Lead­er­ship is one of those things that is often described as “I can’t describe it, but I will know it when I see it.” It is the mer­cu­r­ial item that every­one knows that they need, but is often lack­ing on many dif­fer­ent lev­els in larger orga­ni­za­tions. If lack of align­ment on a sin­gle suc­cess met­ric is the great­est “sin” of a test­ing pro­gram, then the sec­ond sin is a lack of or weak leadership.

The first thing to real­ize is that lead­er­ship is not some­thing that is tied to posi­tion. It can come from any per­son and any level in an orga­ni­za­tion. While it is true that you need spon­sor­ship and assis­tance from higher lev­els in an orga­ni­za­tion, the truth is that lead­er­ship and man­age­ment are not cor­re­lated, and in a really suc­cess­ful pro­gram, you should expect lead­er­ship to come from each and every level. Lead­er­ship is the abil­ity to change per­cep­tions, to hold peo­ple account­able, and to keep a pro­gram focused on what mat­ters. It is the abil­ity to keep peo­ple from abus­ing the pro­gram or of try­ing to prove them­selves right; instead chang­ing the con­ver­sa­tion towards one that ben­e­fits every­one. Lead­er­ship more than any­thing in a test­ing pro­gram is the abil­ity to make every­one bet­ter by keep­ing every­one focused on what mat­ters, and to avoid let­ting them focus on things that don’t matter.

There is also the need for lead­ers to make sure that peo­ple stop focus­ing on can and focus instead on should, and of mak­ing sure that no one is doing an action just because it will make a sin­gle per­son, no mat­ter how high up in the orga­ni­za­tion, happy. So many pro­grams get run off the ground because they focus only on what is asked of them, and while they may know to do things bet­ter, they fail to deliver that mes­sage in a way that enables change. All the knowl­edge in the world means noth­ing if you fail to do the right thing. In the world of test­ing, it is far less get­ting peo­ple to do a cer­tain action but the abil­ity to stop them from doing any of the large num­ber of actions which drive a pro­gram into the ground. It may not be in your job descrip­tion, but if you care about doing the right thing, then it is everyone’s job to help the com­pany grow and to get better.

If your pro­gram is doing one of the fol­low­ing: track­ing clicks, have mul­ti­ple met­rics, only test­ing one thing at a time, only test­ing “test ideas” as they come fil­tered down to your pro­gram, tar­get­ing only, ana­lyz­ing results like they are ana­lyt­ics, div­ing into every ques­tion end­lessly, not prov­ing peo­ple wrong, try­ing to answer “why?” for every result, con­stantly div­ing into tech­ni­cal ques­tions, not con­sis­tently test­ing, or not con­stantly improv­ing how you do all of those actions and more, then you are suf­fer­ing from a lack of lead­er­ship. It falls on every­one to take a step back and to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo. It doesn’t take a title to make it clear that false action will pro­duce a result of ques­tion­able or false reality.

Lead­er­ship needs to be able to frame a con­ver­sa­tion, to stop peo­ple from just respond­ing to requests and to instead proac­tively set the def­i­n­i­tion of suc­cess. It’s about tak­ing the lead from the begin­ning and not wait­ing for things to set­tle or for some­one else to do the right thing. It is up to every­one, but espe­cially the leader of a pro­gram to hold peo­ple account­able for their actions and focus on the increase of value on the out­come solely. You will almost always need a pro­gram spon­sor who is aligned with these goals and who is will­ing to be the stick to force action, but the truth is any­one from the low­est ana­lyst or devel­oper to the CEO can take the lead on these actions. That spon­sor means noth­ing if he is not work­ing with a team who is more inter­ested in doing things right then mak­ing every­one happy. Yes peo­ple are a dime a dozen, real lead­ers nearly impos­si­ble to find.

Stop wor­ry­ing about what your title is, and instead focus on what can you do, today, to fight the bat­tles that need to be fought and to help make sure that none of these things are tak­ing place in your orga­ni­za­tion. What is far more impor­tant is a will­ing­ness to do so and the abil­ity to do it con­sis­tently, over time, espe­cially as it gets hard, frus­trat­ing, or com­pli­cated. Lead­er­ship is deal­ing with the tough bat­tles, not the easy ones. You can­not worry about get­ting credit, instead you have to focus on mak­ing every­one bet­ter. It is not about you, it is about every­one work­ing together. It is not always about being “right”, but instead about work­ing with and dri­ving each com­po­nent of any pro­gram so that it is focused on the dis­ci­pline of suc­cess and of always dri­ving peo­ple to be bet­ter and to do better.

Test­ing pro­grams, like any other group, often find them­selves from time to time with peo­ple who can and will do the things nec­es­sary to suc­ceed. They “luck” into indi­vid­u­als that cre­ate giant steps for­ward and improve things. What hap­pens then when these peo­ple leave? Or get put on other projects? Or lose their focus on what mat­ters and instead focus on their indi­vid­ual suc­cess? These pro­grams then stag­nate or revert to a plateau of gen­er­ally accepted com­pe­tence. Lead­ers make sure that oth­ers are ready and capa­ble of tak­ing charge and that the more peo­ple that can drive the pro­gram for­ward, the less it is on any­one per­sons shoul­ders. The chal­lenge is to build out not just one per­son who does these things, but then to make sure that oth­ers learn and are expected to do the same. You need to hold peo­ple account­able to be just as much a leader, and for being capa­ble of doing these things in the absence of that one person.

So many peo­ple are afraid of cre­at­ing their own replace­ment or of dupli­cat­ing skill, even though these skills are uni­ver­sal and it only makes you that much more valu­able. Take the time to eval­u­ate where you are and what you can do to be bet­ter. Work with peo­ple at all lev­els to get a read on what needs to hap­pen, learn, grow, and have a focus. So many peo­ple at com­pa­nies are capa­ble of talk­ing about lead­er­ship, but very few are capa­ble of the actions nec­es­sary to suc­ceed. Take the time to think about how much of what you do is just what is asked, or how much do you do to actu­ally improve things. Are just try­ing to make your boss happy, or are you truly chang­ing things for the bet­ter? What about the peo­ple around you?

Lead­er­ship starts from within. There is no greater dif­fer­ence between a fol­lower and a leader then the will­ing­ness to change and the will­ing­ness to act. It is easy to blame peo­ple at the top, and the real­ity is there may be many peo­ple at many lev­els who have no inter­est in improv­ing things or chang­ing, but you can always find some­one who sees the need to improve. Don’t wait for tomor­row to make the right call or to chal­lenge the sta­tus quo.

Pro­grams fail when they become reac­tive and stag­nant, and when they are used by oth­ers to facil­i­tate an agenda. John Maxwell famously quipped “If we’re grow­ing, we’re always going to be out of our com­fort zone.” All of those prob­lems can be dealt with and sur­passed over time with lead­er­ship. What you do to be bet­ter, and what you do to make oth­ers aware of the need for them to be bet­ter, is what will define how far you and your pro­gram really go and what you can really achieve. Help make peo­ple higher then you aware of what they need to think about, chal­lenge the peo­ple next to you to be bet­ter, and help those lower then you to con­stantly learn and grow until they are above you. A ris­ing tide raises all ships.