The Happy Engineer Podcast

167: You Don’t Have to Be John Maxwell to Be a Great Leader

Are you getting lost in leadership theories without seeing real changes in your engineering team?

Listen now and shift from concepts to action!

In this episode, I dive deep into the practical aspects of leadership with a focus on behaviors over traits.

Everyone aspires to be a great leader, but what does that really entail beyond the buzzwords and theories?

I share a story from a recent conversation with Bill, a senior engineering manager, who’s striving to enhance his leadership skills, particularly around building trust and creating psychological safety within his team.

We discuss how easy it is to get caught up in the theoretical aspects of leadership, like the concepts found in leadership books, and overlook the necessity of actionable steps.

Throughout our discussion, I emphasize the importance of transforming leadership aspirations into specific, behavior-based actions that lead to real results.

Join me as we explore how to break down common leadership challenges into tangible actions that can immediately impact your team.

So press play and let’s chat about turning theory into action!

Want free coaching, LIVE? Join us in a live workshop for deeper training, career coaching 1:1, and an amazing community!  HAPPY HOUR Workshop Live with Zach!


The Happy Engineer Podcast

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LISTEN TO EPISODE 167: You Don’t Have to Be John Maxwell to Be a Great Leader

Previous Episode 166: Get Rid of Toxic Work Culture Once and For All with Anese Cavanaugh


Top Takeaways on Leadership Development for Engineers

In this episode of The Happy Engineer Podcast, we explore how to break down common leadership challenges into tangible actions that can immediately impact your team.

Here are the top three insights:

1. Leadership is about behaviors, not just ideas or traits. It’s essential to focus on specific actions that drive trust, psychological safety, and positive culture within engineering teams.

2. Instead of getting lost in the “ivory tower” of leadership concepts, dig deep to identify tangible behaviors that can be planned, scheduled, and executed to create real impact.

3. The journey of leadership involves pushing past comfort zones, taking one specific action at a time, and building momentum through consistent, behavior-based growth.

To go deeper and build an action plan around these points and why all this matters, listen to this entire conversation.



Please note the full transcript is 90-95% accuracy. Reference the podcast audio to confirm exact quotations.

[00:00:00] Zach White: Everybody I talk to wants to be a great leader. I imagine you do too. That’s why you’re here. leadership is a big, big bucket. What do you mean when you say leadership development? It’s an entire section at the bookstore by itself. Yesterday, I was on a call with an engineering senior manager named Bill.

Expand to Read Full Transcript

[00:00:21] and I asked Bill, what specifically did we need to focus on? Where in his leadership did he need the most help? Where was he stuck? Where did he feel frustrated? Where was he getting feedback that things were not working? And Bill started describing his situation.

[00:00:37] He said, look, my team, we really need to work on building trust on my team. I feel like I’m not championing them the way that I should. They don’t feel supported by me at the level that I would. Like them too. I got some feedback on the last engagement survey that they always were unsure of whether or not I had their back because of how a couple of situations went down last year.

[00:01:02] And he described a couple of really personal situations and things that had happened between him and his boss and all this context. And I stopped and said, Hey, okay, let’s bring it back. Bill, tell me more about how you want to improve as a leader and where to focus today. He said, Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I also want to.

[00:01:19] Create a culture on the team. That’s more positive. I want to create a culture where people have psychological safety. I want to create more space for my team to do innovative work and all these different ideas. And as you hear these things, you start to pick up on all the buzzwords. It was like Bill had gone to Barnes and Noble and picked up a whole stack of John Maxwell leadership books and read about all of these ideas that create.

[00:01:48] Great leaders. Not to insult John Maxwell, the most prolific leadership author of all time. But when you get stuck in the ideas and the concepts of leadership, you will not see meaningful, actionable, real results and change on your team. Bill came, let’s take one example with the idea of creating psychological safety, super important concept.

