No one is looking, are you still a leader?

Firstly, I’m going to intentionally misquote Mark Twain here and tell you that “the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.

Secondly, Lets kick off the first post of 2016 with a quote Simon Sinek delivered during his First Why and Then Trust TED Talk (one of my favorites).

Leaders reminds us of why we’re here in the first place, they remind us why we came here. Authority tells us what to do and what goal to achieve…

Simon Sinek

When we talk about leadership, or leading people, or really just people in general, we’re dealing with a huge topic. When you consider the quote above, however, there’s a certain clarity that’s achieved in that one of the statements feels obviously like a goal and the other does not.

Here’s another quote, this one from my wife:

The person you really are is how you behave when no one is looking.

– My Wife

I love that last one especially. It just has this immediate resonance. You read it and immediately either sympathize or completely reject the notion (hopefully not the latter?). I think it can also be paraphrased to say that:

The type of leader you are is how you act whether or not your team is looking.

– No one (I literally am making this up as I go)

Unfortunately, there’s no checklist of things that can be followed in order, or some kind of habitual set of patterns you can apply to any or all team-based situations. You just can’t. It’s about individuals. Each one of them has their own “night-befores”, their “kids with colds”, their personal goals, and their own ambitions. You have to take into account that all these individuals are often representing just one of the facets of a team and then add to that the emotional intricacies that make up that team’s unique dynamic.

That’s a challenge for sure. How do you reconcile the delta (i.e. the gap) between applying cookie cutter management principles in real-life situations that are only marginally applicable, and devoting yourself to becoming completely invested in the outcome of every single interaction you have with your team? The latter would completely encompass your life and the former would make you feel like an automaton. I believe there’s got to be a happy medium. Some way of making those you work with feel comfortable without destroying your ability to do the other parts of your job.

Any leader will attest to considering a million different variables at any given opportunity you have to interact with the people with whom you share a work space. There are behavioral heuristics and habits that will support your ability to succeed here for sure, but which ones are relevant and when? Everyone has their own take on what a “good” leader is. While this is a topic that I’m passionate about, I don’t consider myself to be an authority by any means, I’m just a dedicated learner trying to pick up the good habits and drop as many of the bad ones as I can.

Part of our reality is that we’re working in a world that’s even more connected now than ever. Your work day may be 9-5 but do your colleagues expect you to completely disappear after you proverbially “punch out”. You’re dealing with a double edged sword in that the number of chances you have to rise up are ever increasing while at the same time the frequency with which you can be required to rise up are also commensurately increasing. So even now, when no one is looking, are you still a leader?

Consider another quote from Simon’s Ted Talk:

The survival of the human race is fundamentally based on the ability for each of us to surround ourselves with people who believe what we believe. When we’re surrounded by people who believe what we believe, something remarkable happens … trust emerges. Make no mistake of it, trust is a feeling, a distinctly human experience. Simply doing everything you’ve said you’re going to do doesn’t mean people are going to trust you it simply means you’re reliable. Our very survival depends on our ability to surround ourselves by people who believe what we believe

… We are more confident to take risks
… more confident to experiment (which requires failure by the way)
… more confident to go off and explore explore

Simon Sinek

And here we are back at Trust once again … granted we’re back based on another quote by Simon (see my other post for context), but still, I think it’s relevant. Especially since the other day I was asked a “pointy” question while out for coffee with a colleague:

What do you do when you are starting out with a new team (or project)?

Now that’s a biggie for sure…

See, everyone has their opinion on what qualities make a good leader both as a team member or as a leader themselves. Thinking about it, I could have copped out and said “Just be yourself” but then what kind of a leader would I have been in that scenario? That was rhetorical; I’d have basically been leaving him out to dry. He wasn’t asking for a pep talk – he was asking for a strategy. Dropping a top 10 list on him without any real grounds for action wouldn’t be helpful either (those usually fall back into pep talk territory).

I know I have a tendency to go on just a little bit (maybe more than a little bit), so let me get right down to it. Keep in mind my response was geared towards a software team, but I think most of the answers hold true in other industries as well.

Here is what I said:

First and foremost, you can’t tell people what/who you are or aren’t. Behave in a way that you want to be perceived (even when no one is looking) and people will understand what’s up. Your actions are pretty much the only thing that will define your team’s perceptions of you.



