notion image

The Elusive Definition of “Leadership”

One typically overcast Friday morning in November, instead of heading on my normal route into our office in Soho, I found my feet leading me towards Moorgate station, the venue for React Advanced 2023. One of my colleagues, Mo (Head of Mobile at Theodo UK), who was co-chairing a roundtable on the topic of “Engineering Leadership”, had asked me to attend the conference and contribute to the discussion.
After taking a seat at the long rectangular table (apparently, they couldn’t find an actual round one!), we started on a clear first premise - Leadership ≠ Management. This seemed like a wise early distinction to prevent misalignment in the discussion and one which facilitated an interesting and valuable conversation; however, it was only as we drew towards a conclusion that I realised the irrelevance of defining what leadership is not. Before discussing how we could grow as engineering leaders, we really should have spent our time seeking the clarity that was eluding us: a definition of that fuzzy term “leadership”.
It’s easy to concede many things about mastering “leadership”: yes, good leaders should communicate effectively; yes, good leaders should care about the interests of those they lead and; yes, good leaders should be able to inspire others. I noted many similar assertions during the roundtable, however, each was only relevant to the context of that participant’s particular experience with leadership - they didn’t tell me which traits of a leader will bring value to me or any underlying reason I should care about them.
If we don’t know what leadership is, or why we wish to develop this in ourselves and others, how can we possibly move forwards in doing so? I propose that studying other leaders is an ineffective way of developing leadership in yourself - their style might work for them, in their situation, but that does not mean it will necessarily work for you.

Proposal: Leadership as a Vehicle for Positive Change

After the talk, I was approached by another colleague, who had been sat towards the back of the room listening to the conversation. He had been meditating on the topic during the discussion and said to me,
“it was really interesting, the things you were talking about reminded me of the Kaizen Leadership Model.”
Kaizen is a term familiar to anyone who has studied Lean or the Toyota Production System in any detail. 改 (Kai) 善 (Zen) literally means, “change” (Kai) “good” (Zen) - and can be translated as “continuous improvement”.
Mention of the Kaizen Leadership Model[1] took me back: developing in leadership is one dimension in which we are incentivised to grow within the company, and when I joined, the way we measured this was within the framework of the Kaizen Leadership Model. For my first promotion[2], to prove that I had made developments in leadership, I presented a six-step Kaizen, which showed how I had identified an area for improvement, analysed the current method, implemented and measured the improvements I had made. Let me restate this core idea to be clear:
Leadership was defined as the ability of an individual to instigate large positive change.
To us at the time, it seemed strange that this was the framing for leadership. Wasn’t leadership about inspiring your followers to work towards some goal? All I did for my leadership development was make an individual contribution towards positive change within my organisation - I didn’t lead anyone.
This can be reconciled by knowing that leadership is a means to an end, not a means unto itself; we only care about the traits of a leader (inspirational, effective communication, empathetic) for the positive change these traits bring about. By this definition, leadership is actually a broader term, which encapsulates all of these traits, but also encompasses the motivation behind why we want to develop in leadership - to instigate large positive change.
Let’s split this down.
notion image
The first part of the definition relates to instigating change; in particular, the best leaders have the skills to implement the largest magnitude of changes. I refer to this trait as influence. To do this, along the way, they have had to develop many of the traits we initially associated with leadership - if they couldn’t inspire others, communicate effectively, and understand the interests of their followers, they could only create their change on the scale of a single person’s contributions to that change.
The second part to this definition is not just “instigating change”, but instigating positive change - it’s not sufficient to call yourself a good leader if the change you bring about is catastrophically negative (e.g. <insert name of current politician>!). I refer to this trait as competence - you need to be able to identify a positive vision, something that looks better than what we have now (not easy), and work towards improving it. You need to be good enough at something to know what good looks like and also good at the fundamental skillset relating to making change effectively.
To be a good leader, you want to be both highly competent and highly influential.
notion image

The Hidden Journey of the Individual Contributor to Influential Leader

Notice something vital: in this definition of leadership, an individual contributor can still be a leader(!) so long as they are consistently instigating large positive change.
So - briefly - why do we not conventionally consider that individual contributors can be leaders?
Let’s consider the story of how a good leader typically develops:
A leader almost always starts as an individual contributor, learning to master the day-to-day tasks of their craft. As they develop mastery of their craft, they start to notice and make small improvements they can make to improve their daily work. Here, they are barely visible to others as a leader, but are developing competence and also the fundamental problem-solving groundwork for developing influence within their local vicinity.
As they progress, they tend to start spending some of their time passing on these improvements to their immediate peers - which often manifests in teaching others, “showing the ropes” to someone new to the craft, or raising the quality standards amongst peers.
In a work environment, those who are seen to be creating positive change within their immediate surroundings typically get promoted into management. As they become more visible and their job involves affecting change on a larger scale, they must adapt the foundational skills they already have in creating positive change to learn how to scale the magnitude of that change.
If a leader progresses past this point successfully, they are finally visible on a large scale and known as a “leader”. By the point they have been widely identified as a leader, they are spending most of their time guiding others to make the right individual contributions.
notion image
This is just a typical story - there are also people who are scaling their influence through technology; using social media to influence change on a large scale by educating others to improve standards. We’ve branded this with the name “thought leadership”.
Thought leadership is just one way in which leadership diverges from “management”, but it’s not the only way. We had skirted around this topic during the roundtable, but without a solid upfront definition of both “management” and “leadership”, it had been difficult to make a clear distinction.

