Product School

What Is Product Leadership?

Ellen Merryweather

Author: Ellen Merryweather

January 9, 2023 - 11 min read

Updated: January 24, 2024 - 11 min read

This month, we’re focusing on all things Product Leadership. Keep an eye out for events, podcasts, blogs, and more!

Before we start diving into the ins and outs of leadership in Product Management, it’s important to ask and to understand what we mean by Product Leadership. Who are the people behind it, what does it take to be considered a Product Leader and, what are the traits of all-star Product Leaders?

Join us as we find out!

Who Are Product Leaders?

We use Product Leaders to describe a lot of different people in the Product Management world. And so sometimes the phrase ‘Product Leader’ means a few different things, depending on who we’re talking about. We might call someone a Product Leader because…

…it’s their job title. The exact job specification changes depending on the company, but you might find a Product Leader sitting above Senior Product Managers but below a Head of Product in the company hierarchy.

…they’re in a Product leadership role. Product Leader can be used as a blanket term for those in leadership roles. If you had a Senior PM, a Head of Product, and a CPO in one room, you could collectively address them as Product Leaders.

…they’re a thought leader. Talent and experience aren’t always summed up in a job title! If someone is a well-respected Product Manager, who gives back to their community (perhaps by hosting events, mentoring others, writing books, recording podcasts, etc) they’ve earned the honorary title of Product Leader.

…they run a Product company. CEOs of Product companies, though they might never have climbed the Product Management corporate ladder before, can be considered Product Leaders for their impact on the Product world.

(Note: These don’t just apply to vanilla Product Management. They also apply to Product Design, Product Ops, Product Marketing, Product Analytics, etc.)

7 Traits of All-Star Product Leaders

When talking about leadership in many disciplines, it’s easy to start listing the qualifications and a checklist of experiences that you need to have gained to be considered a leader. Or we could start listing job titles and say ‘when you step into this level, then you’re a leader.’ But Product works a little differently, because every Product person is a leader!

So instead, we need to talk about the traits of leaders in the Product world, and how these traits manifest themselves into positive results that help to build successful products.

man preparing for race at oval track


This is a double-whammy trait. Amazing Product Leaders trust their teams, and earn their trust in return.

As a leader, you need to rely on the people around you to get the job done, because you can’t do it all! If you’ve made the right hiring choices, you trust your teams to get their jobs done because they’re better at them than you are. It’s an especially important trait in the era of remote/hybrid work, as you can’t physically look over people’s shoulders or make sure they’ve turned up to work on time.

But leadership is a dialogue, not a dictatorship, and your teams need to trust you in return. If they can trust you, they’ll be honest with you, and that’s absolutely key for cohesive working relationships. You can earn trust by always explaining the Why behind your decisions, always being data driven, and by showing that you’ve listened to the opinions of others.

Product Leaders who trust and earn trust in return are better at hiring the right people to their product teams, don’t have to micromanage, and are much better at enabling cross functional teams to work together cohesively.

2. Sharing Credit, Taking Accountability

To be an all-star Product Leader, you recognize that when you hit a big win, that win is shared with your team. If the praise is being lavished upon you, when you know that without your team it never would have happened, deflecting some of that spotlight onto the rest of your team is the best thing that you can do for them.

But another part of having power and authority is that the buck stops with you. Ultimately, if you and your teams fail to solve the right problem or deliver on time, you get the lovely task of taking the blame. But it’s not all bad! Learning from failure is a huge part of becoming an all-star Product Leader. Getting back on your feet by running retrospectives to figure out what went wrong will help everyone involved bounce back stronger.

Maintaining this habit of sharing the credit while taking accountability will go a very long way in earning you the respect of your teams, which will go towards building a positive personal brand. That’s the kind of thing that sets you apart from others!

3. Empathy

If everyone in the Product world got a dollar for every time they heard the word ‘empathy’, we could all retire early! But that’s because it really is a cornerstone of the profession.

First of all, an all-star Product Leader has empathy for the customer. Business acumen can only get you so far. If you look at your users, and all you see are potential dollar signs, you’re never going to go the distance as a PM.

Because if you don’t empathize with them, you can’t understand them. And if you can’t understand them, you’ll never solve their problems.

Empathy is also surprisingly helpful when it comes to prioritization. The most successful Product Leaders are customer-driven, and this is very useful when trying to decide which feature to build next. You can ask yourself, ‘which feature will ultimately be more helpful to the customer?’

An all-star Product Leader also has empathy for their teams. A Product Leader is also a people leader, and you can’t get the best out of people if you disregard their pain points. When teams have pain points in their day-to-day, they can’t do their jobs to the best of their ability. As a leader, it’s up to you to solve your teams’ problems as well as your users’.

So being empathetic helps you to build the right product for your customers, and to have a great working relationship with your teams.

