What does it mean to be a product leader?!

A few months ago I sat on a panel with some great product people* and the topic of product leadership came up. “I’m not a product leader” I thought to myself. A good people manager perhaps, but not a leader?!

Was this a case of impostor syndrome or a need to understand what product leadership means to me?

Image Credit: Marianne Bos

* Rebecca Bourne, Tiama Hanson-Drury and Jason Knight, thank you for a great conversation!

When asked, the other panelists mentioned the following traits of strong product leaders:

The panel discussion triggered me to reflect on my (product) leadership capabilities:

What kind of leader do I want to be?

Leadership is situational; different circumstances, tasks and people require different leadership styles (see Blanchard and Hershey’s Situational Leadership Model below) I’m learning to be flexible with my approaches to leading, flexing between delegating, supporting, coaching and directing. For example, I recently had to manage a situation that in hindsight would have benefited from my being more directive and decisive.

Image Credit: selfawareness.org.uk

We can thus develop leadership styles which, applied to the right company at the right time, can be highly effective. In the book “Right Leader Right Time” Robert Jordan and Olivia Wagner describe four distinct leadership styles: ‘Fixer’, ‘Artist’, ‘Builder’ and ‘Strategist’ (‘FABS’). Each of these leadership styles comes with its own unique mindset, process and skills:

Leadership doesn’t come with job title. Anyone can be a leader, and you can assess whether you’re developing as a leader by checking against the traits described in the first half of this post:

Driving a product vision

Responsible for the product strategy

Managing people

Making decisions

Main learning point: Leadership isn’t about titles or status. It’s about being able to manage a situation or group of people, with impact and clarity. Different situations will require different leadership styles, but there are a number of common traits that all good product leaders share, irrespective of job title!

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.svpg.com/ensuring-excellence/
  2. https://marcabraham.com/2021/09/28/my-product-management-toolkit-46-making-decisions/
  3. https://medium.com/managing-digital-products/what-is-product-leadership-2b284441b56b
  4. https://www.svpg.com/product-leadership-is-hard/
  5. https://medium.com/@jefago/the-three-responsibilities-of-product-leadership-bcbde64d2688
  6. https://medium.com/swlh/wartime-product-leadership-b820f8eb8c02
  7. https://marcabraham.com/2019/03/26/book-review-the-making-of-a-manager-by-julie-zhuo/
  8. https://www.mindtheproduct.com/how-to-apply-lateral-leadership-in-agile-environments-by-tim-herbig/
  9. https://debliu.substack.com/p/what-ive-learned-from-my-best-managers



Product at Intercom, author of "My Product Management Toolkit" and “Managing Product = Managing Tension” — see https://bit.ly/3gH2dOD.

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Product at Intercom, author of "My Product Management Toolkit" and “Managing Product = Managing Tension” — see https://bit.ly/3gH2dOD.