Photo by Tim Krauss on Unsplash

A little while back I joined a new company. When I applied I did so eyeing the role of front-end engineer, and by the time I started on day one, my title was Team Lead.

Perhaps this happened out of need, perhaps organically out of conversation, or perhaps out of empathy when my open source dabbling came to light. Whatever the reason, I found myself staring, wide-eyed, at a brand new role.

In some companies, people would’ve thought of this as an instant upgrade; promotion-on-entry; spotting “management material.” As much as that might be flattering for me to think, I have to believe that’s not the case.

Right when I was in the middle of the interview process considering a new role I came across this tweet from an old classmate:

The reason I always choose to be a practitioner rather than manager in my work and play is that it’s never my job to tell someone else to do their job.

And I resonated, but not without a bittersweet sting, deep down. Was that what I was considering? Was I about to become a leader of others — the “boss” telling people to work instead of working myself? Was I letting my own need for a new job cloud my vision to the point where I’d accept becoming the very thing my classmate berated?

Enter: perspective.

I knew there must be more to it. I’ve worked alongside leaders that made me excited to get to work, and I’ve worked for leaders who kept me awake at night in fear. If a leadership role could have such an effect on me, surely there must be something to it — but what’s the difference?

While interviewing, I asked if I’d be someone’s boss. The hiring manager must’ve heard the trepidation in my voice, because the response both put my fears to rest and helped me understand a key tenet of leadership. He paraphrased a concept outlined right in the Team Lead description (which I’d read, but not yet fully internalized):

A Team Lead isn’t the boss of people, but serves to help them achieve great things. Think of a race track. The developers are driving the race cars. A big portion of a Team Lead’s role is to be sure the track is well lit, there is clear signage, and the surface is free of debris and oil slicks.

This description flipped a switch in my head that illuminated the difference between good and bad leaders. This description made me re-read my classmate’s tweet with empathy. This description is something I can get behind.

Here, we see things as they really are: leading doesn’t mean you’re better. It’s just a different way you can contribute as a member of the team.