There’s a corollary here in that I believe you should jump at every opportunity to prove to your team that you are trustworthy. I think Simon would agree, no? A year or so ago I was preparing to speak in front of something like 300 prospective computer science applicants who were currently in high school. My co-presenter and I were creating some slides including one with some descriptions of who we were. I remember editing his content specifically removing “all-around-fun-guy” from the description and telling him:
“<Name>, if you have to tell people you’re a fun guy, you most definitely aren’t.”

At the start of a project you need to be confident enough such that your team believes, “Hey, this guy has got this. Whatever I need, he’ll take care of it”. Demonstrating your uncertainty or making a mistake may be okay in the future, but especially when everyone is getting used to the new dynamic it’s especially important to crush it. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have all the answers, but it does imply that you maintain a cool head and start proving to them who you really are and what you are about. This can literally imply that you keep your mouth closed a good portion of the day, but there’s two reasons for that:

  1. Listening is the best way to get to know the dynamic of what’s going on in the team
  2. That old saying about keeping your mouth closed and having someone suspect you’re an idiot or opening it and proving it to them.

You’re in the role you’re in for a reason. Take some time and feel out what’s up before flapping your lips and throwing your weight around. Granted it may be the project you’re joining is in trouble and they’re looking for some fast or direct guidance, however even then you can trust that the team you’re on has many of the answers you need – you just need to listen to hear them.

Now, it seems like it should be obvious, but it’s important to quickly recognize and come to terms with the fact that your team members will potentially deliver things in a different way than you would. You need to deal. No one likes a micro-manager, not you and not your team. So don’t, just don’t. Acknowledge that everyone will bring something different to the table and that’s a really great thing. Embrace it. Like the A-Team (#datingmyself), having specialists in different areas while still maintaining a consistent level of skill across the board makes for a great environment for everyone involved – and a great environment for collective improvement.

Your decisions should always be made with the project’s success in mind. “What?”, you say, “Put the project’s needs ahead of the team’s?”. Well no, not at all. When I talk about the project I’m talking about every aspect of it. Defining what makes a successful project is a difficult thing not only for a client, but for companies as well. Is turning a profit enough of a factor to claim a project was a success? If the project comes in over budget is that still true? What about over time/deadlines? Whatever the group determines is the basis for a successful delivery should be used to guide the decisions to make throughout the project life-cycle. Furthermore, if you don’t know how to define success, that’s probably something you want to sort out sooner rather than later.

This all leads me to “Do it first and be recognized for it afterwards”. One of the tenets I strongly stand behind is that aptitude is a fantastic metric to use for hiring, but not for advancement. Either someone has done something, or they haven’t. It’s up to their leaders / managers / executives / whatever to provide them with the engagements they need to prove their capabilities, and not just talk about their aptitude. It would be a disservice to someone who possessed an incredible amount of aptitude if they were promoted without the opportunity to demonstrate it. In my experience, really great people don’t want their accomplishments cheapened by promoting them before they’ve had a chance to reveal their prowess and be properly recognized for it. Your job is to help provide them with that chance.


Everything mentioned here is leading you towards the ability to empower your team and have them feel like you trust them as much as they (should) trust you. Lots of these ideas stem from the Lead People, Manage Expectations post I had done last year, but it’s all still relevant and it all paints a bigger picture. The team will rally behind someone that has their back and their best interest at heart, especially if you never ask them to do something you wouldn’t personally do (again, prove this to them – point #3 in the post linked above).

So with that lengthy and wordy diatribe we’ll end this round of discussion and head back to our respective desks, hopefully feeling a bit more enlightened and ready to face the challenges ahead.

Sometimes writing this stuff down acts to give me a bit of clarity as well, so thanks to everyone who reads … you guy’s give me a reason to keep writing…

a reason to stay motivated …

even when no-one is looking.

2 thoughts on “No one is looking, are you still a leader?

  1. I love this Aaron!! I am a strong believer that you can be a leader even without the ‘Team Lead’ title behind your name. You’re right; it’s the “Hey, this guy has got this. Whatever I need, he’ll take care of it.” My personal process is to keep my mouth shut – I spend a lot of time listening in the beginning – figuring out team dynamic, member knowledge, and general feeling. If I am the team lead then I show my personal strengths – preparation and organization – and interject some knowledge also to ensure they know that I know what I’m talking about. The best advice I’ve taken, and given, is the pat answer you avoid – to just be yourself, to interject your personality into your leadership. Clarity of communication, stated expectations, and a good feedback loop (aka supervision) are hallmarks of great leadership but showing up as who you are makes it all that more natural.

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