Great Leaders Replace

June 26, 2015

When someone is in a leadership position for the first time, their tendency is to feel responsible for everything. They define leadership as the ability to make all decisions and be the focal point of their team’s output. On the surface this is a noble effort, but the rookie leader doesn’t yet see the full picture.

Leadership is not just about one person doing everything. Leadership is about lifting the team up. It’s about making the collective better than the individuals. And it’s about leaving the team better than it was before. Great leaders don’t try and do everything forever, great leaders replace themselves.

To illustrate the point here’s a common story I’ve seen many times:

Meet Rachel1. She was recently promoted to be the head of her company’s engineering product team. The team is small with only about 6 full-time engineers but they do fantastic work. Before her promotion, Rachel was on a small product team as an engineer herself. Many on her team agree that she is the best engineer in the company. She has great leadership skills and she can speak to customers, management, and the technical team with confidence. She was a natural fit to fill the recently vacated team lead role.

Rachel’s first few weeks as the team lead were a breeze. She was still able to write a lot of code and help the team get better. Her team respected her and they came to her with their code puzzles, bugs, challenges, and ideas. She loved being able to help on each of the team’s projects and everyone’s work became better because Rachel was leading the team. Quality increased, speed increased, and the customers were happy with a steady stream of new features.

As the months in her new position went by, this cycle continues. Rachel is the focal point of the team. She immerses herself in every project and every decision. She loves it. She finally has the ability to speak into all aspects of her team and the team respects and craves her decisions. Everyone comes to Rachel for every crucial decision. She reviews all code before it is released. She white-boards architecture before every project kick-off. She handles indecision between the other engineers by making quick moves about which new cool framework to use. Rachel’s presence at the helm of her team is undeniable. She is so relied upon by her team that she often hears “I don’t know what we’d do without you.” This is extremely satisfying to Rachel, as she remembers back to a time not so long ago where she wasn’t even leading a team yet.

The company’s executive team catches wind of how awesome Rachel is. They already know her as a great engineer but now she can lead a team of her peers with ease. This is perfect because the company has a big new initiative coming up: a new product offering that they want to take to market next year. Rachel is again the natural choice to lead the new team and make it just as awesome as her current team. The decision is made, and Rachel is given a few weeks to transition to the new product team.

But wait. How can Rachel leave her current team? They rely on her for everything. Every line of code goes through her. She makes every major architecture decision. Every framework dispute is solved by her. Her team is full of smart engineers, but none of them have had to think about bigger decisions since Rachel took over the team. They have loved being able to just focus on their code and leave the high-level decisions entirely to Rachel. She is the focal point of the team and without her the team wouldn’t be able to function. At best the team would have setbacks as someone else was brought up to speed.

I’ve seen this scenario several times over the past few years. What’s the problem? Why would a team leader not want to make themselves the key focus and have everything go through them? Not only is that satisfying for them it allows the team to focus on doing great work rather than making every decision. There’s two pieces wrong with this thinking. First, no one on the team feels the desire to step up because there is no reason for them to. And second, the leader can’t move on to do anything else without damaging the team. A great leader is always working on finding and training their replacement. Their #2.

If you’re leading a team, stop and think: Who is my #2? Who am I training to replace me? Who am I lifting up so they can take my position when I move on to do something else? Am I actively working with my team to take more responsibility, or am I shielding them from it? These questions terrify many leaders. The insecure ones fear for their jobs. They fear being replaced and they fear someone else under them being good enough to take their jobs. If you’re happy being in the same position for your entire career, then don’t bother with your replacement. But if you’re ambitious and want to do bigger things then part of your job is finding a responsible way to leave your team in great hands.

Let’s finish Rachel’s story: She’s not able to take the new position to build the company’s new product right away. But she’s smart. She knows that another opportunity will come up, and the company will come asking again. So this time she puts her head down and gets to work preparing for that day. She identifies a great young talented developer, Jim, on her team that has been chatting in their one-on-ones about one day leading his own team. Perfect. Rachel’s potential #2 has been identified in Jim. She pours into him. She not only makes decisions and ensures quality of work for her team but she brings Jim into those decisions. She thinks out loud and allows Jim to ask questions about her thought process at every turn. It doesn’t happen overnight, but soon Rachel defers most of these decisions to the team, including Jim. The team recognizes this and also rallies behind Jim. Rachel is now better equipped to lead her team because she’s not running point on every day-to-day decision. She’s also set the team up for success regardless of her involvement.

As Rachel suspected, the next big opportunity in the company comes within another few months. The executive team once again turns to her and this time she’s ready. She recommends Jim to take over her team. After a period of transition, Rachel is now in charge of one of the company’s biggest initiatives to date. Her old team is still running at a high pace and hasn’t skipped a beat because its leadership is already in place. By the time the announcement of Jim’s new position comes, the title is just a formality because everyone knows he’s already been doing the job. And, he’s learned from Rachel well. He immediately starts working on finding his #2.

Bad leaders are afraid of being replaced. They fear the young upstart on their team that is slowly taking more and more responsibility. They work themselves into every situation, every meeting, and make themselves irreplaceable. Great leaders quickly identify their replacements2 and train them to ensure the team’s long-term success. Great leaders want to tackle new challenges. They want to be replaced so they can move on to something even better.

  1. I’ve never worked with anyone named Rachel. This is a fictional example to protect the innocent. ↩︎

  2. Leaders replacing themselves often should not be confused with ladder-climbing. Nobody likes the person that is always ditching his team to do the next important thing and climbing the ladder quickly. Don’t be that person. ↩︎