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What is Product Leadership?

In a world of uncertainty, good product leadership may be the most important ingredient in building


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Joe Van Os

2 years ago | 7 min read

Product teams live in a world of uncertainty. Our purpose as Product Managers is to fill in the blanks between what we’ve already built, and what is next. This requires the ability to approach an ambiguous situation with an open mind, curiosity, and a readiness to learn.

For many members of our product team, uncertainty is extremely unnerving.

This is why it’s important as Product Managers that we take the lead in guiding our teams through uncertainty and change, and ultimately help coach our teammates to embrace change and become product leaders themselves.

Emotional Intelligence and Empathy

Uncertainty and humans don’t mix well. Even moderate levels of uncertainty can be a major trigger for stress, and not everyone copes with stress the same. Research shows that the physiological makeup of the brain impacts how we deal with stressful situations.

Our brains are wired to quickly respond to stress via the fight-or-flight response. Stress evokes a chain reaction that triggers the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for processing emotion, to send a distress signal to our hypothalamus, the command center for emotional responses.

All of this happens prior to the signal reaching our prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for rational decision making.

Depending on the strength of the signal, this can cause what Daniel Goleman has coined an Emotional Hijackingwhere our brains quite literally bypass our sense of reason, making us momentarily irrational. When facing uncertainty, our baseline levels of stress are elevated, and we are more susceptible to these hijackings.

Seeing that the human brain is wired to be emotionally-driven, it’s not surprising that study after study show that high Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is perhaps the most important trait of a leader.

However, because Emotional Intelligence is somewhat intangible we tend to overestimate our EQ skills.

There are three key components of Emotional Intelligence:

  • Self-Awareness: Understanding our own strengths, weaknesses, emotions, and biases.
  • Empathy: Looking to understand the emotions or point-of-view of another person, regardless of if we agree with it, and connecting with them to collectively approach a situation.
  • Emotional Regulation: Not allowing our emotions to overwhelm our reasoning so that we can appropriately respond to situations we face. This includes helping to positively shape the experience of people we are interacting with.

A common misconception about Emotional Intelligence is that people with high EQ lean heavily into their emotions and let emotions guide their behavior. However, the inability to understand or regulate emotions is a sign of low EQ.

As product leaders, it’s important to understand that living in a world of uncertainty requires not only dealing with uncertainty ourselves, but helping our team navigate through it. Emotional Intelligence is the underlying set of tools that leaders use to help the team to focus in on the goal at hand, and not be overwhelmed by distractions.

Why is Uncertainty Hard to Work Through?

Incomplete narratives make us uncomfortable. When we are able to complete a story in our mind, our brain is wired to reward us with a shot of dopamine. But this leads to a dilemma, our brains constantly look to complete stories, even if we don’t have the facts. When dealing with uncertainty our brain will naturally fill in the blanks, with a tendency to overfocus on the negative scenarios.

This creates a very strong desire to close the loop, which can lead to rash decision making in the short-term. It also causes anxiety and stress as being in a state of uncertainty isn’t comfortable. People look to create narratives to feel like they are in control of the situation. It’s easy to confuse being rational with rationalization.

Leading Through Uncertainty

When people are uncertain what to do, they look to those they trust to lead the way. Being a leader means that others will rely on our direction, which is guided by our underlying principles. For better or for worse, our core principles heavily shape the core principles of the team.

When faced with an uncertain situation, communication and transparency are key as it keeps people from filling in the blanks. It’s important to point out any false or biased narratives that are being created. It’s not about creating the narrative for the team, it's about making sure that the narratives are accurate.

False narratives can lead to poor decision making that is based on assumptions. Leaders help the team recognize when they are jumping to conclusions, and to instead do the due-diligence needed to root decisions in facts. It may be taking the longer, more uncomfortable way; but ultimately it’s the right way.

Collective Intelligence

Collective Intelligence is the shared group intelligence that forms within a high performing team. When a team is faced with a problem or task, taking a collaborative approach with the goal of building consensus has been shown to produce better results than individual decision making.

