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Nuno Tomás for Runtime Revolution

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Lead by becoming dispensable

In my last post, I talked about some of the things that I believe are crucial for improving as a team leader.

Today I will focus on the one thing I consider to be of the utmost importance and serves as the guiding principle for what I do as well as something I strive to keep in mind at all times.

For me, the most important goal as a team leader/manager is that no one must rely on me. That is my #1 goal for this job. Every step that I take should be geared towards helping them and giving them the tools to be able to become independent (which is related to the notion of being dispensable).

I started working in 2005. That’s twelve years of learnings. One of my goals is for the people in my team to not need twelve years to reach the same level of experience that I have. If there’s some stuff that only time can teach, other stuff I can teach them on the spot!

Teach them to make better decisions

If we look closely this is more or less the mission statement of any parent: prepare their children for the challenges they will face in life. Sometimes that means giving a hand to help them climb the ladders. Sometimes it is simply shouting “You’re going to get hurt…”. Other times we help by getting out of the way and have them learn from experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be a parental figure to anyone ( except my own daughters ), but, if we think of it in broader terms, we find that the basic principles are the same.

I try to empower everyone to make their own decisions and not to hide expecting that problems will sort themselves out (while this may work on occasion, it is nonetheless a recipe for failure in most cases). They shouldn’t be afraid of making the wrong decision. And you can rest assured that making a bad decision is not a matter of “if” but “when” – no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Yes, sometimes things will turn out wrong but that is part of the learning process, not a troubling dilemma. I cannot emphasize this enough, when thinking in the long term, I really believe that making no decision is worse than making a wrong one.

They are not your clones

You help them grow, you help them to be better versions of themselves. And this is important, you shouldn’t mold them to your own image. It’s important to teach them the “tools” that you use, but they’re the ones who will decide how best to use them.

If you teach a person to mimic you, it would spell failure as far as I’m concerned. Maybe my strengths/weaknesses aren’t the same as theirs and emulating me would only cause them to fail. Everyone is essentially different, with different backgrounds and different experiences along life, so you get them to play to their strengths. My method is to try to explain how I think, and the line of thought for my decisions, showing the pros and cons of my decision. With that I don’t want them to be my clones, I want them to absorb the information, process it and make it their own.

Don’t limit your teachings to their context

You have to keep in mind that the teachings with the biggest impact might not even apply to their current context. You want to prepare them for the challenges that they have right now but also the ones they will encounter in the long run. For example, I normally explain how I manage people to really junior developers. Not the detailed version but the basics. It’s valuable for them to understand why some decisions are made the way they are. Will this be helpful to them in their current day to day? No, but there will be a time when it will. And, like most of the knowledge I try to impart, it isn’t specific to any one area, so they don’t even have to do the same as me.

One final note, you should teach people in your team to be better than you. We as a society do that. We prepare our children to be better and achieve more than us, and you, albeit on a much smaller scale, should think the same for your teams.

Top comments (7)

lanthir profile image
Joseph Morris

This is a great post. I'm going through some of this right now.

You really hit the nail on the head when you said "teach people in your team to be better than you." It really is a difficult thing though. So many times, I see people not sharing information. It seems to me as if they do it to remain useful or needed, and I sometimes feel that way too.

The difficult part is pushing yourself past that and actually sharing that information and wisdom. That is part of what makes a good leader.

andy profile image
Andy Zhao (he/him)

I really like your last point, about not limiting what you're teaching to their context. As a junior dev myself, I find it so much more helpful when I can see the big picture or see WHY something is being done the way it is. Even if the why doesn't make sense to me at first, I can at least go along with it until it does make sense.

I also thankfully have a team that is willing to tell me the why. 😄

On the teams/jobs I have been though where I was never told the why, I get a little bit frustrated. It definitely makes it harder to put your head down and work if you don't know why you have to.

Anyway that was my little rant. Thanks for the article!

jess profile image
Jess Lee

Great post! Unfortunately, I've seen managers be 'afraid' of this:

You should teach people in your team to be better than you

nunotomas profile image
Nuno Tomás

This, unfortunately, is not only a manager problem. Seen a lot of people trying to be "valuable" by not sharing information.

From my side, what I do is not value this as I also have it as a negative aspect of the person.

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Oh how I dream of being more dispensable. I'd sleep a lot better at night.

justinctlam profile image
Justin Lam

Thanks for sharing a wonderful post Nuno. Can you share any specific examples or lessons you have taught your team? I would love to learn from you.

nunotomas profile image
Nuno Tomás

Thank you, Justin.

I've been trying to write more about my role as team leader and experiences along the way in the past few months, and it's part of what I try to share in daily.

Here's is the list of posts: