Leadership, Awareness, and Fear

Leadership is a state of heightened awareness and fear.

~ Aaron Douglas, sometime this week

I’ve been a team lead for a couple years now at Automattic – a little over a year of that with the larger team (Go Slytherin!!). I’ve made several discoveries of what being a lead (team, project, technical) means. I’ve realized one thing I have to do is to put myself into a higher state of awareness and embrace fears.

Awareness

Leads have to see the business landscape with different eyes. My main goal as a team and project lead is to unblock the pathways for my teammates to succeed. I’m required to involve myself in conversations that are out-of-band from what the team is connected to. These conversations get summarized in my head and become part of discussions with project leads and individual 1:1 meetings. I have to pick out the important things that relate to the team and bring that into conversations to establish insight amongst everyone.

This makes me sound like a guru. I’m not. The process isn’t glamorous nor difficult. It’s a super shallow task at times but it allows my team to focus on the work. Understanding more about our users, the rest of the company, and other big projects will only add depth to the things they are working on. Letting them go deep and work well on the things they’re doing is key to succeeding.

Fear

Fear can be healthy. Fear keeps us from doing bad things. Fear can also paralyze us so it’s important to understand how to interpret our fears. Team leads/managers have to learn to sense their own fears and translate those into actionable items or at least a watchlist. Typical fears for me include (and oddly most of them come in the form of questions):

  • Did I forget to do something I said I would do?
  • Are we on track with the project I’m leading?
  • I hope our users are happy with our work.
  • Is everyone happy with me and the work they do?
  • What am I missing?
  • Are our priorities right?
  • Where are these voices coming from? (kidding, maybe)

I’m not saying leads are the only one with fears. We all have things like this we keep in our minds. Every one of these fears (except maybe the last one) can have some actionable item to keep the fear in check. Fear is a motivator. Use your fear to keep your team humming along.

What I’m not suggesting is using fear to intimidate your team into motivating them to work faster, harder, longer hours. You need to show your team empathy and compassion to turn their fears into motivation to do a great job. Make sure they know you have their backs and that a level of trust exists. When you get status updates make sure to restate that progress back at some point in some fashion so they know they heard you. You wouldn’t be a lead without them and they wouldn’t have a direction and focus without you. They have their own fears – don’t make one of them you.

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