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Leading vs. Participating

Leading vs. Participating


·July 2, 2022


The example at the top of the article isn't very good. It is not clear to me that the manager didn't do the right thing. So the issue took 3-4 weeks to get solved.

"Everyone, including that manager, operated as though they were collaboratively discussing the issue."

That doesn't sound so bad. How do we know that the manager didn't "oversee a timely resolution"? Not everything needs to be solved yesterday. Maybe allowing everyone to collaborate on the issue and let it stew for a bit lead to the best outcome.

Speed != productivity != quality.


I feel like a very narrow definition of "leader" is being used, which is basically equivalent to "manager". But to lead means simply to guide and influence. You can do that by setting a good example, asking the right questions, and participating in a discussion in order to guide it towards a robust resolution. You can be a leader without having any reports.


yeah, imo leadership and management are adjacent but separate things


It reads to me like the manager got the right people involved, got them collaboratively analyzing the problem to the point that they were able to identify the core issue, got them to find a solution to that issue and then got them to implement it.

So a multi-team effort addressed something that was probably not an immediate priority for any team involved, since it's not like it was on anybody's roadmap, and got what sounds like a significant issue resolved in 3-4 weeks. Based on the way this is discussed plus a look at the about section of the website, it seems like it happened at a large organization, so that's not exactly slow.

The manager in question sounds like they're crushing it to me.


Not sure I can agree with most of this. Perhaps it's my own perspective, but I can't help but detect a latent undertone of "just tell people what to do so things get done" in this article. The first example is particularly egregious - assuming the problem being discussed was something legitimately complicated, how is it a bad thing that the leader helped the team determine the correct solution? Is the leader expected to dictate implementation of the first idea they had instead of allowing the team to explore other potential solutions?

While it's true that a leader usually cannot be effective without providing adequate direction to their team and "making the call" when an indecision point is reached, in my experience it's equally true that a leader cannot grow their team without being in touch with what they're working on. There's a reason that people are universally happier when they feel their manager _could_ do their job (note that the manager should not actually be doing their job - the capability to do so is the important part).

I feel that the author of this piece either hasn't experienced or hasn't yet found the way to lead a team without dictating. It is a difficult thing to do, but the proper balance will allow a leader to grow their team's skills and decision making capabilities far beyond what's possible otherwise. It is completely possible to "deliver results" while also remaining primarily collaborative and "participating" with your team - you just have to know when it's time to short-circuit and make the call.


Agree, the author seems to advocate for a "strong leader" management style, which may not always yield positive results, depending on the team's cultural background


Just reading Erin Meyer's Culture Map and it feels like, even though I really appreciate them, all those Managing articles apply only to the subset culture from where the author lives


It’s kind of a trend these days to not give advice with caveats. I almost ignore advice which doesn’t explain the context and boundary conditions around it.


This hit home for me. The current servant leader on my product team feels their job is only to foster discussion in hopes the right thing will magically happen. Unfortunately none of the team is stepping up to drive the outcome, so tasks will just sit and linger. I’ve tried to suggest goal-setting for the team but she’s unwilling to do so unless it came directly from the team, which again won’t happen because they’re not mature enough to take the initiative. It’s frustrating to watch.


Yeah, the type of team being led really does dictate the "leadership style" required.


As an engineer turned manager I often face blockers where I know that if I delegate it will take days or weeks to get it done properly, whereas if I just do it I will save myself and the team a lot of time.

However I'm still not sure if it's worth it in the end, perhaps it's one of these traps the article speaks of.


The counterpoint is that if you as the leader just do the work yourself, then:

1. You're not being as effective a leader for your team while your attention is on your own individual contributor-level work, and

2. Your people aren't getting the learning experience of tackling the difficult jobs themselves, which means that the same thing is probably going to happen again the next time this kind of difficult blocker turns up.

In essence, you're getting a better result in the short term at the expense of better results in the long term.

And don't get me wrong -- sometimes that's the right choice!

I feel like one of the marks of a really strong working manager is the ability to recognise whether a situation is so critical to the company's survival that they (the manager) needs to handle it personally as a matter of simple survival, or whether they can get away with delegating it to team members who perhaps won't do as good or as quick a job as the manager themselves could, but who will learn and grow and improve as a result of being given the challenging task plus mentoring and feedback.