Management vs Leadership

Good leaders often end up in management at some point, which makes it easy to conflate the two, however, most of us have experience of someone in management who had very few of the traits required to be a leader.
At the time of writing, I’ve been a manager for almost two years (although when I first became a Tech Lead, I didn’t explicitly realise it was a management position) and in that time, I have developed an understanding of what a good manager is.
Manager: someone who ensures their direct reports have everything they need to deliver value effortlessly.
Obviously, you may know some people in management positions who are not doing this - many people are either not good at their job, don’t understand their responsibilities, or are mismanaged themselves.
Likewise, some people are in “leadership positions” who are not leaders - sometimes companies brand their middle-management positions as “leadership positions” when actually they are just management positions.
Management is one common skill through which people achieve their leadership goals to increase the influence of the positive change they can create, but jumping into management to develop your leadership might not be the best idea (especially jumping into management without mastering your competence - that’s the recipe to become a bad leader).
We can use this Kaizen Leadership Model to develop as leaders by improving our competence and influence. But this still seems a bit vague; how do we do this?

Developing Leadership Between Contexts

To develop our leadership, we shouldn’t look inwards to some quality that we lack that the leaders we respect have; instead, we need to look outwards to the change we want to create and work backwards - what skills will you need to develop to create that change?
I’m asking you to forget about “developing as a leader” and choose a very specific positive improvement you can make and try to make it. Start small (I mean really small), you won’t necessarily notice the big improvements straight away (or at least a reasonable path towards that positive change). Keep it to something that’s within your power to change, something that will improve your working conditions or the quality of your output.
You will quickly realise that the leadership skills you will need to develop vary wildly depending on the change you want to implement. Someone who has been a successful leader in one organisation might struggle to adapt to leadership in another. Even within the same domain (e.g. engineering in one specific company), the skills required to make the most impact change depending on the specific project you’re working on and the people you need to work with.
Tying the skills to a specific goal reduces the waste in “speculative skill learning”, where you over-train in a given skill, which later you find wasn’t required in that particular project. It’s a learn-by-doing approach; you won’t be a good leader the first time you take on some leadership - the whole point is to try to make a positive change, reflect actively on whether it worked (if not then why not) and iterate in trying to make the positive change again if you didn’t see the desired outcomes.
This isn’t to say that there are no transferable skills in leadership - quite the opposite - it’s just that certain leadership skills will be significantly more valuable in some circumstances than others and by learning with a specific positive change in mind, you can quickly gain the right skills for the job.
When developing your own leadership plan, I would suggest something like this:
  1. Master the competencies required to make change - this means knowing what good and bad conditions look like so you can identify if the change you are creating is positive. If you start with low-influence projects and focus on ensuring that the changes you make are actually positive (be sceptical and look for unintended consequences), you can make mistakes here without dire consequences.
  1. Slowly increase the magnitude of influence of the projects you work on by using previous projects to evidence why you can be trusted with more responsibility. This will be a gradual and incremental development where you may need to learn many of the skills widely recognised as “leadership skills” (inspirational, effective communication, empathetic).
Aim for the following trajectory towards being a good leader:
notion image
So, the first step is to work on your competence before jumping straight to increasing your influence, but this still seems a bit vague; how do we do this?
Competence is split into two parts: domain expertise and the meta-skill of how to affect change - here’s how these dimensions play a part in the quality of results of trying to bring positive change.
notion image
Kaizen teaches us about the meta-skill of how to be effective at affecting positive change. These fundamentals can be applied to any domain of expertise to consistently drive positive change.
At Theodo, we engage in Kaizen frequently and it plays into the bigger picture of other Lean concepts such as improving our standards of work - let’s see how the Six Step Kaizen format helps us with this.

