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Book review: "Becoming a technical leader", by Gerald Weinberg

Book review: "Becoming a technical leader", by Gerald Weinberg

I just finished reading "Becoming a technical leader: An Organic problem-solving approach", a great book aimed at helping skilled practicioners from any technical discipline transition into leadership roles. If you're looking for food for thought on the subject matter, you won't go hungry with this book.

Some context##

Before going into detail into the book I wanted to give some context. My current employer, NewVoiceMedia, is not a normal company. When I tell friends and acquaintances about my lifestyle and how I manage to mix work and travel, one of the questions that I often get is: "so what does your boss say about that?". And then I have to explain that I don't really have a "boss" per se. I have a line manager, but he's not my "boss": he never tells me what to do or how to do it. We have one-to-one meetings every other week, where we go through the challenges I've been facing, the ideas I want to implement and the skills I want to develop, and he offers guidance, advice and coaching. And then he gets out of the way and lets me crack on with my work.

If I ever ask him for permission to do something bold, like working remotely from the south of Spain for 3 months, his answer is always "what does your team say?" or just "arrange it with your team".

Compared to some experiences with past employers (where, for instance, I've been prevented from growing because I had some rare technical skills that were hard to replace), this leadership style is very stimulating: it's the first time I've ever had a line manager who actually encourages me to grow.

Weinberg's thoughts on leadership##

Reading Weinberg's text has been a real eye opener: it does not offer a set of "recipes" or "action points" on how to become a leader; instead, it tries to change your perception of what leadership is and describes the psychological transformation needed to become an effective leader. The author has a clarity of thought that allows him to explain his ideas in very simple terms. I often found that he articulates very clearly some concepts that were already present in a rough shape at the back of my mind, helping me to bring them to the front.

The book starts out by outlining two different models of leadership: the linear model, where there is a hierarchical relationship between leaders and followers, and the organic model, where a leader creates an environment to help his team get the work done. The latter is the one he advocates, and the one that more closely resembles the style we use in NewVoiceMedia.

In the following sections, Weinberg exposes the particular qualities that a technical leader needs: innovation, organisation and motivation, devoting separate sections to each of them. While talking about these, he talks about one concept often related with leadership, which is power, making an interesting distinction between technical power, organisational power and personal power. I found this section extremely interesting because his views on power are unconventional.

Weinberg often uses a Socratic approach to teaching these subjects: instead of explaining the facts or ideas he wants to convey, he transcribes conversations (real or invented, you'll never know) with friends or colleagues, where they discuss matters such as leadership, helping or power. During these conversations, by asking the right questions, he helps his colleagues come up with the right answer themselves. This method of exposition comes across as a bit contrived at times, but it's certainly easy to read as it's very conversational.

Throughout the book, one of the things that surprised me the most was Weinberg's humanity: how he emphasises knowing the people you're supposed to lead, and how he sees leadership as a helping and enabling role, as opposed to a position where to exert power over them.

Is it worth my time?##

This book will likely change the way you think and feel about leadership, and that's is the necessary first step to change the way you act about it. There is no point in acting by following a set of formulas or steps if you don't really believe in them. I would absolutely recommend it to anybody who wants to become a (better) technical leader.