On one of my 10-mile runs a couple of weeks ago, I was listening to the audio version of a book called Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win. It’s a book about leadership and the principles learned from some of the most important and difficult positions: combat leadership.
In the book, one of the authors, Jocko Willink, says, “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.” In fact, he dedicates a whole chapter to this idea. He gives an example of a grueling Navy SEALS training exercise where teams of “boat crews” compete against each other in very harsh conditions to beat out other boat crews in a race. It involves six-man teams carrying heavy boats on their heads, up hills, and then racing across the water.
In his example, one of the boat crews was falling behind and finishing dead last every time. Another boat crew was dominating just about every race. He decided to switch the leaders from the crews to see what would happen.
When he did this, the boat crew that was finishing last ended up eventually finishing first, and the crew that was finishing first ended up finishing second.
This is the power and responsibility of an effective leader.
An effective leader—one who takes extreme ownership, as Willink suggests—is not only able to make their team succeed, but leaves such an impact on their team that even when they are replaced the team is still a winner.
This post is all about how to become that kind of leader.
The kind of leader who so inspires, motivates, and pushes their team that success is all but guaranteed.
Not the kind of leader who is simply given a title of “leader,” but one who doesn’t need a formal designation of authority to command respect, foster cooperation, and inspire the best performance possible.
What Is Leadership?
Let’s start off by talking about what exactly leadership is.
Leadership is not a title or a position you are placed in.
Leadership is something you do and exemplify. You can be told that you are the leader. You can be given the official title. You can be put in charge of a team. But no one, no one, can make you a leader. You have to do that yourself. You have to own it.
Leadership is all about getting people to follow you into your vision of the future, to go the direction you are going, to follow the path you have set out.
That means you have to walk the path first. Leadership is about being in front, not pushing from behind. No job title, no official designation, no mandate from on high can make you a leader, because compliance is not the goal. Buy-in—full support—is.
You can temporarily control someone’s actions with force or authority, but leadership seeks to win their hearts and minds, and in turn, inspire loyalty rather than fear.
How to Lead Effectively
There is only one way to lead effectively, and that is by example.
The best leaders do what they ask of their team first.
They are willing to sacrifice and go the extra mile to pave the way for the people they are trying to lead. Even without an official title, you can lead people if you are willing to set an example for them to follow.
If you want your team to do test-driven development and write unit tests before they write any production code, don’t just tell them to do it, do it yourself first.
If you want your team to write better commit messages when they check code into source control, you better be doing it first, and be doing a damn good job of it.
Want your team to treat each other with respect, avoid arguments, and cooperate?
You should know what to do by now.
Often times, leading by example means doing jobs that are “beneath you.”
Too many “leaders” want to sit in their ivory towers and command their troops from above. To be a true leader who leads by example, you have to be willing to get on the front lines and lead from the battlefield. Take on some of the difficult and boring tasks that no one wants to do on your team. Show them the kind of quality you can bring to even the most monotonous task.
Lead in All Areas
A good leader is someone you look up to in multiple areas, not just their main discipline.
What I mean by this is that it’s great that you are an excellent programmer and that you can write the cleanest code anyone has ever seen, but that is just one area in which you must lead.
You should lead in every area you want your team to follow.
Do you want your team to have a good work ethic? To be motivated? Develop good communication and soft skills? You’ve got to be exemplifying your best in each of the areas you want your team to excel at. If you want to know the behavior and habits of a team, you have to look no further than their leader.
Teams tend to take on many of the traits of their leader, especially over time.
So, if you are constantly late for work, take long lunches, and spend a good amount of time surfing the internet instead of working, you can expect your team members to do the same.
If you don’t treat people professionally, make crude jokes, and frequently get into arguments or grumble and complain about your higher ups, you should expect that same kind of behavior from your team.
As a leader, you must…
Hold Yourself to a Higher Level of Accountability
This means that whatever you expect your team to do, you have to expect that same thing from yourself and more.
I consider my role at Simple Programmer, and especially my YouTube channel to be one of leadership. I want to inspire and lead people to perform and do their best. I want to teach people how to reach their true potential and to never give up, no matter how difficult things get. So, what do I do?
I set standards for myself far higher than what is expected and far beyond the goals I am trying to inspire people to reach.
I hold myself to an exceptionally high level of accountability. On the work side, I work in a focused and diligent manner and I never, ever give up. I try to get more work done in a week than most people think is humanly possible. On a given week, I produce several blog posts, 18 YouTube videos, several podcasts, and do plenty of other work.
If I’m going to ask you to do something, I’m going to not only have done it, but have done the 10x more difficult version of it. If I ask you to run a mile, I’m going to run 10 first.
