Chapter 48. Leadership Is About Responsibility, Not Authority

Seth Dobbs

I am often asked questions along the lines of, “The development team has more experience than I do, how can I be an authority to them?” This describes a difficult situation in which someone with less experience than the bulk of the team members has been promoted to a leadership role. A similar scenario is someone recently added to a team who has been working on a product for years and the newcomer architect has little depth of knowledge. In either scenario, the new leader needs to gain credibility in order to be effective or risk being undermined by the team. More broadly speaking, there can be a lot of discomfort in being a newly minted leader trying to tell a team what to do.

And that’s exactly where the problem comes in: we as leaders shouldn’t think our job is telling people what to do.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton, a nineteenth-century Nova Scotian politician and author, observed that, “Wherever there is authority, there is a natural inclination to disobedience.” It sounds a bit like he’s worked on one of today’s software development teams! In fact, it can be fairly common among knowledge workers in general to question authority and to sound out the depth of a new leader’s knowledge and then use their “superior” knowledge to discredit and/or disobey the leader.

So what’s a new leader to do? For me, the ...

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