4. Authenticity

If you’ve surrounded yourself with smart people (as all great Product Leaders should), then you need to remember that smart people can smell a phony from a mile away. If you say things you don’t mean, and don’t practice what you preach, people will start to notice.

All-star Product Leaders are more authentic than an Italian Nonna’s recipe book. They don’t just throw out buzzwords to sound smart, and they don’t pretend to care about things that honestly don’t interest them at all. 

The kind of boss who does one thing and says another isn’t the one that people rally behind. But if people know that they can take you at your word, and that you mean every word you say, it’ll be so much easier to guide them in the right direction. It’ll also be vital for building your personal brand, which is critical for breaking into thought leadership.

5. Vision and Storytelling

In Product, we often talk about the North Star. That point on the horizon that everyone can work towards together. An all-star Product Leader always has their eyes on that prize, and is the holder of that vision for their teams.

But it’s not enough to keep the product vision in your own head, you need to be able to share it with others. Doing that effectively takes some pretty solid storytelling skills. Product Leaders that can paint a picture with their words are more easily able to align many stakeholders to the same goal.

Being a person of vision helps to put your career on the fast track to stardom and ensures that you’re the kind of person who drives innovation and disruption. It also means that you’re focused, which leads to building the best products for your customers.

6. Confidence

Confidence without arrogance is another vital trait for all-star Product Leaders. If you’re not sure about where your product is going, it’s pretty hard to convince people that you’re going in the right direction.

That being said, it’s also an admirable trait for leaders to be able to admit that they’re stuck, or that they’ve gotten something completely wrong. The nuance is that you need to be confident that you’ll find a solution. When you get lost or stuck, an all-star is able to say “we know what went wrong, and now we’ll figure out how to pivot in the right direction.”

It’s also important to be confident in your teams. Not only because you’re their advocates with the rest of management and leadership, but because it’ll affect the way you interact with them. Having confidence in your teams will boost their confidence in themselves, leading to better work, and great products.

7. Business Acumen

The kind of business acumen that it takes to be an all-star Product Leader isn’t something that can be taught. Sure, you can go to business school and learn about product-market fit, good product strategy, and product-led growth. If you’ve never been exposed to the business world before, you can learn what you need to operate as a Product Manager.

But to be an all-star, you need to be able to rely on your instincts. You need to have a nose for new opportunities, and to be able to recognize when to take a risk and when to play it safe. You need to keep an eye on your competitors, without feeling pressured to copy their tactics.

As you climb the career ladder in Product Management, you’ll be increasingly responsible for making decisions about key business issues that will affect your whole organization. That’s going to take more business acumen than you can learn from a textbook.

Having instincts that you can rely on will result in better decision-making and more effective prioritization. Your killer product discovery process will lead to more innovation for your company, and you’ll earn your reputation as a savvy business leader.

Climbing the Career Ladder

While the traits of Product Leadership may feel like a list of abstract concepts, they can lead to very real career moves.

One thing to mention about the Product Management career ladder is that it’s full of gray areas and ambiguity. Titles are tricky things, and each similarly titled role may look completely different from company to company.

Check out: Decoding Job Titles: The Different Types of Product Manager

For this reason, it’s difficult to say for sure exactly how to climb the career ladder. There’s no way to give you an easy ‘x step process’. However, there are some things you can do that will universally set you up for leadership success…

No one likes office politics, but being able to navigate them is just as important for your career as actually being able to build products!

When you’re a leader, your duty to your teams is to be their shield from office politics. You’re the ceiling that stops unpleasant things from landing on your teams’ heads. It’s up to you to use your powers of persuasion and negotiation to direct disruptive nonsense away from them.

This means being comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations and addressing things head-on. If some toes need stepping on to get something done, it has to be you that does the stepping.

Saying Yes (While Knowing When to Say No)

The most successful people in business are the ones who are willing to roll up their sleeves and say ‘yes’. This is especially true if you’re entering Product Management on the startup scene, where every hour of people-power counts! But even outside of startups, being an entrepreneurial thinker and being open to opportunities that fall slightly outside of your job description will help you to expand your skill set as well as your horizons.

However, for Product Management, it’s equally important to know when to say no. There are myriad reasons why it’s not a good idea to include every feature in your MVP. The same goes for how much work you’re able to pile onto your plate. Saying yes to every meeting and every task will inevitably leave you falling short.

An all-star Product Leader knows how to identify when to say yes, and when to say no. You can use your favorite prioritization technique when you’re feeling overwhelmed to figure out which opportunities will be the most beneficial to you.

Bottom Line: All Product People Are Leaders

At the end of the day, everyone in Product at every level is a leader. Whether you’re an APM, or the CEO of a product-led organization, you’ll be flexing and relying on your leadership skills every single day.

That’s because Product People are visionaries. They know what the North Star is, and it’s up to them to guide their teams, company, or industry towards it. So it doesn’t matter what point in your career you’re at. If you’re in Product, you’re a Product Leader.

Updated: January 24, 2024

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