If you want to lead people, don’t just lead them by example. Truly inspire them by showing them what is possible by going the extra mile––or 10.
Think about the best leaders you have known. Think about the people who inspired you the most. Did they just do the minimum, or did you feel like they did much more than they were asking you to do?
When supplies are low, a good leader gives his rations to his team, not because he is self-sacrificing and selfless, but because he wants them to see that even without food the battle can be fought and won. A good leader inspires people, because they think to themselves, “If he can do that, then surely I can do this.”
You Are Responsible for the Team
I've talked before about the idea that you should try and take as much responsibility for the team as possible. As a leader, this idea isn’t optional.
As a leader, you and you alone are responsible for the performance of the team.
As a leader, there is no one to blame but yourself.
To lead effectively, you must take full ownership for your team and everything your team does.
You cannot pass the buck or play the blame game. The blame is always yours. If your team fails, it is your fault and your fault alone. You will lead and inspire the team much more effectively when they know that they have 100 percent freedom to do what you are asking them to do, because you will hold yourself responsible for the outcome.
That doesn’t mean that team members don’t screw up. It doesn’t mean that team members can’t throw a wrench in your plans, or even completely foul them up, but it does mean that when that happens, it’s still your fault and your responsibility.
It’s your fault, because you could have trained that team member better.
It’s your fault, because you could have made sure that team member better understood and bought into the plan.
It’s your fault, because if you did all those things and you knew that team member still wasn’t on board, you could have kicked them off board officially and removed them from the team.
Remember, your most important job as the leader of a team is to make as many people around you as successful as possible.
You have to take responsibility, not only for your own mistakes, but for the mistakes made by everyone else on your team.
A good leader is responsible when things go wrong, but gives all the credit to the team when success is achieved.
Trust Your Team, Delegate
Even the best leaders can only do so much by themselves. Some leaders recognize they are ultimately responsible for the team, so their response is to simply do everything themselves. They figure if they are responsible for it, they need to make sure it’s is done right, and the only way to do that is to do it themselves.
That kind of attitude creates a team which is completely dependent on the leader and can’t function on its own.
“How should we solve this problem?”
“I don’t know, we need to ask James.”
“Well, James is out to lunch.”
“Ok, guess we can’t do anything until he comes back.”
You don’t want that scenario to play out on your team, so you need to make sure you trust your team well enough to delegate tasks and responsibility for them, although you’ll still be ultimately accountable.
But how can I trust they’ll do it right?
You can never be 100 percent sure, but there are few things you can do to reduce the instances of screwups.
The first thing is to make your mission and your intent as clear and as simple as possible.
As long as the members of your team know what you are ultimately trying to accomplish and what is important—the overall vision—they can make decisions on their own on how to achieve those ends. The idea is to tell team members what the objective is without telling them how to do it, or making them run every little decision by you.
You can also have a clear operating procedure that anyone can follow to get certain types of tasks done. Flowcharts or checklists work extremely well here.
Currently at Simple Programmer, I have team members doing jobs that I thought only I could do. I decided that I would start documenting the process I used to do the task and decisions I had to make along the way and the reasons for making those decisions one way or another. Pretty soon, I had a process document that anyone could pick up and run with.
Now we have a Wiki with all of our processes and delegation is very easy.
And don’t forget training.
The first time you ask someone to do a task, even if the process is documented, there are likely going to be issues. That is ok.
Go over the work, tell them what mistakes to correct and why those are mistakes, and then have them correct them.
That’s the best way to do training.
If your team is aligned and understands the mission, has a process to follow, and is well trained, it’s not that difficult to trust them to get things done—even the things you think you could only do yourself.
To be an effective leader you have to be able to delegate. This fact becomes even more important as you rise up the ranks and lead larger and larger teams.
You will have to groom and train leaders who will lead their own teams, and you will have to put significant trust in them.
One word of caution, though.
There is a difference between delegation and abdication.
Delegating a task or responsibility means giving it to someone else to do, but still ultimately owning it and being responsible for it.
Abdicating means chucking it over the wall and saying “you handle it.”
Make sure that when you delegate tasks, you still take ownership for them and check over the results. Don’t just assume it will be done and done right and then think, “It’s not my fault, I assigned Bob to do it.”
Leadership doesn’t work that way.
As you can see, leadership isn’t exactly easy. To be a leader, you are going to have to make a number of sacrifices. Much will be expected from you.
But there is a certain reward and satisfaction in knowing that you have inspired people to be their greatest.
Being a leader is not for everyone, but if you do take on that burden—and honor—hopefully this post has equipped and prepared you just a little bit better to do it.
This post is a chapter from my book, The Complete Software Developer's Career Guide.