As engineers, we love solving problems. Anyone who has gotten deep in code knows ‘the zone’- that area where you are so deeply involved in a problem the email letting you know there is free pizza in the break room doesn’t come close to pulling you out of your seat. Seeing your code work successfully and making things happen fires off an endorphin rush that attending a planning meeting doesn’t match. If you perform your engineering duties at a high enough level, chances are you will be viewed as a go-to person on key matters and might even start mentoring others. Inevitably, your employer looks at you and brings up that magical word some careers careen towards – Leadership.
Often the word ‘leadership’ conjures the images of people management: performance appraisals, project management, planning meetings, and generally a lot of things that don’t include getting layers deep in code. While many people wish to grow their career, increase their salary, expand their skillsets, and generally challenge themselves daily, it doesn’t mean they hope to be in a position of people or project management. Furthermore, if you or your organization only associate leadership with people management, project management, or business growth, your definition of what a leader is may be limiting your perspective on how to embrace the interests and talents of your most valuable employees.
Instead of thinking of leadership from a strictly organizational perspective, think of leadership with an inner perspective. This alternative to the traditional view of leadership, sometimes called personal leadership, can have a huge benefit across individuals, teams, and the organization.
Organizational and Team Leadership
The phrases organizational and team leadership often represent many of the traditional items we place in the leadership category. An organizational leader may set the course for the company, identify markets the business will enter, and determine how to direct the company through challenging times. Traditional organizational leaders may have the title of CEO, CTO, or General Manager. Team leaders are often responsible for project management, individual performance reviews, and reporting up the organizational hierarchy. While all these tasks are critical to organizational success, not all high performing engineers wish to engage in these types of activities. For them, this type of work may not be as appealing as the thrill of solving a difficult coding challenge or creating something with a team. However, I would argue that these views of leadership are inadequate to describe what a thriving organization such as ISE has in mind when it speaks of leadership. The type of leadership that can truly transform an organization, personal leadership, begins with the individual and grows from there.
There are a variety of definitions one can find for personal leadership, but in general, it is taking the same practices and principles of leadership for a business and applying them to yourself directly. This may include defining your own vision and then developing strategies, practices, and habits around obtaining that vision. It can mean personal transformation as you work to reach your vision and goals.
For example, if your vision is to be an expert web developer, part of your strategy may be to develop the daily habit of learning and practicing in that space, even if your current work does not cover that area. It can include developing personal side projects with deadlines. It can involve developing a team of local or remote people whom you trust for reviews and then presenting what you have learned via a tech talk. Approaching leadership from this personal perspective can then allow you to be a technical leader within the company, which allows you to work across teams, making sure they are in line with best practices. Once you have reached that point, there are already aspects of team and organizational leadership you are demonstrating: you’re helping teams move forward to meet deadlines and helping your organization to expand.
It is in this way that the practice of personal leadership allows one to apply the skills they are most passionate about to a larger audience that benefits not only them, but the entire organization. Many good organizations will reward this type of initiative, given the large benefit they are receiving from your efforts. While the drive to grow can come strictly from within, the coupling of it with reward from the employer can provide a powerful multiplier effect. Career and personal growth should be mutually beneficial to all stakeholders, and finding a way to nurture a person’s passions can be rewarding to the employee and company alike.
The concept of personal leadership can garner the occasional eye-roll as it does sound like something from a self-help book, but put in practice, it can result in a career where leadership is not defined by people management and performance appraisals, but by making yourself and those around you better. When you’ve practiced something yourself, you are better equipped to help a fellow friend or co-worker explore the concept. This type of leadership can lead to organizational transformation that makes everyone in the company better at what they love to do. That in turn will always lead to happier employees and a more profitable business.
Do you know anyone looking to join a company with fresh perspectives on leadership? Check out our Careers Page for our latest openings and fill out an application to join our team!