Article • 6MIN READ

How to Be an Engineering Leader: A letter to my past self

Everyone has their own definition of true leadership. What I didn't understand at the start of my leadership journey was that each of us is a leader. Regardless of intent, we influence and impact our communities, industries, workplaces, and relationships. Yet, often we don't understand the importance or impact of simply being present. So I wanted to write a message to anyone looking to grow into engineering leadership. This was the letter the younger version of myself needed and I hope that it will highlight the importance of self-empowerment in your journey.

To Whom it may concern,

Anyone remember by history has taken it upon themselves to venture down their own path. In some instances, these individuals stood their ground and continued forward in the face of violence, war, political and economic systems, beliefs, and stereotypes never before challenged. And so they changed the perspectives and consequently the lives of individuals around them. These individuals didn't stand out by being just like everyone else. Instead, they took up the metaphorical shovel and paved their path by taking actions in alignment with what they believed and desired.

Impact is Power

I want to bring attention to the notion of impact. These leaders influenced others to pursue their own paths even when they weren't speaking. By simply showing up in their spaces and picking up the shovel, they allowed others to do the same. These leaders understood what others would have to do to take up their own shovel and make way for their path. This is progression. This is the beginning of leadership. This is power.

No leader does anyone in their community good - whether leading an engineering team, organizing a non-profit, or elsewhere - by hating themselves, fearing their strengths, and refusing to take action where necessary. 

Empowerment is the currency for operating with a sense of agency. There are at least two things you need to empower others: the first is power, and the second is integration. Power comes from authority and authorization and we can have internal and external centers of focus. Understanding how power and agency work allows for integration, and we can only begin to empower others when we include, communicate, invite, and co-create.

Leaders maximize their potential for impact. As an engineering leader, you get to facilitate and help lead the team to success. 

The Emotions of a Leader

Let all that I've shared sink in. Just by being where you are today, you have proved that anyone else can do it. There's no escaping the power of impactful leadership. So let's share how our emotions and energies inevitably amplify the potential for success.

Leadership communities tend to focus on developing characteristics such as compassion or empathy in leadership, yet these traits alone don't make a leader in a workplace. Sometimes, these traits can cause us to take actions that neglect our boundaries, goals, and purpose. Therefore, we should consider how these traits can help us process our emotions and invest our energy properly into needed action. Leadership traits are like water. They allow us to flow and direct our energy. These traits don't substitute for the core strength of a leader.

When we can understand the impact and effect of authentic leadership, we can feel pleasure, motivation, pride, and joy for the work we do in the world. Leadership gets to be and feel good. 

There are no shortcuts to realizing what leadership will mean to a leader because it's everything: joy, sacrifice, compassion, celebration, risk, gratitude, accountability, perspective, setbacks, success, etc. It's more than who we are as an individual, and it gets to be whatever you want it to be. 

Empathy and compassion allow us to make our leadership feel good for others as well. For example, engineering managers that understand why it feels good for engineers on a team to deliver well-understood and maintained code on time, and make space to introduce specific practices that ensure these conditions are met. 

The Core of it all, asking the hard questions

Every leader needs a purpose. How do we want to show up in the world? What do we want to create? What impact do we want to leave behind? These questions are important because how can you expect impact, integration, and success if you don't get them right? We'll all face setbacks, mistakes, conflict, and confusion. The core foundation of leadership is purpose. We mentioned self-empowerment earlier, but power is also derived from purpose. 

It's similar to building a snowball. First, we have to pack the core tightly before adding additional layers of snow. Else we risk crumbling. And like snow, our goals and purpose can change.

I encourage aspiring leaders to consider what it means to be an individual contributor, a leader, an engineer, a project manager, a product manager, and anyone else on your team. Then, ask the hard questions and start to forge an answer, even if it's not the right one the first time around.

In closing

Leadership doesn’t happen overnight. Making it a reality means taking up a shovel and doing the hard work. It means continually empowering yourself, connecting and investing in others, and asking hard questions. Our software code is always in the pursuit of being understood, loved and in service to others. As an individual in an engineering manager or leadership capacity, we influence to make this a reality for our teams, communities, and industry—best of luck to those seeking true leadership.

This letter shared some insights into power, connection, and purpose as a leader. I hope it was useful to anyone looking for some encouragement related to being a leader in their capacity. Please feel free to connect with me if you enjoyed this piece or have any questions.

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