Most of the time, the most important, impactful thing a leader can do is to deepen their bench; increasing the skill of your team pays dividends for decades, even long after you've been further promoted or left the company.


But also if the leader does not continue to sharpen their technical skills they will become less effective over time. I wish I had the reference at hand but up-to-date technical skill is very important for leaders.


As with most things, I think the answer here is "it depends".

Is a similar blocker likely to reappear in the future? Is it one-off task that's unlikely to recur? Is it something that will have to be maintained by the team? Is it a task that would put you in the "hot path" of your team's project (e.g. could the team get blocked by you if you get sidetracked)? Is there a way for you to turn the task into a learning/growth opportunity for the team?

There are some tasks that are worth being picked up by the lead, the hard part is identifying which fall into that category! For myself, I like to pick up tasks only when they meet the following criteria:

1. The team can never be blocked on me (this is a "golden rule" for me, I never violate it)

2. The task is a "force multiplier" (completion of the task will enable the team to do more with less time/effort in the future)

3. The task requires experimentation

4. There are many potential ways to complete the task, but most are likely to be sub-optimal (and, due to 3., it's difficult or impossible to tell them apart!)

In my experience, these tasks have a hugely outsized impact on the overall efficacy of the team. Consider my primary role is to make the team run effectively, it's fitting that I should be willing to take on this type of work!


Maybe take the opportunity and grow (qualitatively) your team with those challenges. In the end you're just as good as your team. So it's in your best interest to teach them everything you can offer.


This goes both ways. If the team cannot grow or cannot match your skills, they will take you down with them.


maybe I misunderstand your point, but this doesn't sound like something a team player would say. Everyone can learn something and better. The better your team, the better your managing results will be. As easy as that.

If it's really that bad, then I wonder how someone ended up in such a place.


I've worked at companies like this - to the point where even C-level people behave this way - it is some of the most frustrating times I've had trying to get shit done when my work has been adjacent to another department. Very accurate article (in my experience).

EDIT: I think this sort of thing proliferates in cultures emphasising egalitarianism.


I don't see how is it failure of the management. The story is missing a reason why this particular issue should be treated as more urgent in the first place. It misses the reason why collaborative self-organized approach would be failure - after all appropriate person fixed it.

It sounds like it was situation in which it was initially unclear where the bug originated, people acted as intelligent independent agents and move the issue toward the solution.


Using the data actually provided, and the context in which it is provided, it is a failure of management to drive the issue toward resolution. Ownership and responsibility were unclear "for days" (or perhaps longer), while even the person responsible for ensuring things move forward was not doing so.

At the minimum, "leading instead of participating" would have ensured that there was a clear answer to, "What is the very next step, and who is responsible for taking it?"

Several replies want to "what if" this scenario speculatively for some reason instead of engaging with the author's point, which is as fine a demonstration as any of why directionless chatter is a problem that leadership should overcome.


There is nothing to suggest it was issue that this bug was not resolved quickly. It does not sounds like involved people spent whole day every day on it.

Instead, there was mail thread and jira or some such discussion where people moved issue forward as they should. This sounds like issue involving multiple teams that have to cooperate in non urgent situation.

You want someone "drive this forward" and interrupt people from they usual flow. But that costs and slows down all other tasks. So for that, you would need to have actual urgent situation.


Why is leadership so lauded? All I have seen is +100% of worrying for maybe +25% pay... Be a follower!


In corporate structures I think this is very true until you get to high C-level roles where the stress may be a reasonable tradeoff for the comp. There's a tremendous increase in expectations, effort, and risk with what I dub an inappropriate tradeoff in comp. If I'm striving for what I consider a true leadership role, the only option in my mind is entrepreneurship.

Why take the stress and risk for little potential reward as a leader in a small corner of a massive organization? I suppose this could be dubbed a "dipping your toe in the water" of the broad skills needed by successful entrepreneurs without eating all the risk as a learning experience, but I think that would be misguided as an entrepreneur in a startup environment, you're going to manage and think very differently in terms of approach than some middle management in a corporate structur. The dynamics are just very very different between these roles from my observation and experience.


Humans are hard wired to respect positions of high social status (ie, ones that influence what other people do with varying degrees of indirectness).