Authentic Leadership: Embrace Uniqueness

When it comes to taking charge of an engineering organization, it can be daunting. It is perfectly natural and fine to seek guidance, talk to others, and collect advice. Nevertheless, I often see this taken to an extreme, resulting in a mishmash way of doing things and a culture that feels “generic,” and sometimes even utterly incompatible with the particular team.

For example, I can’t remember how many teams I saw trying to copy processes, systems, and methodologies from Google, Facebook, and other giant companies—when they barely had a dozen engineers. And, of course, there’s no need to mention the mission statements that might as well belonged to the company downstairs—there’s no telling them apart from one another (“We will benefit our customers and bring innovation in an ethical manner,” anyone?). This abdication on forming your own approach creates a timid and feeble environment. It just doesn’t have that oomph.

Instead, start by making a commitment to authenticity, yours and your team’s. Each company is unique, and that uniqueness should be embraced. Stop following vanilla advice you found on a Medium post without giving it due thought and consideration (this article included). When you use generic values and approaches that you know are not likely to jive with your team, even though they seem “right” or “trendy,” you are teaching everyone to disregard whatever is said in meetings—it just doesn’t matter. I used to work at IBM. We had walls plastered with motivational posters that said stuff like “INNOVATION.” The only innovation I saw come out of it was how people defaced these without management noticing.

Read and hear what others are doing. Understand the principles that guide their decisions, and then assess whether those match your unique situation. I’m against innovation in processes unless it is warranted, but that doesn’t mean you should copy things as-is. Think about your strengths and positives: use those to your advantage. A methodology that is tailored to your team and its strongpoints is leaps and bounds better than the one in the most popular book of the year. You do you.

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