The role of an engineering manager does not begin and end, with the only purpose of keeping projects on track. An engineering manager has a higher role within the team – cultivating a ground where future leaders can sprout and flourish. However, this nurturing role often comes with an internal tug-of-war: the fear of becoming redundant. This fear, while natural, can hinder both personal growth and the team’s progress. How do I know? Because I have been through it and witnessed it in peers more than once.
So, how should an engineering manager navigate these waters? How to overcome this leadership paradox?
We should first try to understand what is behind this fear.
The fear of redundancy usually stems from a place of self-preservation. In the fast-paced engineering sector, staying relevant is critical. And that takes a person to think in a finite way, “it has to be I win, and you lose, or you win, and I lose” – Simon Sinek has a whole book about this concept of finite and infinite games, so I will not go deep into those concepts.
Managers may feel that developing new leaders is engineering their own obsolescence. You may think this is bonkers, but the fear is real. It lands right into the psychological need for safety. Let us take the reference of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:
If you feel that you are not the leader anymore, you may feel your self-esteem taking a hit – esteem need, check.
You even may start feeling that you don’t belong anymore to that team because a new “lion” has grown to lead the pack – belonging need, check.
And yes, ultimately your need for safety will also be triggered because you may start thinking that your entire position in the company is in jeopardy – safety need, check.
So it is essential to acknowledge this fear as a first step towards addressing it.
The second step is to reframe what it means to be redundant.
Redundancy isn’t about being replaceable; it’s about creating a resilient team. When a manager empowers new leaders, they’re not working themselves out of a job but demonstrating their capacity to foresee the succession. No one can foresee the future, that is for sure. But, in a finite game mindset, will the organisation still win with your decision if you decide to jump to another challenge? Or, hopefully not, but what if something happens to you? Will the organisation see itself in a rut shortly?
And, of course, when a manager empowers new leaders, they’re also demonstrating their capacity to elevate others, and that is a quality of invaluable leaders – be human-centric.
Therefore, redefining one’s value from being the only leader to the creator of many can shift the perspective from fear to pride.
Up til now, we were focused mainly on the individual. However, this approach will not solely benefit the involved individuals; it has a compounding effect on the organisation. We can have the example of Captain David Marquet, the author of the book “Turn The Ship Around!”. The empowerment he gave to his crew, created many new leaders, the entire crew become more agile, innovative and capable of tackling complex problems. It transformed the worst navy crew, to the number #1 crew in performance and security. So, managers should see themselves as multipliers of talent where their success is reflected in the success of their mentees.
Okay, this is all good, easy, and fancy, but we still need to combat the fear of redundancy. And the best approach, the one I took to myself and the one I evangelise all my direct reports and mentees, is by being lifelong learners. The field is ever-evolving (both technical and human), and by staying abreast of the latest technologies and methodologies, managers can secure their relevancy through expertise and adaptability.
The organisation itself has a role in this as well. If the organisation could cultivate a culture where mentorship is valued, that can help managers feel more secure in their positions. When everyone is both a mentor and a mentee, leadership becomes a shared responsibility, and this reduces the pressure on any individual to be the sole fountainhead of guidance.
Cultivating a culture where mentorship is valued can help managers feel more secure in their positions. When everyone is both a mentor and a mentee, leadership becomes a shared responsibility, reducing the pressure on any individual to be the sole fountainhead of guidance.
Another way to keep ourselves far from the redundancy arrow is to lead with a clear vision and real purpose. Leading by vision, not by task. This means you will be the strategic compass for the team, and that places you in an essential position towards the long-term success of the organisation.
And we can not forget the benefits that this approach brings.
Managers who foster new leaders often find themselves with a competent team capable of handling operational tasks, allowing the manager to focus on strategic initiatives. This transition, however daunting, can be fulfilling and rejuvenating for one’s career.
This phenomenon reflects a prevalent concern in many industries – am I becoming redundant? Managers can overcome the fear of redundancy by transforming their mindset from one of competition (finite game) to one of contribution (infinite game). When managers focus on legacy over insecurity, they unlock the potential of their team and solidify their indispensability through the success of others. And whenever this topic comes up, I remember the advice of a CEO I worked with during our one-to-one meetings. I can’t paraphrase him, but it was something like – “Castelhano, that is a fixed mindset. The true mark of successful leadership is not in how indispensable you are but in how well your team can perform, even in your absence. Now go on vacation and drop that phone.”