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How to Exhibit Leadership as an Individual Contributor

This post lists the key insights from this article, from an engineering manager at Trivago, Tom Bartel.

Leadership is not tied to a position. Leadership is a mindset.

This mindset separates good employees from excellent ones. Leadership-minded people proactively improve and develop their environment — their product, their codebase, their colleagues, their teams. Over time, these little improvements multiply and make a huge difference.

If you are an individual contributor, and you want to be in a leadership position, you can start today by exhibiting leadership in the following ways.

1. Leading by teaching

Teaching is a great way to have a lot of impact, because you act as a multiplier. It is also a way to establish yourself as a leader. There are several kinds of leadership, and knowledge leadership is an important one of them — especially in technological fields, since they evolve so rapidly.

Give a workshop or a presentation in a guild meeting. Pass the knowledge on in a way that is filtered and tailored to your organization. Make the knowledge actionable. This way, you can save the others a lot of time, which increases the value you bring as a team member.

2. Leading by example

If you show hard work and passion, you will inspire the people around you to do the same. Show how important a task or project is to you by putting in your best work. If you want others to show up on time, show up on time yourself. If you want others to go the extra mile, go the extra mile yourself.

This is setting an example, and it is an effective form of leadership.

3. Leading by setting high standards

Most people want to deliver high-quality work. However, under high workload and time pressure, many will be tempted take shortcuts and compromise on quality. They think that people rather expect them to finish quickly than to deliver a high-quality solution. In these cases, it helps when they have somebody to hold them accountable, to encourage them and to remind them that they can do better than that.

No matter the job title, this somebody acts as a leader by reminding their colleague of the high standards the team should aspire to.

Careful, though: You will only be able to hold other people accountable to high standards if you hold yourself at least to the same standards. Otherwise, you will not be credible. In this sense, Leading by setting high standards and Leading by example are two sides of the same medal.

4. Leading by communication

It is not only as a manager that you can exhibit leadership by communication. If you are a developer, the same principle applies. When there is no dedicated communication spokesperson, you can create a lot of value by helping critical information reach those who need it.

Once in a while, ask yourself if your team’s activities might impact other teams so that they should get a heads-up. If yes, pick somebody from that team and politely ask them if they are interested in information about your team’s plans.

Vice versa, try to imagine which activities outside your team might affect you, then try to find out more about those activities by talking to people. Many developers are too comfortable or shy to do this, or they simply think it should not be their job. Therefore, this is a great opportunity for you to create a lot of value, and to set yourself apart.

5. Leading by giving credit

Everybody needs acknowledgement, and there is nobody stopping you from giving it, no matter if you are a manager or not.

If you make it a habit acknowledging behaviour you like to see in your colleagues, you can contribute a lot to an appreciative and positive team culture, where individual wins are celebrated as team wins.

Don’t know where to start? Here are some ideas for things that deserve acknowledgement:

  • Cleaning something up without having been told to do so
  • Having the courage to take over the moderation of a meeting for the first time (in general, when was the last time you thanked your meeting facilitator for a good moderation?)
  • Writing documentation that was long missing
  • Organizing a team event
  • Making the team aware of a critical change in a dependency
  • Checking out a new library and assessing if it is useful for your team
  • Maybe the most common one: Doing good work

6. Leading through code reviews

They offer an opportunity to encourage people to follow best practices, or to be more thorough.

They are a place where:

  • you can praise and reinforce good work — code reviews are not only for critical feedback.
  • you can share your knowledge, and where you can learn from others.
  • alignment starts, and company-specific best practices crystallize.

Tread with care, though, if you decide to become more active in code reviews: People can react in sensitive ways if you do not communicate very deliberately (and sometimes, even if you do). Therefore, follow the best practices for code reviews.

  • Try to understand the reason why something was done a certain way. Was it intention or a lack of knowledge?
  • If you criticize, stay very concrete and give reasons why you think a certain solution is not ideal. Share your point of view (“I think this is not the best solution because …“) instead of using absolutes (“The way you do this is just wrong!”).
  • Give suggestions how to improve, but don’t solve the problem for them.
  • Criticize the work, not the person.
  • Maybe most importantly, be willing to be proven wrong. Usually, people have thought about their code more than you have, so they might see aspects to the problem that have not occurred to you yet.

7. Leading by going into hard conversations

When a team observes damaging behaviour, most people leave it at that. They talk to each other about it, rant about how disrespectfully a person was behaving. But a leader acts differently.

She makes sure a critical piece of feedback reaches the right person. She is aware that the conversation might be difficult, but she decides to have it anyway. She knows that if she does not do it, probably nobody will, and the disrecpectful person will remain unaware of the detrimental effect of his behaviour.

She takes responsibility for the team atmosphere, for team etiquette, and for how teammates interact with each other.

5 min​ read

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