pithy and it reeks of corporate jargon, but it works when you are a leader having to lead yourself.

Understanding your place in the broader system

To know how your team is impacting the org, you need to understand how the rest of the teams or departments view your own. I start by understanding my manager’s perspective, not as a way of having them do this work, but a way of understanding some additional context of how they might expect you to operate at this level. There’s good intentions at this level so these questions should be easily answered, but getting them turned into a defined document that answers all of your questions will probably be your responsibility.

Once you have your manager’s viewpoint, get the thoughts from your peers — managers and leaders in internal or external departments to your own. These are not invaluable, but their opinions can be viewed as biased data for you to start building a more cohesive perspective. Give it a few days to gestate because rushing to conclusions will lead to a shortsighted direction that will be too specific or too verbose.

Articulate the direction

There’s two parts to this. Gather all the feedback together and sum it up in 1 to 2 sentences. Shorter is better. Written in shareable format is better. This is the hardest part, but the most important — it’s why you are in the position you are in. From there, identify some specific items that you can help influence — deprecating a specific system, decrease the time to resolve outages, reduce the frequency of outages by n%, etc… This will feel eerily similar to an OKR process and it should, but the stakes are much higher. The statement you craft, that 1–2 sentence, is your “will it make the boat go faster” target.

If you’ve done the work of understanding your department/teams position in the company, then the summation should guide everything you do, say, communicate, define, and guide. This is your north star as you think “will it make the boat go faster” in your day-to-day actions and as a leader being able to focus on this broader view is your role and keeping that view perpetually in focus is your job. Don’t be afraid to reevaluate the statement, but continuously changing what your focus is will make you a less effective, impactful leader.



Nick Smith

Was once a junior engineer who stared at the `parse` function in the Backbone.JS docs for over 6 hrs. Engineering leader based in Philadelphia