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Debunking Leadership Myths

Typical Conversation Between Product Managers

Many conversations about product management and leadership have taken place in the blogosphere and Twitter.  The typical exchange goes something like this:
Product Manager 1:  "Product managers have a lot of responsibility but no formal authority."
Product Manager 2:  "Authority is something to be earned, not granted."
Product Manager 1:  "But developers and sales don't listen to me, because they don't report to me and are in different departments."
Product Manager 2:  "Great leaders work with cross-functional teams."
Product Manager 1:  "Yes, but I don't get any support from executives when I work across departments."
Product Manager 2:  "You shouldn't need support if you are a great leader."
Leadership Myths

Let's put to rest the two opposing leadership myths that underlie these types of exchanges.  The opposing myths are:
  1. A great leader's effectiveness comes from authority.
  2. Great leaders are largely self-empowered and require little or no help to influence others and be effective.
Some people believe leaders are granted authority.  Other people have a romantic model of a leader as someone who, with little or no help, achieves great things and influences and earns the respect of others.

Both of these notions of leadership are ill conceived.

What is Leadership?

On page 12 of Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem Solving Approach, Gerald M. Weinberg defined an organic model of leadership:
Leadership is the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered.
A person can lead in many ways – by fostering a shared understanding of problems the group will solve, by organizing and putting supportive structures in place, by motivating others, by stimulating or managing the flow of ideas, and in some cases by acting unilaterally.  In almost every case, the leadership manifests itself in enabling or helping others.

But guess what – leaders also need empowerment. They need help. In fact, one great talent of many leaders is that they know when and whom to ask for help.  Indeed, Weinberg wrote on page 261:
People become leaders thinking they will help other people.  Before long they realize that it's they who need help.  They need help to see themselves as others see them, to carry them through their mistakes, to learn about other people, and to deal with the frustrations of trying to be helpful.  The only way to learn to be helpful is by learning to be helped.
A great leader may appear completely ineffectual in one environment yet masterful in another environment. The difference lies in how supportive and empowering the environment is for the leader.

Product Management Leadership Challenges

The formal authority that most product managers lack may not limit their leadership, but the lack of formal authority often reflects a disempowering environment.

Most people – executives included – don’t fully understand the product management role.  They don't recognize that product managers need to be like therapists to understand markets.  They aren't aware that marketing principles tend to defy common sense.  In a work environment where executives and fellow employees don't understand the role and what it means to be effective in it, product managers receive limited support.

At this point, if you still believe in the romantic model of leadership (the one in which great leaders don't need support from others), you think this description of product managers' situation is just whining.  Why don't product managers just "buck up" and overcome this situation?

To overcome the situation, product managers can attempt to build credibility and educate executives and others around them. But recognize that most product managers are hired into a poorly-defined role, are expected to behave tactically, and are actively discouraged from spending time defining their role and educating others about it.

Indeed, the worst corporate environments actively prevent product managers from realizing their leadership potential.  On page 166 of Leading Change, John P. Kotter wrote:
Highly controlling organizations often destroy leadership by not allowing people to blossom, test themselves, and grow. In stiff bureaucracies, young men and women with potential typically see few good role models, are not encouraged to lead, and may even be punished if they go out of bounds, challenge the status quo, and take risks. These kinds of organizations tend either to repel people with leadership potential or to take those individuals and teach them only about bureaucratic management.
Take note of the last sentence about this type of organization repelling people with leadership potential.  We'll revisit it at the end of this piece.

What to Do?

As an executive, you can empower your product managers by providing them with support.  Support doesn't necessarily mean giving product managers formal authority.  But you can:
  • Encourage (and budget for) your product managers to visit prospective and existing customers, to observe them in their native environments, and to conduct one-on-one interviews with them.
  • Encourage your product managers to share their market knowledge with others throughout the organization.  For example, suggest that a product manager set up a mid-day meeting and have the company provide lunch for everyone who attends.
  • Encourage (and budget for) your product managers to attend training and learn and share best practices in public forums.
  • Let others in the organization know that you believe these activities, and the functions of product management, are important.
For more information on the challenges of creating an organization that empowers its employees and fosters innovation, see this paper by my friend and colleague, Becca Frasier.


Finally, let's consider how product managers can empower themselves.

When a great leader finds herself in a disempowering environment, she changes her environment.

In some cases, she does so by establishing mutually supportive relationships with others, by "speaking truth to power" (making the case to executives for organizational change), by teaching, and by demonstrating competence and building credibility over time.

However, the often-overlooked quality of great leaders is that they quickly recognize disempowering environments, extricate themselves from them, and seek out and place themselves in empowering ones.  People who hold onto the romantic notion of leadership might see such a tactic as cowardly or as a form of avoidance, but it is in many cases the only realistic - and the most empowering - approach.


