Motivations for Pursuing a Leadership Role

I’ve been reflecting on two contrasting pieces on the reasons for switching into a leadership role. First, Pat Kua’s article for LeadDev, Reasons to step into a leadership role (and the reasons not to), and second, Charity Majors’ post, The Official, Authorized List of Legitimate Reasons for Deciding to Become a Manager.

“Why do you want to become a team leader?” is one of the first questions you’ll be asked when you express an interest in pursuing the role. You’ll be asked by your manager, their manager, your mentor, HR, and pretty much everyone else you meet along the way. When I was being mentored for the role, my mentor would ask me this question at the beginning of every session. It’s something I was forced to think about a lot, and get better at articulating.

If you’re an individual contributor on the receiving end of this question, I think it’s important to know what the commonly perceived good, and not-so-good reasons are. Your answer can have a strong bearing on where this and future conversations go. Of course, I’m not saying you should be dishonest — it’s important to consider the question, and be able to articulate your reasons in your own words — just be conscious of the proximity of your answer to less good reasons.

It’s because I feel the need to give this advice that I’m sometimes uneasy about the question, and probably why Charity’s article resonated so much with me. Often — and I have been guilty of this — I think the question is asked from the perspective of a gatekeeper; where a clear, concise, and compelling answer is required, and any deviation or doubt is grounds for concern. I think these expectations are unrealistic, particularly for someone at the very beginning of a role change like this.

Instead, our responsibility as the questioner is to — as Charity writes — demystify the leadership role. The question should be the starting point for a series of conversations to explain what the role involves (the good and the bad), to explore the person’s motivations and expectations, and most importantly, to have an open dialogue about what areas of feedback they will need to work on in order to be successful in the role. The absence of clear feedback here is so often the cause of frustration, where the individual believes they have made their intentions clear, but remains in the dark on what they need to do in order to make progress.

To be clear: “Why do you want to become a team leader?” is an important question that is worth reflecting on and exploring — let’s just make sure it’s coming from a place of support and sponsorship, rather than of judgement.

Engineering leader at Bloomberg. All opinions are my own.