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There are many paths to leadership:

a) Suppose I want to startup a company because I like coding and spending 40hours in a cubicle sucks. Out of dumb luck my company strikes it big and the planets align for a little while so I can execute and in 3 years I'm the leader of a $250m/yr company. I was able to execute when opportunity presented itself, but I have no idea how to generate opportunity, or find it.

b) Same story as above, except this time it's me and four of my beer buddies, except I'm loud and domineering in business decisions and they're all introverts. One guy quits because he doesn't like how things went, the rest make me de facto leader and when corporate paperwork comes around I put myself as CEO. The others are quiet about which I spin into a kind of legitimacy. From there on out I try and bounce around CEO and President positions. I have no other qualifications than being domineering and subversive.

c) I worked my tootsie off and made it through a Harvard MBA program. Boom, I'm immediately picked up as a Jr. VP in a large and powerful, but old and crusty megacorp. I stick it out for 4 years while all my of senior leadership retires, next thing you know I'm a Senior Executive VP at Big&Crusty MegaCorp Inc. I can't seem to figure out how to navigate the politics to make it higher, so after 5 years at Big&Crusty MegaCorp I strike out. I find an executive recruiter who finds me some CEO positions to shoot for with some medium sized $50-100m/yr copmanies. I interview, and one of them has the right mix of board members to think that a young and energetic "shooting star" is just what they want to kick their revenue in the rear. Regardless of how the company does, I now have a resume that shows all kinds of good bullet points: Harvard MBA, upwardly mobile as a executive, CEO experience. I can now bounce around CEO and President positions for a while...spending a year or two at each place, strike enough good compensation deals to make me rich and eventually buy myself into a few choice board positions. Note I barely have any actual work experience at this point, I've only shown boundless ambition and a willingness to wait for senior people to retire so I can take their position. The only thing I know how to do after 15 years is navigate the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy.

d) I start in the mailroom and work my way up through a mix of competency and and ambition. A few times my competency damns me and I end up stuck in my progression, but I follow a strict up or out policy. Over the years I notice that I've forgotten many of the skills I used to have in the lower levels, I have to locally optimize my brain I tell myself. I'm working 40-60hr weeks trying to be competent in my current job, I simply don't have time to remember what I did 5 years and 2 jobs ago -- but it bothers me that I'm now functionally incompetent for a job that I used to be among the best at. Eventually, I work my way into a Senior Exec VP at a growing company. I'm really good at the job I'm in, but I rapidly lose qualifications for jobs I used to be in. At the Senior Exec VP level I've simply forgotten what it's like to be in the trenches, I try to be sympathetic, but it's so hard to relate...just as hard for me to relate to the Senior Exec VP when I was in the trenches. Am I a competent leader?

e) etc.

I'm specifically not addressing gender in these scenarios (as the article is discussing) because what I'm trying to say is that regardless of gender any of these scenarios might put somebody into position as an "incompetent" leader. The path to leadership (incompetent or otherwise) in my mind is distinct from the social and psychological issues related to gender arriving in those leadership positions. In scenario a and b), there is nothing in gender that prevents women from starting up their own companies. You see it all the time, there are tons of businesses started and run by intelligent and driven women. c & d might still be tougher, there's lots of entrenched power structures that still make it difficult for women to arrive into the top jobs. In d) the person also had enough opportunity to not be guided into a progressing, but dead-end career path.

Anecdotally, I think it's very hard for women to be accepted into leadership positions. If she's too tough she's marked as an "angry bitch" and will get rejected, if she's not perfectly competent in areas far outside of her job function, she'll be marked as "stupid" and get rejected, etc. etc. Cultivating authority, for a woman, requires a degree of careful presentation and balance that is very hard to do and most men don't have to deal with. I've worked for some very good women bosses and a women CEO and I admired their ability to find that balance and presentation style that gave them command without them appearing as an "angry bitch" or "stupid".

I've also worked with some women that couldn't find that balance, they weren't really doing anything a reasonably competent man wouldn't do, but were marked with gendered epithets and eventually driven from their job. Afterwards, I spoke to some of them personally, they felt unbelievably rejected and worthless -- one suffered from depression and dropped out of work for a year. Their job models didn't do anything different, but their models were all men -- so they couldn't figure out what happened and what got them rejected...but the truth is they were simply playing by different rules and weren't able to navigate the environment well enough to figure out what those rules were.




> Over the years I notice that I've forgotten many of the skills I used to have in the lower levels

I manage a team of incredibly talented programmers and I have to work hard to keep up technically in order to make informed decisions when needed. Even with all this effort, I have no illusion I could be as competent a programmer as they are without a lot of work.

edit: I was tempted for a moment to say "I lead" but they need less my leadership than my management. One leads from within and I write very little code these days. I offer some technical advice derived from my experience (mostly the "don't do that, because that will be hard to maintain" kind of advice). What I do, hopefully well, is shield them from external interference so they have a developer-friendly environment where they can better contribute with their skills. It's devilishly hard.