The reason that collective intelligence is superior to individual intelligence is straight forward — collective IQ brings more points of view forward to be evaluated, while simultaneously providing a screening mechanism for potential biases that an individual contributor may have.

This is also why team diversity and inclusion is so important. Diversity reduces the chance of groupthink or echo-chambers, which limit collective intelligence.

Cognitive diversity, which is differences in perspective or information processing styles, allow for far more rigorous evaluation of problems or ideas.

Via HBR — Research shows higher diversity in a groups knowledge processing and perspective leads to measurably better performance

Great leaders help balance personalities on the team in an effort to maximize the collective IQ. On one hand, this includes making sure individuals don’t dominate or push personal agendas, while on the other, looking out for people creating a drag on the group by not contributing.

This is why Emotional Intelligence is such a powerful tool for a leader — we look to understand when emotions are steering the team lose focus or taking control of decisions, figure out why, and help the team course-correct. Emotional Intelligence is the lubricant that provides focus and balance allowing the team can fully-leverage their collective IQ.

Don’t Hoard Control

When it comes to uncertainty, the only constant is change. Much of leadership is change management. People are more willing to change if they are involved with initiating the change, and are more resistant if a change is forced on them.

An effective way to involve the team with initiating change is by decentralizing the leadership of tasks and decision making. When the leader requires all decisions to funnel through themselves, it creates three major problems:

  • Creates bottlenecks with decision making, slowing the team down
  • Fails to leverage the collective intelligence of the team
  • Paints a picture that the leader doesn’t trust the team to do their job.

The most effective way to decentralize leadership is through having a clear vision and strategy for the product in place. This creates clarity on what is and isn't important to the success of the team. In turn, decisions are aligned, and the team constantly moves in the right direction.

Trust is critical to team success. Without trust, individuals become disengaged and look to play it safe. People focus on ways to limit their vulnerability, as they fear the repercussions. Trust is what gives teammates the confidence to open up and be vulnerable, which in turn promotes outside-the-box thinking and drives innovation.

Build a Culture of Accountability

Part of being a leader is accepting the responsibility of accountability for all team outcomes — good or bad. If we are not ready to shoulder that burden, we are not ready to be a leader.

When dealing with uncertainty, the team will make decisions that lead to negative outcomes. Great leaders understand that failure happens, that it can have a negative impact on team morale, and can quickly turn into a blame-game.

A culture of blame is one of the most toxic and contagious behaviors a team can display. Blame is an excellent defense mechanism, as it allows us to protect our self-esteem and our social status within the team.

When the blame-game is being played we lose control of the story and choose to become helpless victims to circumstance. If we refuse to admit mistakes, we also lose our ability to empathize.

Blame and empathy have an inverse relationship, as empathy comes from a mindset of growth, which blame comes from a mindset of conserve and protect. Blame eliminates opportunities for team-growth.

Great leaders extinguish these negative behaviors by shouldering the blame. They take accountability for the negative outcome and reflect with the team on why the decision didn’t work out. This creates a learning opportunity, and re-frames a negative situation in a positive light.

Cultures form based on the way leaders act. Show the team that failure is okay, and can actually lead to great growth opportunities.

Anyone Can Be a Leader

Being a leader doesn’t require a formal title, it simply requires a willingness to step up and take a higher level of accountability. Often the most influential leaders on the team aren’t a formal leader, but individuals who greatly care about the success of the team.

Within a high performing team, everyone will be a leader when it comes to the tasks they commit to own and the strengths they bring to the table. Leadership isn’t bestowed on one individual, it’s fluid depending on the task at hand.

True leadership is done through influence, not by imposition. Great leaders don’t rely on a title, regardless of if they have one. Influence is earned through caring for the success of the team, understanding our strengths and using them for the benefit of the team, taking accountability for our actions, and helping others reach their full potential.

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Joe Van Os

Product Manager

Constantly discovering what it means to be a Product Manager, and passing on what I learn along the way.


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