Great product leaders need to save themselves first

Imagine for a moment you’re on a passenger flight with your child — cruising along at 35,000ft enjoying your undersized and overpriced bag of peanuts when suddenly you hear a noise.

What little existed of your peanuts is now airborne, with nervous gasps and a shriek from across the cabin somewhere.

You can hear the wail of air rushing through the cabin, and the plane starts diving aggressively, so much so that you’re certain the missing peanuts surely must be rolling across the ceiling above you.

Helping others means you need to first help yourself

Suddenly the oxygen masks drop down to a cry of terror from across the cabin.

You quickly turn to your child, and breathlessly reach for their mask above their head. It’s a struggle to grab — as it flails wildly in the wind now engulfing the cabin.

You try and try again — but you just can’t manage to grab it. You’re starting to panic — you can feel your shortness of breath growing, as your child continues to cry in terror beside you.

You’re struggling to concentrate — things are getting hazy. And now the pre-flight safety announcement comes back into your mind:

It is important that you fit your own oxygen mask before assisting others

But alas — it’s now too late.

Leading product teams is hard work

We operate in a complex world of rapid change, with tomorrows problems, opportunities, strategy, and skillsets evolving from the needs of today. The relentless pursuit for continued product success in market remains increasingly difficult to maintain your current success — let alone the effort required to truly break free from the pack and remain a true market leader over the long term.

There is always something to learn, to analyse, to understand, and to adjust — prioritisation must be ruthless to remain focused and on-track.

Yet it is so simple as leaders to be caught in the local problems, diverting attention away from the core issues where you need to spend your time — and those always trace back to the Managers Purpose¹:

  • Provide growth, development, and empowerment to talented individuals
  • Provide direction through a clear and compelling vision of the future

We need to have the focus and fitness to ensure we are doing the right things.

Doing the right thing, doesn’t mean you need to do it yourself

Doing the right thing doesn’t mean actually doing the work yourself.

Playing the hero and taking more work on — will only limit the organisations ability to move fast and retain a competitive advantage — to the speed at which you can operate. Yet in the modern world, speed is everything:

The only sustainable competitive advantage is the ability to learn faster than the competition — Arie de Geus

We need to build upon a base of empowerment, creating teams “made up of ordinary people who are inspired and empowered”² giving them the responsibility and autonomy to achieve the result.

Instead — us leaders need to rely on the wisdom of Bill Campbell (by way of Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle), who reminds us to:

Identify the biggest problem, the “Elephant in the room,”, bring it front and center, and tackle it first.³

That elephant — is ensuring we are in a position to adequately grow and direct the team — by putting our own oxygen mask on first, before we try and help others.

The right mindset

So what does putting yourself first really mean?

First — It’s about a personal shift from a mercenary to a missionary⁵ mindset — we need leaders who are missionaries, not martyrs who feel its their duty to protect the team and absorb the surplus that the team cannot handle.

Instead — we need a co-dependent relationship, where both teams and leaders take shared responsibility of the outcomes — each fulfilling their role to create a sum greater than their independent parts.

Want to check if you have achieved that as a leader? Use John Cutler’s suggestion to ask yourself

If the team controlled their budget, would they employ me?⁴

Being a missionary doesn’t mean you cannot disconnect and focus on yourself— it instead means you operate with a higher purpose and empathy for others.

The right self

But it’s not enough to have the right missionary mindset.

Leaders need to be at their best to address the “elephant in the room”, and that means the necessary self-care to bring your best self to product leadership.

That means not only bringing your whole self to work, but caring, nurturing, and investing in your own personal wellbeing.

For this we need to invest in the sleep, diet, exercise, creative outlets, and belonging and connection outside the workplace —putting ourselves first, so we can be effective in the service of others.⁶

You need to invest in both your mindset and self — to be an effective Product leader.

Leading my example

Shook taught us that to create effective cultural change, we need to “first change how people think, but instead to start by changing how people behave”⁸ — to create a culture of high performance, we need to be living the behaviours ourselves.

To be our best, we need to be at our best — and that means prioritising investment in our selves, our wellbeing, and our environment — ensuring that self-care is as important the team we assemble, and the vision we create.

Put your oxygen mast on first — and use that investment in the self to enable you to bring out the best in others.

As Brené Brown said:

Write a new ending for yourself, for the people you’re meant to serve and support, and for your culture⁷


  1. de Vroome. T (2020), Make yourself redundant,
  2. Cagan. M (2020), EMPOWERED: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products, Wiley
  3. Schmidt. E, Rosenberg. J, Eagle. A (2019), Trillion Dollar Coach, Harper Business
  4. Cutler. J (2018), Less Herding. More Doing.,
  5. Cagan. M (2017), INSPIRED: How to create tech products customers love, Wiley
  6. Horowitz. D (2020), Leaders: Put Your Own Oxygen Mask On First,
  7. Brown. B (2018), Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., Random House
  8. Shook. J (2010), How to Change a Culture: Lessons from NUMMI, MITSloan Management Review



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Trev de Vroome

Information technology program and agile transformation leader, change catalyst, and educator.