Individual Contributors should be more leaders than managers, and that’s by design!

That’s an explosive title, trust me I know, but I mean it, bare with me, I am sure I can show you what I meant…

Context (Meaning, Why am I writing about this now?)

Recently I and a peer of mine started revamping our Career Journey where I work, and we noticed something odd while breaking down the skills we expect, what we expected more than anything from our Individual Contributors as they progress in their career is leadership, So I decided to write my thoughts.

I even tweeted this a while ago:

So why am I writing anything here? I just said it’s the same or just a rebrand… well, not really!

Leading is one thing and managing is another –>

A line I heard a lot in my career: “I don’t like the word manager, I prefer leader”

I think language is important and words set the tone, titles as well, they help clarify what is expected from a person…

Being a Leader and being a Manager, in my opinion, are two different things, you can be both and great managers have to be both, but you can also be just the one… today I would like to focus on the Leader that is not a manager and why that skillset is more crucial in any org and why it’s more important.

The individual Contributor

Improving as an IC mostly means, polishing your hard skills in the beginning, but at some point, something happens, at a certain level, if you are good enough at your role, more responsibilities will start appearing, active and passive, I’m here to break down the leadership expectations set of Senior ICs.

Passive Leadership (AKA leading by F*ing example)

This is where leadership skills are needed, because if you lead by example you:

  • Follow the guidelines of your team, whether it’s code reviews, deployment procedure, and whatnot.
  • You help people! when people are stuck, you help them resolve issues
  • You embody professionalism, especially when you have more Junior staff members looking up to you…
  • I recently tweeted this (my manager fear of ruining someone’s careers) and this applies the same to Senior ICs, you hold the balance of someone’s career, I didn’t choose to be a Fullstack (60% frontend) developer, it was the first job I found and the skills I acquired paved my way in my career, skills I acquired from ICs helping me and a manager making sure I have the right tools… the ICs played a larger part in my day to day, the manager made sure this situation is managed (I have the right tasks, things are followed up, I’m not in a comfort zone but also not pushing too hard and burning out).


What am I saying here? Leadership skills are a huge part of what is expected from Senior ICs, there are those rare cases of those geniuses that we can tolerate having them isolated and do their magic, chances are you are not them, it’s not a slight at you the reader, I’m not them as well 🙂 statistically I mean, you are probably not that person…



Active Leadership (AKA Proactive Leading)

Proactive leading, don’t we have managers for that?!?!

Before I list what it means, remember something, we as ICs need to acknowledge a bit more responsibility, we say it all the time, we don’t want top-down, we want managers to focus on making sure we have enough time to do what is right but wait? what is right? ICs have a huge role to manage their manager, to set the expectation and to be clear about what’s working and what’s not… also, they need to be in the day-to-day.

So how does an IC proactively lead on the day-to-day?

  • You resolve technical conflicts within your peers or at least try to… wether in code reviews, discussions or logical reasoning.
  • You mentor! mentoring between ICs is important! it’s something an out of touch manager can’t do at a certain level, at least on the code level you are the ruler! you know the how, why and what! own it, onboard to it and teach what mistakes you would have avoided in your future products
  • You understand the scope and timeline of the project/product you work on and constructively voice your opinion when things aren’t going in the right direction or things aren’t done right.
  • You participate in defining hiring standards for other engineers, and of course, you interview, part of building a team is the ability to assess skills missing, when managers tend to find the right culture, ICs see the right skills missing and should interview for them (and assess culture too as a secondary)
  • You see bottlenecks in the technical implementation and you proactively find ways to change/inspire people to follow



Being a Senior IC means you have to be a lateral leader,

What is that now?

Lateral leadership means you are able to influence those around you without any form of reporting line or official people managing authority

Basically, being a Senior IC is more about leadership than management, if management is leading and managing situations, expectations and providing visibility –> it comes with the title of manager, so people tend to listen, leadership is given with the role…

For Senior ICs, they need to be able to lead and influence without having a line drawn on a diagram, ICs are also closer to the day-to-day than managers and to code, so they need to be there to train and grow, to provide context…

Being a Senior dev is NOT “I am the best dev in the team, so leave me alone I want to work so I can do more”.



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