Unknown said…
This is a great post, Roger. I last blogged on the topic of excellent people stuck in disempowering environments, and the dysfunctional management behavior that creates them:

Your point that leaders who find themselves in intractable disempowering environments will readily move on to a supportive environment elsewhere is well taken. As you correctly note, doing so is far from a "form of avoidance" or a "cowardly" response. On the contrary, it is a gutsy response! What is much more a "form of avoidance" is to hang in a bad situation with your head down, engage in passive-aggressive tactics and pick up a paycheck.

I've added a comment to my blog post linking to your article as a resource for anyone who might find themselves in a disempowering environment. Well done!
Unknown said…
I thoroughly enjoyed your blog post. As an emerging product "manager" in an advertising agency, I have been provided all of your outlined support suggestions. My company has allowed me to attend outside trainings to better understand our market and audience's needs as well as cross-train internally to understand operations.

In my organization, the role of product manager had never existed prior to me. It has been a great learning experience for both myself and my agency but they are very supportive of the growth.

Leaders emerge themselves and its great when organizations can recognize and take action on those individuals.
Jim Holland said…
Roger - this is a great, thought-provoking post. As you've shared, there are many thoughts and ideas on leadership.

In your comment, "The formal authority that most product managers lack may not limit their leadership, but the lack of formal authority often reflects a disempowering environment" is what I've seen and experienced.

In speaking with a CEO and VP of Product Management yesterday, the VP said, "we lack three things in product management.
1) Credibility and trust with Engineering.
2) Capabilities of commuting with senior management.
3) Maturing PM as an organization.

If most product management teams lack similar skills, credibility and communication up and out, no wonder there's a leadership quandary.

Regardless of size of team/organization, its appears the problems are inherent and always the same.
r3ason said…

Great post, but I see one big issue with it. Why didn't you link to my post? :)

On a serious note, I can say that I fully agree with your assessment. In my experience, no amount of personal perseverance can compensate for an environment that smothers natural leaders.

The leaders need to be allowed, if not encouraged, to exercise their talents.
Erika said…

Great post. It made me think. I've had a very "romantic" view of leadership, believing that a good leader can overcome any obstacle by empowering and motivating others. Anything else is just excuses.

But you make an interesting point. If you're in an environment that actively prevents you from realizing your leadership potential, blocking your every move, it may make becoming a leader just about impossible. You may try to change the culture from your small corner and get no where. In that case, you have a responsibility to yourself and others to get out and go where you can make a difference.

With that said, great leaders can learn from past environments, good and bad, and use that knowledge to create company cultures that support product managers and other potential leaders.

Thanks again for a great post, and for inviting me to comment.
Roger L. Cauvin said…
@gander2112: Thanks for the kind words about the blog entry.

At the end of your comment, you mentioned that it's helpful for an organization to have a "set of definitions as to what the role is NOT." Thanks for that key point. Eliminating the confusion over the product management role requires explaining what the role is AND what the role isn't.
Roger L. Cauvin said…
@mikeurbonas (a.k.a. "Unknown"): Thanks for posting the link to your blog entry on the similar topic. I wish I had read your blog entry before writing mine :-)

I recommend that people visit your blog entry and pay special attention to the points about innovation, creativity, and "problem-solving".
Roger L. Cauvin said…
@FrsqzdLemons: Great to hear that you're in an organization that is providing the support needed for you to realize your leadership potential. Keep us posted on how it goes.
Unknown said…
Authority is earned, not given. But how to earn it?

It's become clear to me that the one who speaks with market facts grabs the attention of the room. Rarely does anyone say, "hey, we need another opinion." But I do hear people wondering aloud, "I wonder what the customer needs."

Authority is not about "I'm right; you're wrong." Instead, it's about making the best decision with the facts at hand. If the product manager has those facts, then the product manager's views are likely to be followed.

As for executive buy-in, show them the value of strategic product management. Explain how the role can help make better decisions. For help, you can use my free ebook, The Strategic Role of Product Management. Download at
Roger L. Cauvin said…
Thanks for the continuation of great comments, @Steve and @gander2112.

There is certainly a sense of "authority" which derives from possessing knowledge grounded in thorough research and supported by market data. A product manager can (and should strive to) become an "authority" on the market.

This form of "authority" will give the product manager some level of credibility. Going forward, executives and others on the product team may pay more attention to the product manager's strategic advice, because they know it is informed advice.

But there are a few caveats to this point about "market authority":

First, having authoritative knowledge does not make someone a great leader. It is not healthy for the team to have a single person possessively hanging onto knowledge and claiming to be the expert.

A great product team leader facilitates a process in which the team as a whole becomes an expert on the market, and members of the team thereby become empowered to deliver solutions to address the problems in that market.

