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On Technical Leadership and Relationships, for Irina (Rhythm of Testing)

On June 18, 2014, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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At Nordic Testing Days, this past June, I presented a session on Test Leadership.  It was a fairly light-hearted approach to a complex subject.  Specifically, I was talking about what is sometimes called “non-positional leadership” or, as I prefer to think of it, “technical leadership,” a term I first encountered in Jerry Weinberg’s “Becoming a Technical Leader.” 
It was a good session, I thought.  It was the last track slot of the conference, just before the closing keynote.  Because it was the end of three days of fairly intense work, I agreed with the conference organizers that a lighter approach might be in order.  So, I revived and modified the “Test Leadership Lessons from Harry Potter.”  It seemed a good idea – and passing out chocolates (mini candy bars to be precise) seemed a fun thing to do while people were filtering in.
Somehow I managed to trim a 90 minute presentation into around 35 minutes (well, I did go over – so around 37 minutes) and still had time for questions – around 10 minutes or so.  One question was, I thought fantastic “How do you know if you are ready to be this kind of leader?”
That was an excellent question.  (It also won the prize – they really do have prizes at NTD – for “best question” of at least some session.)  My answer was “Do you have people come up to you and ask for your advice or suggestions on how to do something or how to approach a problem?”  She nodded, with an expression on her face that said she was not quite clear where I was going with my response.  I continued, “If people are coming to you for these things, congratulations! You are becoming a leader!”
What does that mean? 
The idea of people coming to you for help is part and parcel of what I see “leadership” to be.  It is not an appointed thing.  It is not a mandated thing.  It is a mix of mentor, trusted adviser and supporter.   
The hard part is often letting people know help is available, without imposing the help.  When people come to you, on their own, that is recognition that you have developed some level of expertise on the topic at hand and they need guidance.
People who aspire to be leaders might consider that maybe becoming a leader is not really a viable goal in itself, at least through the paths I espouse.  Instead, the type of leader I want to foster and encourage is the type who masters their craft.  They are the type who studies diligently what they are about and why they are doing it.  They will seek out experts and learn from them.  In turn, they will often share what they have learned with others.
A few days after returning home, I had an email from a participant in the session.  She wrote:
The main question that popups is responsibility: does such kind of leader, who you were talking about, have responsibilities?
On the one hand, as long as he is a leader he affects other people, who’s decisions may depend on leader’s actions or opinion. So as long as he has power to affect – he should have responsibilities. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry )
On the other hand – he doesn’t want to be a leader, he is just doing what he like to do. It’s other people who put him on a leading position, so he shouldn’t be responsible for other people’s decision to follow him. Work on yourself first, take responsibility for your own progress. (I Ching)
So the question is: if leader knows that he is a leader, should he evaluate his actions and decisions according to how they might affect on people around him?
I promised that I would consider a response and would send one as soon as I could.
This is my response.
As I read the email, it seems there are three distinct points. 
First, there is the question of “responsibility” in general.  Does it exist for someone not in a traditional leadership/management role? 
To me, being a team lead or having the word “Lead” in your title is stepping into the realm of management.  I suspect this is because most organizations where I have worked, once one became a “lead” of anything the next step on the career ladder was “supervisor” or “manager,” more on that in a moment.
Then there is the statement of generally opposing views on the existence of any such relationship. 
First of these is the statement from de Saint-Exupéry (You know, the guy who wrote The Little Prince? Yeah, him… highlighted above) that states “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”  This is similar to the concept that if you save someone’s life, you are responsible for that person’s life going forward.
The second viewpoint is that presented in the I Ching (The Classic of Changes or Book of Changes, often attributed to Fu Xi, a legendary ruler of China, but it seems likely to be from much later, roughly 400-200 BCE. Either way, it is old by any measure I know of.)  The point made there, also highlighted above, is that one should “Work on yourself first, take responsibility for your own progress.” 
The third portion of the message is the crucial one, the “call of the question.”  
Let us examine the question. 
First, let me be clear that this form of “leadership” is not the form that most people look at as such.  This is partly because most people look at “leadership” as another term for “management.”  This is not about managers or team leads or senior people overseeing the development and work of more junior people. 
Instead, this is about learning what it is that we, as professional testers and students of our craft, are about.  Instead of leading others by compulsion or any other external means, we share our journey of learning with others and allow them to decide.
In truth, we do not lead anyone.  We enable them to begin on their own journey of learning. 
They may follow the same path we do for a while, or not.  By sharing or offering to share our learning with others , encouraging ourselves and others to share what has been learned thus far and what we want to learn in the future, we are opening the door a little wider than it was open when we arrived.
By helping others see what is possible and encouraging them to discover their own passion, we are leading them – in the sense of empowering them.  When we listen to what others have done, and learn from it to try ourselves, we are allowing them to lead us.
And there is where it gets interesting.
By allowing others to grow and explore their areas if interest, their chosen areas of professional development, we are demonstrating leadership in its most fundamental form: We encourage people and give them the opportunity to grow, then get out of the way until we are asked to assist or contribute. 
In doing so, when they come asking questions or looking for assistance, it is up to us to determine what form that assistance takes.  We can help walk them through their problem.  We can evaluate their solution, as presented to us.  We can pair with them as they do their work. 
We can make them the gift of our time to help them become better at their chosen craft.
This does not mean we do their work for them.  Nor does it mean we take responsibility for them not accomplishing their tasks in a timely manner.  
We can say “No.”
This also does not prevent us from saying “No.”  That may be extended into “No, not right now; can we get together later today?”  Or, it may be “We have done similar things several times; why don’t you try it on your own then, if I can, I can review it with you?”
This is the final point I want to make on the relationship between “technical leaders” and those they are assisting: it must be a relationship that is mutually agreed to.
If would-be leaders find themselves in a position where they are doing other people’s work for them, they are not helping that other person.  Such a relationship exists only when people have the right to opt-out either temporarily or permanently.  From what I have seen, the relationship must benefit both parties to be successful.
The best way I know of to solidify what has been learned is to try and teach or explain it to someone else.  While they are learning a new concept, we, the people explaining the concept, are testing our own understanding of it as we explain it.  The fundamental basis here is that our learning is solidified as we teach others. 
The answer.
In the end, I generally fall in with the concept of the I Ching – we must teach ourselves first.   In doing so, we can open up our learning to others.  As we grow, we can make this available so others may grow.  Whether they chose to act is not up to us.
Having said that, I believe there is a bit of responsibility to others once you step beyond the question of personal professional development.  I believe that we have a responsibility to aid others we help, although not “forever” as Saint-Exupéry would have us do.  Partly this is because we are freeing them, not “taming” them.  We help them discover their own passion to grow and develop.
This is why I take the time to formulate an answer to a question sent by email after a conference. 
 

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