Owning It

Or, how to tell whether or not you’re leading

By Julie Zhuo


Growing up, my understanding of leadership was that it was a specific role, gift-wrapped certain responsibilities and bestowed upon someone, either by a Very Authoritative Person (like a VIP, but cooler) or by some sort of Formal Democratic Vote.

At least, this was the pattern I discerned from clubs in high school, November every two years, and working after-school jobs where a manager told me exactly what I should or shouldn’t do.

It took me many years to realize that that’s like saying Japanese food is sushi. Which is quite a limiting (not to mention terribly ramen-less) way of seeing the world.

Of course, being a good leader is hard. You could build a whole triple-decker library dedicated to all the books on that subject. I’m not about to add another article to that stack.

But what’s less hard is determining what constitutes leadership. Contrary to my earlier beliefs, leading in most good organizations and companies isn’t some predefined role. Nobody has to specifically anoint you as a leader. It isn’t a job title or a promotion. And in most cases, it isn’t something you need to ask permission to be.

Leadership means owning a problem—as in, you’ll do whatever it takes to get to a solution or favorable outcome. This isn’t as vague as it sounds. As Justice Potter Stewart once declared, you know it when you see it.

Below is a checklist of 9 yes/no statements to determine whether or not you’re owning Problem X:

  1. You can visualize what the world looks like when Problem X is solved. Maybe you don’t yet know exactly how Problem X will be solved (because you’re still in the early stages and need to do more research or deliberation), but at the very least you should have an exceptionally clear picture of what success is. This might be an inspiring North Star if the problem is product-related, or it could be a clearly defined metric or outcome. This vision should be crisp in your head and easy to articulate to others such that people can see why it’s worth pursuing. Otherwise, without a destination to lead towards, any sort of progress will be impossible to measure.
  2. You have an immediate, well-articulated answer to “what is the biggest roadblock to solving X?” If your response is “I don’t know” or “Let me stew on that for a bit,” it’s an indication that you haven’t been spending enough time thinking about X to properly own it. Identifying issues is not the hard part—everyone and their dog can come to the table with a dozen complaints about what could be going better. The hard part is the accountability required to start digging one level deeper and asking, “what’s the biggest lever to helping us solve X?” Again, this might not be the full-scale plan of how to solve X, especially in the early stages, but it should be the best next step. We don’t have the right team to solve X, so we need to focus on getting the best talent on this first, or We don’t yet know whether people want A or B, so we need to do some research to figure that out, or Our biggest roadblock is that we’re moving too slowly, so we need to speed up the cadence of trying a lot of different ideas. Owning a problem means you can’t help but think about how to best make progress—maybe when you wake up in the morning, maybe when you’re in the shower—because you’re just that invested in it.
  3. You are actively contributing to removing the biggest roadblock to X, even if it isn’t strictly your responsibility. Waiting around for someone else to do something, or for some external event to occur, is a sure-fire way of not owning something. Again, ownership is about doing whatever you can to ensure the outcome that you want. Say, for instance, you’re an engineer and the biggest roadblock to you launching a great product is that there are no designers on your project. Instead of wringing your hands and waiting around for a designer to materialize, how about actively trying to pitch designers on your project? How about exploring the full range of possibilities to get you out of your quandary—working with an external design firm, exploring whether it makes sense for a designer to move from a less important project at your company to this project, actively checking in with recruiting every day and asking how you can help, figuring out if there’s a way to sequence work such that the team can make progress without design for the time being, escalating the problem to the CEO and enlisting her help, etc? If this is truly the most important thing that needs to be done to make progress on your problem, then owning it means that you’re doing everything you personally can to help.
  4. The outcome of X would be different if you weren’t involved. Owning something means that you’re often the person who does what needs to be done that nobody else is doing—convincing others we need to do Y, pushing for resolution on a hard decision, providing moral support for the team, etc. If we could turn back time and swap you with someone else on Problem X, we should expect the execution and outcome of the project to be different. If it isn’t any different, then your influence on X was probably pretty minimal. Leaders lead their own way—even if different leaders bring about what can be considered a “successful” outcome, it’s unlikely those outcomes look exactly the same across different people. In fact, it’s more likely someone would say of a leader, “X would not have happened at all if not for her/him.”
  5. If you’ve been trying to solve X for a while and it still hasn’t been solved, you’ve taken accountability for the failure. Owning something means that if X goes poorly, you accept those results and consequences. This means not blaming other factors outside of your control (see #4), or trying to make someone/something else out to be the scapegoat. This sounds obvious, but it’s incredibly difficult for us to be honest about our mistakes or failures without the benefit of a lot of time passing. And yet, there is a lot of power in acknowledging responsibility and taking on a greater share of the blame. It signals maturity, which in turn earns trust. (Conversely, if X goes well, you will naturally get more credit for its success.)
  6. If you’ve been trying to solve X for a while and it still hasn’t been solved, you can easily enumerate 3–5 things that you should have done differently in retrospect. The biggest advantage of failure is the lessons that you learn. Nobody can take those away from you. That’s why people who deeply own a problem spend a lot of time reflecting on what they’ve gleaned from the experience, especially if things didn’t go well, so that they won’t make the same mistakes again in the future. If you have trouble coming up with a list of lessons learned in the face of failure, it’s a sign that you probably aren’t owning the problem.
  7. When asked if you’ve exhibited leadership on X, other people on the team would say yes. As the maxim goes, leadership is earned. There shouldn’t be any hesitation or doubt from others about whether or not you’re leading. If nobody assumes you are, or nobody wants to be led by you, then regardless of your role or title, you aren’t actually leading.
  8. Resolving X is not done at the expense of some bigger, longer-term goal. Owning a problem doesn’t mean plugging up one hole only to create more and bigger holes down the line. No true leader games the short-term if it hurts the long-term. If you hit your metrics goal but burn out the team, or if you hire enough people but end up lowering the bar on those hires, it doesn’t help you sustain a position of success and leadership in the long term.
  9. You approach solving X with a sense of urgency. Time matters. Time is scarce, money, precious, the only thing you don’t get more of in life, and all those other maxims. Even if you are constantly thinking about X and you’ve devised some excellent plans, if you drag out getting anything done (or it’s perceived that things are moving slowly), you will project to other people that maybe X doesn’t matter that much to you. This lack of momentum can be the kiss of death to actually getting anything done—you’ll have a harder time convincing other people to help you out, to share in your vision, to have faith that you can really solve X. So make commitments for yourself and demand them from others. Convey a sense that solving X matters to you, and you want to get to the end state where X is solved as quickly as possible.

Anyone can take ownership of a problem. In most healthy organizations and companies, it doesn’t require climbing a bunch of ladders or jumping through a bunch of hoops. All it takes is enough passion and resolve.

This isn’t to say that solving X will be easy—it won’t. Most problems worth solving are pretty damn hard. They require persistence and patience and maybe even a dash of luck. But it’s empowering to know that if you are invested enough in the problem, you can own it.

And you should.

After all, everyone knows great leaders are made, not born.