Leading a Team: Are You in Charge or Just in Control?

Culturally, we place a lot of importance on leadership. For many, that means rising to the top of a hierarchy and holding management positions over increasingly large domains. It’s considered a standard path of career progression at a lot of organizations to move from individual contributor to team lead. From there, you may move to department manager, to VP, and perhaps even to the C-suite. With each of these roles comes increasing responsibility. There’s responsibility for making tough decisions, for showing results, and for the successes and failures of one’s domain of influence.

We often wrap up all these facets of leadership with the phrase “in charge.” Many consider being “in charge” to be fun, desirable, and a mark of success in one’s career. People are proud to be “in charge.”

Unfortunately, it’s easy to let being in charge simply mean, “people do what I say.” There’s more to great leadership than bossing people around. Let’s take a closer look at what “in charge” means, in particular. There are a few meanings, but one I find particularly interesting after having served as a team lead on various Atomic projects.

Let’s talk about what it means to have charges, that is, to have a team of people that you’re responsible for. What exactly does it mean to be responsible for people?

You’re responsible for their security.

First and foremost, I try to offer my team security. This means thoughtfully maintaining the kind of psychological safety that allows them to bring up issues, ask for help, and generally not feel like they’re in it alone. Your team needs to know that you’re a safe place to go when they’re feeling overwhelmed or uncertain or experiencing other facets of FUDA. Generally speaking, leadership means being an exception handler for the team. So, make it clear that when they bring these things to you, they’re going to get the help they need. Some ways to establish security that I like to use are:

  • As early as possible, offer kind, critical feedback to set team members’ expectations for how you’ll handle it when they make bigger mistakes.
  • Also as early as possible, admit fault or share something you would have done differently given a second chance. Ask the team for their input and make it clear that you’ll gladly hear their feedback.
  • Ask new team members what they’re most concerned about or afraid of. Then, offer reassurance and a plan for dealing with those challenges together.
  • For particularly anxious team members, help them catastrophize (hear me out). One of the most counterintuitively calming things a senior team member ever told me was: “Let’s talk through what would happen in the absolute worst-case scenario. You’re not going to get fired.” Doing this for a teammate helps them have a hard stopping point when they start to worry.

You’re responsible for their environment.

The conditions your teammates are working under will be predictors of their success, and thereby predictors of your ability to deliver on the results you’re responsible for. Look critically and often at the incentives and pressures that they’re facing, and at how accessible the resources they need are to them. Some ways to be a good steward of the team environment are:

  • Actively cultivate a positive team atmosphere by using levity, leaving time for bonding, and developing fun traditions.
  • During your retrospectives, look for repeated complaints and bottlenecks. Find time (or delegate to a teammate with appropriate resources) to repair busted build systems or invest in better team infrastructure. Does everyone avoid doing some bit of grunt work? Automate or remove it.
  • Watch for anxiety and sore spots during team discussions. A seemingly pointless argument about estimates might actually be a signal that the team is feeling uncertain about how they’re being evaluated. Two teammates consistently butting heads over approach could indicate that the team doesn’t have a clear picture of their priorities.

You’re responsible for their growth.

Each member of a team holds the majority of the responsibility for their own personal growth, but that doesn’t mean that their leaders shouldn’t be keeping an eye out for opportunities to match individuals to growth experiences. If you play your cards right here, you’ll both improve the flow of the current team and have even stronger teammates to work with in the future.

To cultivate growth:

  • Be clear with the whole team about where your collective priorities lie so that they’re able to make decisions confidently without you. When they go off-course, seek to provide any context they might have missed rather than just grabbing the reins.
  • Regularly check in with team members one-on-one and ask about where they’re looking to grow. Keep the answers in mind as you assign tasks or grapple with strategy problems; something that represents busy work to you might be an interesting mini-project for a more junior team member to take on.
  • Ask team members for their input on decisions and topics you know they’re interested in to boost their confidence and give them a chance to exercise their skills.