[00:02:19] There’s a lot of really important. Information and tactics and tools and an energy around psychological safety. That does matter. If your team does not feel safe, then they will not perform at their best. But the problem for engineering leaders like Bill is that they spend all their time thinking about the idea of psychological safety.

[00:02:43] What is it? What does that mean? The research behind it, all of the psychology and the behavioral psychology behind what this means. And they want to become smarter about what psychological safety is. This is what’s so important for you to recognize. If you get trapped in learning about leadership and thinking in terms of traits, in terms of ideas, An idea like psychological safety or a trait, like being charismatic, a trait, like having a positive attitude, 

[00:03:24] It’s really easy for engineers to get stuck up in that space. And Bill was stuck up there. I call it the ivory tower of your mind. It’s where your IQ is driving the bus. And you’re learning about ideas and not getting down into the only thing that actually matters at the end of the day, when it comes to leadership 

[00:03:47] And that is a behavior. Leadership is not about traits. It’s not about ideas. At the end of the day, it is about behaviors, actions, a skill put into practice. So let’s take Bill’s example, psychological safety. I asked Bill, well, let’s take that one and dig deeper because talking about psychological safety is not where you’re going to make a change on your team.

[00:04:17] It’s whether or not you exhibit the behaviors that create psychological safety for your team. And so I asked him, well, what would make your team feel more safe? And his answer was, well, if we had deeper trust in each other, if my team trusted each other more and trusted me more than they would feel more safe.

[00:04:38] I said, well, great, that’s an awesome answer. But trust is still an idea. How does trust become a behavior? Bill, tell me about a trust building behavior that you can take action on tomorrow. And he sat there and he thought about it. He said, well, I guess, follow through on my commitments. It’s a great that’s a great answer Trust is built when you follow through on your commitment.

[00:05:10] So bill what? Commitment will you follow through on tomorrow? He said well, I don’t I don’t have anything do or a deliverable for my team tomorrow. So I’m really not sure Said okay. Well, there’s a gap. There is a gap in the skill set Of building trust, which includes making commitments and then following through on that.

[00:05:36] So, let’s get more specific. What commitment will you make to your team tomorrow? Let’s go create the opportunity for you to follow through. Now think about your career right now. Maybe you take for granted that you’re doing your job and delivering well every single day. You’re doing great work. You’re delivering on your commitments.

[00:06:03] If you want to turn that into a higher trust building activity, you need to explicitly communicate. What your commitment is, deliver on that commitment, and then communicate and get clarity that both parties, you and the person you delivered to, or the project team you delivered to, or the vendor, the customer, that they are aware of your clear delivery of the commitment and that everyone is aligned, that all the boxes were checked.

[00:06:33] All the I’s were dotted, all the T’s were crossed. That creates a trust building delivery of commitment. You sitting by yourself. Delivering doesn’t guarantee that you’re getting the benefit of trust building from that action. Do you see the difference? When you get lost in the idea of I’m going to build trust through credibility and delivering on my commitments, you can think about that, but if you don’t exhibit the specific behavior, take the action of building trust, then it won’t happen.

[00:07:10] Bill and I went on. I said, great, give me another example of a trust building behavior. Something you can do tomorrow to go create that trust and that safety that you’re looking for with your team as a leader. And he sat, he thought, he said, well, I’m really not sure. I don’t know. I said, well, maybe we can look at it from the other side, Bill.

[00:07:34] What are trust breaking activities, trust breaking behaviors that you’ve seen happen on your team or that you have exhibited in the past that you can That would give us a clue into what to stop doing. And maybe the opposite will help us find things you could do. And Bill said, well, one of the trust breaking activities is micromanaging going and asking for updates constantly, instead of trusting them to deliver what they said they would deliver my team, what they would deliver.

[00:08:07] So that’s a great example. Micromanaging absolutely can create, uh, or break trust. And we don’t want to do that. So Bill. One action to not take is micromanaging and checking in for updates. I said, so what would be a way to turn that into a trust building activity? How do you create a behavior around checking in that would create safety and trust?