I apologize in advance for the digression.

>>What I do, hopefully well, is shield them from external interference so they have a developer-friendly environment where they can better contribute with their skills.

I'm not a programmer, but I work closely with them. I'm responsible for demonstrating and supporting the products they build, as well as finding new areas in which those products can be used.

What I noticed is that the teams that are the most shielded produce the highest quality code, but - and this is a huge BUT - the product itself ends up being the most short-sighted and limited in terms of good user experience. The reason is that "shielding developers from external interference" inevitably equates to shielding them from a real understanding of how the end-users actually use it.

I don't mean that as a derogatory comment. But, as someone who is on the "business" side of things, when I work with products developed by shielded teams, often times I find myself wondering, "Holy shit... what the hell were they thinking??" The features and functions work, and they work well - but they are not terribly relevant to what the customer actually wanted.


You're right.

This shielding has to be limited in scope. Perhaps the most difficult part is distinguishing between what's good input that will improve the product and what's noise and teaching our product team how to do it by themselves.

That and dealing with power grabs ;-)


This is what I used to do until I forced myself back into an engineering position (at another company).


This is what a HN top comment should look like. Adds value in a lot of great places, augments the article.

Please, less nitpicky top comments, and more of this. :)

(arguably this is a worthless comment, but maybe highlighting more of the great comments publicly can stop the trolls / righteous indignation peddlers?)


Here's one I think happens fairly often...

e) I'm a career manager with a nice-looking, but superficial set of credentials in the form of education, speaking engagements, articles and the like. I'm not competent or aggressive enough to really scare of offend anyone and fine points of political maneuvering are lost on me.

The real players in my organization are perfectly comfortable and wield huge influence from their VP-level roles. They need an insulator and a fall guy. They orchestrate my promotion and work me like a puppet from a distance. Their success is my success, my success is their success and any of our failures will be mine.


> fine points of political maneuvering are lost on me.

Tangentially, how do you fix this? Googling 'corporate politics' leads to a bunch of useless magazine articles and leaves me feeling like I'm in Office Space: "I can't believe what a bunch of nerds we are, googling office politics".


>"Tangentially, how do you fix this?"

I feel it's something that's best learned by example, watching and learning from someone who's skilled in the art. I certainly can't claim to have mastered it, but I definitely think I've learned a lot about it over the years. I’d say more than anything it’s about empathizing, understanding the motivations of others and putting that knowledge to use.

I think technical people often demonstrate a complete misunderstanding and/or disregard for the subject. Yes, "politics" can be a nice way of referring to blatant corruption or cronyism, but it can also be a rationalization for social ineptitude.

It’s easy for an engineer to think that he’s being held back for refusing to play politics when he really just lacks the grace to understand and convince rather than prove and demand.

There’s more to being effective than technical excellence.


> I think technical people often demonstrate a complete misunderstanding and/or disregard for the subject. [...] it can also be a rationalization for social ineptitude.

I guess, but I personally find it hard to really wrap my head around the political landscape at various jobs and have found myself in the path of the lawnmower blade more than a few times.

This is, from what I can tell, because there's not really a rhyme/reason from an observer's perspective to the politics at play. Any given meeting has several options for outcomes, and the optimal one depends on what today's politics look like instead of the obvious "what's good for the company/good for customers/etc." You can really mess yourself up good advocating for a position that seems reasonable when the current is, sometimes unbeknownst to you, flowing a different direction.

> There’s more to being effective than technical excellence.

I agree, but there's more to being politically savvy than just being nice & sociable.


The best (and bluntest) book I know of in this area is Career Warfare http://www.amazon.com/Career-Warfare-Building-Successful-Bat...


> Anecdotally, I think it's very hard for women to be accepted into leadership positions. If she's too tough she's marked as an "angry bitch" and will get rejected

In my experience, the women bosses I've had that would be called "bitch" would be called "asshole" if they were male. I've worked for bitches and assholes, and neither make work life pleasant or productive. This line of reasoning gets repeated often, and I would hate for young women to think that you need to be a bitch to be good leader.


This comment deserves a book.


It's like he knows several of the CEOs I've worked for ...


Agreed. Loved the characterization of "old and crusty megacorp."


I think you're right about there being nothing fundamental that prevents women from being leaders, but I also think there are relevant differences between the genders. The stereotypical role of the male sex and gender is to protect. The stereotypical role of the female sex and gender is to nurture. A good leader will embody both characteristics as an example for the people he or she leads to look up to and follow.


Great comment. The way this ends up gendered (and race-influenced) in a) & b) is in the same way that it gets that way in c), only you're in front of potential investors (or trying to get in front of potential investors), and/or people that you're trying to get to work for free in return for future promises, rather than board members.


Wow. Thank you so much.




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