Why should you want to lead people?

Leadership is like being first in the column with a machete to clear the obstacles

In recent years I had the privilege to mentor more than a few engineers through their personal growth journeys. Some of these journeys included choosing to seek a leadership path, and I believe the first step of this path should be to ask “Why?” — “Why do you want to lead people?”

If you ever asked yourself this question and even did a bit of research, you will not be surprised that there are many opinions and points of view about it out there. You can find a few of my favorites at the end of this post, which is my humble attempt to express my personal take on the topic. It was forged out of my own journey into leadership, mentoring others on their paths, a lot of reading, and successfully recruiting a team leader for one of my teams.

Before stepping right to the “Why?” let us first tackle a few “Why not?” questions, like:

“Why the hell would you even want it?”

“Do you understand you will need to learn a whole new profession than the one you currently have?”

“Do you realize what price you will pay?”

“Are you aware of how hard it is?”

All of the above are good questions that basically result from the fact that leadership is hard, some might even say impossible.

In an attempt to try and explain it, I use a metaphor of a group of people walking through thick woods in a column. When you are the leader, you are the first person in that column — holding a machete to clear all the branches and obstacles ahead of the group. You are the first to deal with the unknown ahead of you, while you do not have someone in front of you to lean on because the responsibility to clear and create the trail for those who follow is yours. At the same time, you are constantly looked at and asked by the group: 
“Where are we going?” 
“How will we get there?”
“When?” “Will we ever make it?” 
When things are hard, people look to you for solutions. 
You are ALWAYS on the spot with all eyes on you!

Before you are actually the person who is first in line, you might imagine it as a glamorous, powerful position to have. The reality is that many times it is quite hard, always-demanding work, and it requires a significant price of attention you will not invest in engineering aspects. Also, at times it can even create a sense of loneliness.

More bad motivations

Now, that we have established that it is not a trivial route to take, we can cover another type of “Why not?” question.
This time a few common motivations for leadership that I personally believe are wrong ones:

Impact/Taking decisions
You want to lead because you want to have more impact on the organization and to be able to take more of the decisions.
 I believe that good organizations allow people to shine and embody their strengths into the organization goals. This means you are able to affect the organization goals from different aspects, using different skills. Therefore, if you are an amazing engineer, you should be using your amazing technical skills to impact on the company.
 I have the privilege of working in a company where we believe as part of our culture that any member of the company can and should make a difference. The impact can spread from an individual level, through team, group and even company strategic aspects. I feel I have had every opportunity to affect my reality and different aspects of the company since I joined as an engineer. In some regards, as the number of people and responsibilities I led over time grew, I felt that my ability to impact some of the aspects that interested me then, and still interest me now, only declined in correlation with bandwidth. 
 I believe that our company culture is unique in many ways. But the fact that people are not “pawns in the game” is common in the tech industry and, fortunately, it is spreading into other industries as well.
 If you are at the point where you have to lead a team just to gain the ability to have more impact or control on your work life — I would suggest that you seek other options. You should also consider the fact that as a leader in the organization — you are the organization, and will be representing the same culture that made you change positions just to create more impact, and you will lead a team of people feeling the same as you did. If by any chance you took this route and became a leader in order to gain more ability to impact, I strongly suggest you try to use this newly gained ability to change the culture.

Seeing a wider picture
Some people might want to take a leadership role, since they believe it will allow them to see and be involved in wider aspects of the company. I believe this is also a cultural aspect and, similar to the impact aspect, I think that a good culture provides maximum context to every individual. It is not trivial and might be missed occasionally, but I personally try to maintain this habit with the teams I lead, and provide as much context as I possibly can. The only type of context I will not share is context that might have personal implications for other team members. If you feel this is not your organization culture — do you really want to become a leader and represent this culture?

Being the center of attention/managing processes & projects
Leadership does put you on the spot and you need to get used to and even like being the center of attention. It often also requires very good management skills to allow the leader to manage projects and processes that will enable the success of the team.
 So why is this a bad motivation? Well, it is good to have it, but it cannot and should not be the main one. If you have a thing for crossing check marks and like to orchestrate complex processes & projects (I know I do), you can indeed consider changing paths and try a project management role. It should satisfy that itch for getting things done. 
 If this is your core motivation, you can spare yourself all the extra burdens of leadership — as we already established that it comes with its costs.

Status & Compensation
People often consider leadership roles as better compensating and with a higher status. This is not necessarily the case, as the top engineers are compensated similarly to top managers. 
 Even if you work at an organization where that is not the case, I believe that management is a line of work, and compensation alone should not make you pick a line of work you do not like or that does not fit you.

