The Difference between Directing and Leading | TechWell

The Difference between Directing and Leading


I’m the vice president of software development at my company, meaning I am responsible for all aspects of design, development, testing, and deployment. The buck stops with me for all decisions.

A few weeks ago, we had a critical bug surface in our flagship application at our largest client. I gathered my key staff members in a war room to sort out what was wrong and brainstorm how to fix it.

My entire management team of development and test directors and managers was there, as were all of my architects, the development and test leads, and virtually anyone else tasked with making sure our software worked. I closed the door, took the clock down from the wall, and said, “We’re going to stay in here until we have a solution and are well on our way to fixing the problem. I don’t care how long it takes.”

As we worked, we kept going around and around talking about possible root causes, what the diagnostic data was showing us, previous bug reports, the testing plans (what we had tested and had not tested), and the check-in logs and code review notes.

All the while I was talking to our on-site support staff and gathering real-time feedback. I felt like it was my job to keep us focused on resolution strategies—and to keep the pressure on.

About two hours in, I had a revelation: The team I pulled together was not working on the problem; I was. All eyes in the room were looking to me to provide ideas and leadership toward solving the problem. If I paused for even a second, everyone would wait for my next directive, idea, or strategy.

Out of all that skill, knowledge, and brainpower in the room, I was the only one actively engaged. Everyone else was passively waiting for direction. And as I thought about it, I was the absolute worst person in the room to be directing the repair, as I hadn’t designed, written, tested, or released the code. I was too removed from the reality of the application to be the most effective leader, whereas my director of testing was wonderfully skilled and positioned to take on the role.

What I really needed to do was step aside and let my great team do what they were hired to do. As hard as it was for me to accept, that’s what I did. And you know what? The director of testing stepped up and led. The team focused, found the problem, and fixed it in short order. And the effort was much more creative than I would probably have thought up.

The moral of the story is that leading from the front isn’t always the best approach. Sometimes, the best strategy is to lead from the side (or from behind) and allow your teams the space, support, and trust to do their jobs. That’s the difference between simply directing and truly leading.

Bob Galen is presenting the keynote Step Aside: Stop Leading from the Front and the tutorials Agile Test Team Leadership: From Concept to Product, Agile Testing: Team Tactics that Deliver the Goods, and Test Automation Strategies for the Agile World at the STAREAST 2017 conference, May 7–12 in Orlando, FL.

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