Leadership is earned, not given

In a recent discussion with a former colleague, a fellow people manager, we discussed various leadership traits. More specifically we discussed the tendency to promote the best individual contributors (ICs) to leads and/or managers. This has been a long standing “tradition” in most areas of business, but has become very prominent in the IT industry over the last 15 years.

Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely success stories of exceptional ICs becoming great leaders and managers. However, there is a distinct line between what is required to be an exceptional IC and an exceptional leader. Because of my slant, I will call upon the IT industry as my data point.

To be an exceptional IC in the IT industry, one must be technically proficient. They must posses either a wide breadth or vast depth (or both) of knowledge surrounding technology. Along the IC track, one goes from an Analyst to an Administrator to an Engineer to an Architect. Each level a step up, technically, from the one before.

To be an exceptional leader or manager in the IT industry, one must have technical knowledge and also business acumen. They must possess a working/operating knowledge of the technology of their team, while also being able to cross-functionally communicate how that technology enables and empowers the business it serves.

So, no matter how technically excellent one is, if they cannot relay that as an advantage to the greater good they will not transcend that invisible line between IC and leader. This simple concept is also hard to execute on.

What future leaders need are current leaders to lead them. Train them. Mentor them. There are some awesome books out there, like this one and this one, but nothing substitutes one-on-one conversations on how to succeed.

So, this is a call to all current leaders. Check in on your team. Find out their goals. Make your succession plan. There are leaders who lead followers and there are leaders that lead other leaders. Be the latter. Be better.

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