Love Being A Lead

Once upon a time, Paul Adams and I were standing next to our teams’ desks, discussing something as we noticed a helicopter hovering over nearby buildings. Easily distracted as I am, we started to observe it and wondering where it was going. The chopper slowly drifted to the side and it seemed as if it was actually going to land somewhere in the middle of Berlin—till the chopper went behind a part of our building which we couldn’t see. We looked at each other, and I don’t remember who asked “you want to see where it goes?” and the other person nodded. For some reason we quickly fell into a jog, down the aisles to make it to the other side of the building in time to see where the chopper went. We arrived at the other side of the building just in time to see the chopper in fact disappearing between a few houses and landing next to a small playground, probably to pick up some emergency case.

There was something about all this, the ridiculousness of us running joyfully in the middle of an office where everyone else was quietly typing away at their keyboards, that led me to blurt out “Man, I just looooove being a lead,” and we started to giggle even more.

Of course we were just being silly (and possibly immature), but for some reason, the phrase “Love being a lead” stuck with us, and it sort of became something of our motto, to the point of slightly embarrassing newly promoted leads by asking them “so, do you already love being a lead?”

Every since I left academia and joined Zalando, the topic of leadership has been on my mind a lot. Coming from academia, the idea that people would willingly be led seemed strange to me. My experience with academia was that when the time for a project review came, you had to work really hard on people to make it clear to them that they also need to work on the projects that they are paid from. I think now I understand that this was mainly a structural problem of how Ph.D. students are paid: of course a Ph.D. student wants to work toward completing his Ph.D. thesis, and project grants are more or less aligned with that, and therefore easily feel like “extra” work.

As I was reading up what I could find about leadership, it seemed to me that leadership is one of those things somehow intuitively understood by many, cause there was a lot of talking about leadership, but little in terms of definition. This is stuff for another post, but over the years, I got a better understanding what it is that a lead does.

So why do I love being a lead? It’s probably not the things you would expect. Many who are not yet leads think about the power they assume comes with the role. Finally, you can just decide what’s right and tell people what to do, they think. Well, in my experience, this is an illusion as people don’t like to be told what to do, and decisions which are decreed top down have a high chance of being followed only half-heartedly at best, or ignored at worst.

I think the two things I found most fulfilling about leadership is that you help people doing what they are supposed to do, and always keeping an eye on how to improve things. These are two very life affirming activities that can leave me deeply fulfilled on the best days (and frustrated if I didn’t manage to stick to them on bad days.)

As leads, we constantly try to keep an eye on what is happening, on all levels. We observe how teams work, how individuals interact, how decisions are made, and where we’re going technically. And if we spot issues, or see potential for improvement, we step in, sometimes it is a nudge, sometimes it is more of a full blown intervention. We talk to people, and tell them the truths they are overseeing or even don’t want to hear, always with the hope to help them.

Everybody knows that it is really hard to change your habits, but as leads, through our authority, we can change the context for people to grow. It is one thing to make lists, and tell yourself you need to develop new habits, it is something else to have someone support you by observing and reminding you of what you wanted to achieve.

This is what leadership is about to me personally. I know it is not the only way, I think it is also very common to focus on making an impact and getting recognition within your hierarchy.  To be honest, I was always a bit afraid that my more people centric approach focussing on support might leave me behind long term, but what I realized lately is that  in the best case, helping people builds strong relationships that in the end help you achieve your goals, too.

So this is why I love being a lead.

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