The Fundamentals of Change with the Kaizen Six Steps

Following these steps (in written form - documenting the process is very important to help you think about things systematically and evidence the improvements after the fact) is an effective, tangible way to develop leadership rather than directly chasing the elusive, murky concept of leadership. It forces you to create a vision of the improvement you want to make, improve your competence by analysing the state of the art, and can be used at any order of magnitude of influence.
  1. Discover improvement potential - see a gap between what is currently happening and what it could be. Here it’s important to be specific - quantify and measure what you’re aiming for (e.g. it takes five minutes to run my automation script, can I change this to take two and a half minutes?). The value proposition should be evident here so it’s super clear why it’s a worthwhile improvement to make (e.g. if I need to wait for an automation script to run which takes five minutes and I run the script 12 times a day, I could save two and a half hours each week if I halve this wait time - I can spend the time I save working on something valuable).
  1. Analyse current methods - take stock of the current state of things, break down the problem or system into exactly the parts of how it works and which sub-parts of the problem are the biggest contributors. If it’s a process, detail what happens at each step by who and why. It’s very difficult to “halve the time taken for my automation script to run” until you break it down into more concrete terms - what is the script actually doing and how long does each sub-step take, can we isolate the reason it takes so long?
  1. Generate original ideas - as you analyse the current methods you might come up with some clear ideas as to the specific changes you can make. Label them by effort (low, medium, high) and expected gains (low, medium, high) and prioritise low effort, high expected gains actions. Here you should also look at the state of the art - according to others what is the “best” way of doing this. Read the fucking manual (RTFM) if there is one - is there anything you’re doing wrong.
  1. Develop an implementation plan - who do you need to convince? What are the risks of taking the action? Is there any cost to the action or procedure you will need to follow?
  1. Implement the plan - only implement one change at once. Think like a science experiment (especially if the system you’re trying to change is complex in any way at all), if you change multiple things before measuring the results, you won’t be able to determine which factor affected the system. What if you implement two changes, and one change makes a large improvement, but the other makes a moderate detriment - you will be missing out on very easy wins.
  1. Evaluate the new method - take the same measurement as in step one and see if you’ve made a difference. It’s important to know that Kaizen is continuous improvement, which means that step six, loops back to step one. From there, you have made an improvement and you can take stock of whether or not it’s worth continuing to iterate on this topic, or to move on to a higher priority topic.
Obviously, given our definition of leadership, it’s not the only way to practice developing these skills, but it is one simple proven way to approach the problem.
Let’s look at another model for leadership to examine a counter-model to my own and see how they differ.

Does this Model Conflict with Others?

To answer this, we’ll look briefly at Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles. We can see each one addresses one “how” of maximising an individual’s output of positive change:
  1. Customer Obsession: understand customers to make the right change
  1. Ownership: nothing changes without ownership
  1. Invent and simplify: build things that bring improvements
  1. Are right, a lot: competence in your area of domain expertise to know what good is
  1. Learn and be curious: continuous improvements are driven by learning
  1. Hire and develop the best: get the right people to help along the way
  1. Insist on the highest standards: competence helps deliver good results
  1. Think Big: create big changes with a wide influence
  1. Bias for action: if you are competent don’t let fear hold you back from making a change
  1. Frugality: constraints breed resourcefulness and ingenuity for better ideas
  1. Earn Trust: inspire others to follow your initiative
  1. Dive Deep: stay connected to details at all levels to ensure continued high standards
  1. Have Backbone, Disagree and Commit: stand your ground for the change you want
  1. Deliver results: actually do the thing!
Here, Amazon is setting out a “how-to guide” - general principles which all align with the end goal of getting all of its leadership team to work together as one to make as much positive change within their sphere of influence as possible. It’s a slightly more granular guide which doesn’t explicitly focus on the positive change (apart from perhaps “deliver results”) but provides principles that all focus on the same end result.
Like Amazon’s model, I believe many other “competing” models to the Kaizen Leadership model are actually aligned with it - they share advice on the “how” without actually defining the “what” of what is good leadership. You can take advice from other models as is useful for you, but ultimately this should be in service to getting the results from the improvements you’re looking to make.

The Kaizen Leadership Model

Leadership: the ability of an individual to instigate large positive change.
By focusing this definition of leadership on creating positive change (which is the outcome of good leadership rather than the traits which lead to that outcome), we can clearly justify why we care about developing leaders. We can also see how to develop leadership in a practical, teachable, results-oriented way.
This definition also means that although not everyone can be a manager (the concept doesn’t make sense), everyone can be a leader (even as an individual contributor) to drive positive change within their organisations, which I really like!

The roundtable and subsequent discussions from React Advanced have really made me reflect on what “leadership” really means. It’s something I could see value in, but I wasn’t quite sure how to develop my leadership style in concrete terms (especially as a more introverted person where many leadership skills outwardly appear to favour extraversion). It took a while, but I quite like this framing to develop my own leadership for now until I find a competing mode of thought that better explains leadership.
My current focus is bringing positive change to the developer training system at Theodo UK - the potential impact will reach all the tech employees at the company and might positively change the speed and quality with which we develop on all our projects.
The particular positive change that you’re looking to make can be anything you want and will completely depend on your situation and interests. Whatever those might be, take stock of your surroundings, see what can be improved, and start with one small change - good luck!

[1] Lean experts might not like the term “Kaizen Leadership Model” as it imposes a framework and imposing a framework which people blindly follow can lead people to stop thinking critically for themselves, which is the opposite of what Lean stands for. In this case, I use the old adage “no models are correct; some are useful”.
[2] Note: for organisational reasons, the Kaizen Leadership Model is no longer used as a core part of the formal progression framework at our company.