What does ‘leadership’ mean?

In my last post I shared that I need to pivot my professional development from product management to product leadership, which means that I need to figure out what ‘leadership’ actually means. The importance of ‘context’ became clear to me in my last post, so I’m looking to define what leadership means for me (rather than what leadership means in an abstract sense).

What does ‘leadership’ mean for me?

For me, leadership has several dimensions. This model has helped me to identify these dimensions and begin to think about them, and how I develop within them. The model was developed by my colleague Georg Fasching, who’s been working with me in a leadership coaching context for around a year (and agile coaching for a year before then). Georg has developed this leadership model during this time, based in part on the context in which I’m working (leadership team in a large enterprise with a matrix management structure, in the process of ‘digital transformation’), so based on my working relationship with Georg, the quality of his model, and our shared context, it works well for me.

If I take Georg’s model and personalise it for my needs right now, I understand leadership to have the following dimensions:

  • my self - I find it important to remember that I am not defined by my job, and my work is not my life. My partner, my family, my friends, my interests and my hobbies are the main focus of my life. My job and the mission of my organisation (my work life) are really important to me but my partner, my family, my friends, my interests and my hobbies (my real life) are more important to me. Both are important to me but my real life is more important than my work life.
  • people - My work life is shaped by people. I’m part of an organisation that builds user-centred (i.e. people-centred), public services. I’m head of the product management profession, so work with peers who share a passion for prioritising the most valuable problems that people face, and then working with other people to solve those problems. I guess I can summarise this as ‘empathy’: I need to focus on what empathy looks like in a leadership role, and how it helps understand and motivate people.
  • organisational improvement - I work in the ‘digital and technology’ function of a government department, which covers five organisations, consisting of seven business units. We’re just one function amongst many. We’re undergoing (and playing a lead role in) ‘digital transformation’. We’re helping to bring in-house software development to government, supporting the use of user-centred design across government (not just in software), and supporting prioritisation based on outcomes over outputs (typically known as ‘working with agility’). This is all within a function that has grown from 300-400 people, to around 1,000 people, in the last year. Oh, and we’re new to the idea of professions. What does leadership mean for me, within these contexts? And how do I get better at it?
  • value managment - I’m accountable for the value of a profession, as the head of that profession. We need to contribute to our teams being valuable, our organisations being valuable, our wider function being valuable, our department being valuable, . . . and government as a whole providing value for the taxes we pay. That’s a lot of contexts, and a lot of different definitions of ‘value’. There’s another layer here too. The profession of product management is focussed on value management. Product management is a strategic role, focussed on optimising the value of products and services. We, product managers, have a specific role in taking a lead in improving value management in the contexts in which we work. I, as head of product, have a specific role in taking a lead in improving our organisational strategy for improving the value of our work. I’d argue that, of all the dimensions, ‘value management’ (often called ‘business strategy’) is the dimension in which product management needs to step-up and play a lead role in helping their organisation to improve. For me, this is what ‘product leadership’ means: take all of the value management/product management that takes place within a delivery team, and apply it within a leadership team. It seems as though value management or business strategy is in its infancy, so there is a real opportunity for product management to step-in and improve it. I think that step one for me as a ‘product leader’ is to start identifying the value contexts in which we (product managers) work, within our organisation, so that we can (i) optimise our value within these contexts and (ii) identify value contexts that contradict each other (which feeds in to the ‘organisational improvement’ dimension).
  • time - Finally there’s time. Everyone has the same amount of time each day, 1440 minutes (as Georg says). I want to work regular hours, so that I can have a life outside of work. That means that I need to prioritise my work time, seeking to balance the time I invest in each of these dimensions (reviewing and correcting that time as needed, as the balance will need to change). So right now, I’m prioritising the ‘value management’ dimension to focus on. Value management motivates me as product manager, and seems like it’s where we have the most uniqe value to add as a profession. It’s also the dimension that I’ve made the least time to explore over the last year or so.

Next time: value contexts

To return to the beginning of this post, my leadership development will be most useful when I understand the contexts in which I work and think about what leadership means within those contexts. It’s clear that I’m most interested to explore the ‘value management’ dimension of leadership. I will prioritise the next post in this blog to think about what value looks like in the many contexts of government: what does it mean for product managers, and what does it mean for product leaders?


Coaching is in the background of this post. I’ve coached and been coached for around ten years and have typically found it useful when I’ve ‘clicked’ with the coach or coachee, and the style of coaching is matched to the right context. In this post we’re seeing a situation where ‘executive coaching’ has helped, but there are many types of coaching. Kate Leto and Barry O’Reilly recently published this post which helps to explain the difference between a coach, a mentor and a consultant, and which summarises some of the value of coaching.