“You're the sh*t umbrella for your team.”
The first time I was introduced to a tech lead role at my first startup, I remember being told that I was to be a shield for my team. I'd read blog posts about how being a tech lead meant being a “sh*t umbrella” — that I was expected to handle all the unexpected distractions that arose in the natural course of any project and safeguard the productivity of all the engineers on my team. In other words, I was to self-sacrifice for the team.
Coming from an immigrant family, the idea of sacrificing myself was a narrative that I was familiar with. My parents sacrificed a lot when they left their friends and their homes to move to the United States. They worked long hours, six days a week, in a country where they didn't know the language — so that their children would grow up in a place with more opportunities and a chance to get the college education they weren't able to get in their home country.
And so while taking that tech lead role was uncomfortable, I readily accepted the idea of sacrificing myself for the good of my team.
It was my responsibility — and no one else's — to make sure nothing fell through the cracks.
It was my responsibility to stay up until 2am in the morning — and to take a hit for the team — to make sure that we hit our deadlines.
It was my responsibility to do everything that I assumed my team didn't want to do — regardless of whether I enjoyed doing it or not.
I followed that self-sacrificial mindset for about a year, and I ended up burning myself out.
It took a long while for me to realize that my actions, though well-intentioned, were misguided. Sustainable leadership didn't mean self-sacrifice — it meant something else.
Sustainable Leadership Means Turning Discomfort into Opportunities
As leaders, we'll often face situations that feel uncomfortable.
We might have to call out the elephant in the room and say the hard thing that no one is saying — maybe the project we invested months working on no longer makes sense — so that we can make forward progress.
We might have to make tough decisions to get the outcomes the business needs — even if the decisions leave everyone disappointed to some degree.
We might have to give direct and honest feedback in difficult conversations — so that our reports, our peers, and our managers can be aware of their own impact.
But when we face discomfort, our guiding North Star doesn't have to be “let me tolerate all this discomfort so that my team doesn't have to.” Instead, it can be “let me approach discomfort as a training ground for my own growth.” The key difference is that rather than tolerating your way through hard things, you're growing your way through them.
About a year ago, I started maintaining a daily journal. Every day, I write down a lesson I want to take away from the day, three wins I want to celebrate, and three things I'm grateful for. The daily lesson is a continuous reminder that every day can be a training ground for how I want to show up in the world, and it creates a feedback loop for my own growth. And, as a side note, the focus on positivity has created a noticeable impact on my happiness as well.
As we grow in our leadership roles, we're tasked with more responsibilities and face more unfamiliar situations — ones that stretch us in new ways.
Rather than thinking of ourselves as "sh*t umbrellas," we can think of ourselves as pioneers. It's less about being the first line of defense for your team. It's more about being the first one to embrace new challenges that arise as opportunities for growing your own leadership and for paving the way for your team. And doing that requires adopting a growth mindset.
How to Effectively Grow into Your Leadership Role
The mindsets we hold when we encounter uncomfortable situations determine how we respond and what we get out of the experiences.
When we resist discomfort and just tolerate it, hoping for it to be over, we make things harder for ourselves. When we accept that growth can be uncomfortable and welcome the discomfort, then we allow ourselves to grow.
Embracing a growth mindset can sometimes be as simple as asking ourselves, “What can I learn from this experience?” Other times, it's helpful to have a more guided set of questions to help us learn from difficult situations:
- What's holding me back from thriving in these situations? Being honest with ourselves by acknowledging where we are is the first step toward growth. Very often, the biggest obstacles to where we want to be is ourselves, and we need to start by naming any beliefs we hold about ourselves that are getting in the way.
- What's possible if I could handle these types of situations easily? This type of visioning into the future keeps us motivated in the day-to-day. It gives us a destination to work towards.
- What has to be true for this discomfort to instead feel easy? Identifying the gap between where are we and where we want to be gives us a path from our starting point to our destination.
- What help do I need to ask for? When we realize that sustainable leadership isn't about self-sacrifice, then we also allow the possibility of others helping us on our journey. Asking for help can be hard — and another area for growth — and effective leaders ask for help.
- What can I do to systematically improve my ability to handle these situations? We're not looking for overnight changes, just how we can be even just 1% better every day — that's a large part of why I turn my journaling into a daily practice.
Over time, as we keep learning and growing, those 1% improvements compound into differences that look like night and day. And what was once hard and uncomfortable can become easy and normal.