Work comprises our biggest time investment in life, so if you end up hating your job, there is no amount of compensation or status that is worth it.

The best status you can have in life and the best compensation you can receive is happiness and satisfaction. So, you should manage this investment carefully and make sure you do not pick something you consider has higher status and compensation, but ultimately will leave you spending most of your time feeling unhappy.

You are the best engineer in the team 
Sometimes, the team’s best engineer automatically moves to a managerial role and becomes the team leader. If you happen to be a great engineer with good motivation for leadership through management — that is great. However, if that is not the case, it will probably end up in a lose-lose situation. You will find yourself paying the price of providing significant attention to nontechnical aspects and it might make you less happy — and less happy managers usually lead to less happy and less successful teams. Therefore, you will lose the time you did not invest in what you love and what you do best, and the team will lose its best engineer and, more importantly, a happy manager.

So, why should you want to lead people?

For me, the motivation for leading people is fairly is simple — it is the people. People form teams and as a team leader, it should not be about you as a leader; it should be about the people you lead. 
No one cares about the fact that you are a manager. The title does not mean anything –you will be a leader only if the people you manage will follow you. If you are not coming to this position with a strong ambition to put people at the center, and make their growth as professionals and even as human beings your primary focus, they will not follow you. In that case, all of the rest — the decision-making, the status and the compensation — will not matter.

On a more philosophical level, I believe that one is measured by one’s positive impact on other people’s lives — and I personally love and appreciate the opportunity to directly impact people’s lives through management.

This is why I see people management and leadership as my calling. The way I see it, in this day and age people spend about 80% of their waking time at their work routine. In addition, I think that a direct manager has almost complete impact on your happiness in the workplace, which means that leading people grants you the privilege and responsibility to impact people’s sense of worth, capability and overall life happiness.

This belief is my core motivation for management, and what makes all the hardship through the thick woods and the obstacles worth it as I hope I am impacting people’s lives for the better.

Final note

To demonstrate this notion, I’d like to share an end-of-year retrospective I made when I was given the opportunity to form and lead a team of 3 engineers as part of a new core team. The year began with setting a nontrivial goal of enabling our product to endure about 100x the load it could when we started. By the end of that year, we had formed a new team, met these aggressive goals, changed the company culture with respect to performance, and introduced some of our core infrastructures such as performance-testing framework, elastic search-based recommendations, and internal A/B testing framework that I initiated and wrote the first classes of code for. All of these impacted the company, our product and our processes.
While looking back at the end of that year, I was extremely happy we had experienced success in technical, process and team-related aspects. But if I had to pick one thing from that period, only one accomplishment I am most proud of, I would choose the growth path of one of our team members. 
He is an amazing person who struggles with stuttering. He joined the company a few months before we formed the team and joined our team as a performance QA at the beginning of that year. Understandably, being at a new place, he initially had difficulties with his speech. But as we started working together more closely, I got the feeling that it prevented others who do not work closely with him from seeing how amazing he really is. 
After more than a few discussions, as we established a closer relationship, the topic of stuttering finally came up. We worked through it for a period of time, until we finally decided to aim for him to present a 1-hour presentation to all of the company about stuttering and how he handles it, as part of a speaking ritual we have where everyone in the company can provide a 1-hour talk about any topic.
At the end of that year, he presented an inspiring 1-hour talk in front of all the company. He did it remarkably and it is still considered one of the best presentations that anyone gave in the company. 
It was an absolute joy and privilege for me to take part in the preparations. I think I was far more stressed than he was as I watched him from the side. Following the presentation, he gained a boost of confidence that was triggered by the huge obstacle he had remarkably overcome, and also by the fact that the topic was finally discussed openly with everyone. 
This was only the beginning of his growth path, as he made his way into an engineering role as part of the team — something he continues to excel at to this day. 
He clearly was an excellent person before he met me, and he did 99% of the work as he struggled with the preparations and stress that come with such an experience. He is the one who made it through the obstacles; I only lent a hand and the belief that he will make it. 
 Nevertheless, it was the most rewarding day of a successful year, and one of the best days of my career so far because I had the privilege to play a small but significant part in someone’s growth as a person.
These moments make it all worth it.

If you think this kind of satisfaction is what you are looking for — then you probably have the right motivation in mind, and it will help you through all the hardships as you lead your team and yourself toward your destination.

If you are still contemplating and want to read more, here are some of my favorites on the topic:

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