Developers are empowered, because they understand the requirements and types of people who will be using the product. Sales is empowered, because they understand the people who will be buying the product, the challenges they face, and positioning relative to the competition. Marcom is empowered, because they know the key themes and messaging that will resonate in the marketplace.

Product managers are leaders because they empower the product team with market understanding, but the leadership doesn't come from being the one and only one "authority" on the team.

Second, a product manager still needs enablement to be able to acquire and share market knowledge with the team. If executives actively shoot down attempts by the product manager to interview prospects, for example, then the product manager may never be able to acquire essential market knowledge.

Thus we come to the chicken and egg problem.

Yes, a product manager can establish credibility with the team and with executives by immersing himself in the market, learning and sharing market facts, and informing product decisions. These activities are themselves a form of leadership, and the credibility fosters support for product management initiatives going forward.

But in some environments the product manager - no matter what his leadership potential - is not enabled to perform the activities needed to establish this credibility. These intractable situations frustrate even the best of leaders and drive them to seek more empowering environments.
Seng Gan said…

You made many good points. But, the question come back to,

Do the Product Manager has CREDITABILITY to convince anyone??

I came from a place where most Product Managers are ex-test engineers plus developers with strong technical background. Most product managers had hands-on technical support experience too. With those kind of background, the product manager KNOW
A) Customer technical requirement

B) Product capability

C) Product development limitation.

Product manager had at least 10+ years of those experience before they are product manager. So, they have CREDITABILITY.

Anyhow, those are my opinions..


Seng Gan
Paul Young said…
Hi Rog, nice post, made me think. Here is a link to a post where I talk about speaking Truth to Power and introduce a framework of soft skills that Product Managers need to use to be more successful:

You make a valid point that leadership is a 2-way street, the prospective leader (PM) needs to flex his/her leadership muscles and the organization and management above and around her need to allow and enable her to lead. That said, you still let the prospective leader off too easy.

I'll put it this way: if I'm a VP of Product Management and I'm looking to hire a rock star product manager - if I find someone who fits the bill but I have questions about her leadership skills, I'm going to ask her questions about how she led in past companies. If I get an answer back that says (in so many words) "I tried really hard to be a leader and brought good data to the table to establish credibility but the organization still didn't enable me to lead" ...that is a red flag for me.

Someone who wants to be a great leader needs to not just learn to lead, but learn to overcome the obstacles preventing them from leading. If the organization is one of those obstacles, I want to know what the potential leader did to change the situation. Did they have frank conversations with management about what is expected, or did they just present their data and expect their market credibility to speak for itself? Did they fight to pull together the executive team and did they use their pitch artist skills to present and their executive acuity to negotiate amongst the Exec team and break ties? Acting like an Executive is in my experience the quickest way to executive authority.

No, I will look for the leader who doesn't accept that the organization is blocking them (or not enabling them). I will look for the leader who affects change in the organization itself, and through this change exercises her leadership skills in both the change process AND the resultant outcomes of the products that follow.

Easy? No way. Essential for real leadership? In my measurement, completely.
Roger L. Cauvin said…
Paul, thanks for the comment and pointing to your great post about soft skills that can help product managers be effective leaders. My reference to "speaking truth to power" was of course inspired by what you've written and presented.

You wrote:

"Someone who wants to be a great leader needs to not just learn to lead, but learn to overcome the obstacles preventing them from leading."

I stated something very similar:

"When a great leader finds herself in a disempowering environment, she changes her environment."

I went on to state how great leaders will use various soft skills (including "speaking truth to power") to effect change. But then I also pointed out that great leaders also have a knack for avoiding environments that do not enable them.

I think where we can agree is that great leaders don't quit just because they are in an environment that doesn't enable them. Their first instinct will be to apply soft skills to change the environment.

But you seem to go further in insisting that a great leader will always be able to change his environment. (That puts you in the camp of believing in the romantic leadership model.) If you're going to imply something so extreme, I'd like to see an actual argument for it.
Paul Young said…
Roger, I think we're agreeing using different words.

We agree that a leader should try to overcome obstacles, using all the skills in their toolbox (hard/soft).

I would also agree that there comes a point at which a leader decides that the organization can't or won't be led, and at that point you need take your talent somewhere else.

What I was getting at with my comment is that a great leader needs to demonstrate to me that they have TRIED to change the environment around them first, before bailing and before making any excuses that the organization didn't enable them to lead.
Roger L. Cauvin said…
Paul, thanks for the clarification! I do think we were agreeing but using different words.

To strengthen your point, while great leaders are attracted to environments that leverage their leadership talents, they also generally have a pro-active, optimistic attitude about effecting change in environments in which they face obstacles.

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