[00:08:35] And so we worked on that together, said, look, what if instead of randomly stopping by people’s desks and checking in constantly and coming across as a micromanager, what if instead you created clear expectations? Of when check ins or when updates needed to occur, and you delivered on your promise. You checked in at those times, you held your team accountable to provide their updates and feedback at those times.

[00:09:01] And you had a very clear system and clear communication around what was expected, what the definition of done looks like, and what the communication and update and feedback rhythms would be, and then you followed through on that. Would that help create trust on the team? Yeah, of course. Here’s What you need to remember.

[00:09:22] We all want to be great leaders. Everybody wants to lead like John Maxwell, but John Maxwell’s writing as much as I love it. A lot of times as engineers, we get caught in the ideas of leadership. And if you read more closely, John will tell you leadership shows up at the level of your actions, your behavior.

[00:09:44] Everything comes down to whether or not you do the things that leaders do. Yes, mindsets, traits, ideas, these things matter. I’m a big believer in mindset, but engineers who want to be great leaders, great directors, great executives need to get out of the ivory tower of their mind and dig in. And so I want you to ask yourself, are you stuck in that world of concepts?

[00:10:15] Ideas, the ivory tower of your IQ, come down from the tower, take your shoes off, put your toes in the grass in the, in the real world All leadership boils down to skills that can be trained and practiced. It’s an action. It’s a behavior. It’s saying different things.

[00:10:42] It is creating different systems. It is showing up with a different intention. It’s a behavior. So if you want to build more trust. Don’t go study the concept of trust. Go get clear on what behavior will build trust that you can take this afternoon. That you can take tomorrow. Get specific and clear. Stop seeking for the full transformation tomorrow.

[00:11:15] Of the future all in one move. You don’t just snap your fingers and become John Maxwell. You don’t just become the CEO. You take one action at a time. Bill and I got really crystal clear on five different specific actions, each that were easy, they were going to take minutes to do that. He could execute the next day, building on that momentum day by day by day.

[00:11:48] Is how you create this compounding growth in your career. If you want to be an incredible leader, I love podcasts. I love books. I read all the time. You’re listening to a podcast right now. But consuming more information about that is not the most important thing. It’s taking each piece of information, each idea, and asking yourself, How will I turn that idea into a specific behavior that I will take as soon as possible?

[00:12:22] Plan it, schedule it, and execute it. Don’t turn everything into from now on. I will always do X from now on. I will become a more trustworthy leader. Great. Everyone wants to be trustworthy and everyone wants to be enthusiastic and have high energy and be positive and be a servant leader and fill in the blank catchword, buzz phrase.

[00:12:48] You know what I’m talking about? The HR leadership model. It means well. But if it doesn’t become a specific behavior, then it does not create value and growth for you, for your team, and ultimately the results that you want to create. It all boils down to behaviors, the culture, the fit as a leader, these things, these ideas we talk about, bring it down to behavior and get specific.

[00:13:16] So ask yourself. What leadership trait, what leadership attribute, or what leadership problem are you seeking to solve? Take that problem, push it all the way down to a specific behavior, detail it, plan it, schedule it, make it happen, and then send me some feedback on how that goes. As soon as you’re done with that, Plan the next behavior.

[00:13:43] Plan the next behavior. If you’re not sure what to do here, if this feels like, okay, it makes sense, but I don’t know how to turn trust or becoming a champion for my team or psychological safety or creating space or whatever. Trait you want to work on my charisma, my influence, my impact, my ability to persuade, to negotiate.

[00:14:07] If you don’t know how to turn those into specific behaviors, then please connect. Reach out, let’s talk about it. Let’s dig deeper and ask, what are those specific behaviors?

[00:14:17] Get it to the point where you can confidently show up and take action on it right away. That’s the journey of leadership. It’s about behavior, not just about ideas. Have fun with this, enjoy the process, and along the way, push yourself out of your comfort zone. Because when you crush comfort and create courage, that is what will accelerate your growth as a leader.

[00:14:46] Let’s do this.