#166 - F*ck "Leadership"
Plus: Developing high performers; Don't under-manage; Setting project expectations
Welcome to “No Nuance November”, where for the first issue of the month I hand the keyboard over to my evil twin, Nathan-Joe. Nathan has the same opinions I have, but much worse impulse control. Let’s see what he has to say!
No, seriously. F*ck “Leadership”.
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The professional world is chock-full of vapid, ineffectual, and often toxic Leadership advice.
And so, naturally, it’s increasingly full of vapid, ineffectual, and often toxic Leaders.
The world doesn’t need any more of that, or of them. It never did.
What the world does need, has always needed, is more people who can capably, reliably, even boringly, get useful, necessary, and un-showy things accomplished. Vital things, big things, medium things — things that require involvement from other humans. People who ensure one thing gets accomplished, learn from it, then move on to the next thing, without fuss, without drama or fanfare. People who those other humans enjoy working with, and want to work with again, because they’ve been treated respectfully while being given the opportunity to grow and finally accomplish something f*cking useful in the world.
There are people like that. We are those people, or at our best we try to be. There just aren’t enough of us.
And you know what we call people like this? Regardless of title, regardless of seniority, from the bottom to the top? These people, we people, are f*cking Managers.
You can tell that Leadership is bullsh*t by spending five minutes reading about it. “Leadership” skills you can learn alone in a room reading a book mean less than nothing, but hey, those books sure sell. And why not, when they ask so little of the consumer! It’s all self-centred pompous crap, talking about personal attributes like developing steely-eyed resolve or some garbage. There’s a reason why the unquestioned worst genre of human literature is the LinkedIn Fable, the congealed end-state of all Leadership writing.
And we should know better!
We, people who have seen research up close, know that the “Great Man Theory” (it’s almost always Man, isn’t it?) bullsh*t is garbage, that yeah maybe some dead person had a good idea once, big whoop. It took a lab — hell, a world — full of other experts to find the gold in it, refine it, build it out so it works and is useful and actually matters to people.
So if we of all people find ourselves succumbing to the siren call of Leadership — how g*ddamn dare we? Shake yourself out of it, you’re squandering the only professional life you’re ever going to live.
“But Nathan-Joe”, you might say, “there’s valuable leadership skills people of all levels would do well to learn! Leading without influence, aligning priorities…”
F*ck that noise.
All the useful skills and ideas associated with Leadership are straight-up Management. Managing horizontally, Managing up, Stakeholder Management. People Management, Project Management, Product Management. What does Leadership have — Thought Leadership? That should close the case right there.
“Alignment” isn’t some Leadership superpower bestowed upon you after you’ve paid for your Executive MBA, it’s f*cking talking and listening to people until they largely agree. “Understanding people’s motivations” is a bog-standard Management 101 skill. “Strategy” is just group choice-making.
“But there’s still some useful…” No! Stop it.
A word that’s been so easily and throughly corrupted has no value to anyone. Did it mean something useful at some point? I don’t know, ask the historians. I certainly don’t care. Words mean what they’re currently used to mean, and look around you. F*ck that “Leadership”.
Unbelievably, we’ve let ourselves be convinced that “merely” supporting groups of people so they can achieve things, routinely, while encouraging their growth and showing them the effect they can have on the world IS NOT ENOUGH. No, those tasks are lowly Management. Surely we’re called to something grander, something like Leadership, where our Inner Grit and Iron Will and Clear Vision will shine…
Get over it. Get over yourself. Being involved with a group of humans who achieve good and meaningful things in the world, and grow while doing it, is ALL THERE IS in the world of work. It’s all any mortal professional can dare aspire to. Most die never getting close.
So stop trying to take inspiration from self-aggrandizing, self-centred, self-appointed serial TED-talk Leadership influencers. Dream bigger. Aim to do something meaningful with your one professional life. Whatever stage of your career, whatever your job title, strive to become and remain a decent g*damn Manager.
Uh, well, that was… something. Thanks so much, Nathan! Maybe I’ll take over from here.
And now, on to the roundup!
We’re all used to being high performers, and mostly the people charged with supervising us more or less left us alone. So we’ve become used to the idea that if a team member isn’t causing us any problems, that we “reward” them by staying out of their way.
Graham explains to us why that’s a bad approach:
Most managers see high performers and just leave them alone because they are performing well. But I think high performers are where all the potential of a company lies. I try to spend the majority of my time on top performers to harness and expand their potential. […] There’s nothing more magical than watching someone do things they didn’t know they were capable of. […]. From a company perspective, you have to do this if you want to retain high performers. If you’re not offering them exciting opportunities that scare them, they will get bored and leave.
Just from a personal point of view, our really strong team members deserve the same amount of time and attention and encouragement as team members who are struggling.
And we owe it to them, to our teams, and to our organizations to help these team members grow and tackle exciting new responsibilities.
Graham has great examples here, and thoughts about different approaches to giving high performers stretch assignments. I’d encourage you to read it!
Under-Management Is the Flip Side of Micromanagement — and It’s a Problem Too - Victor Lipman, HBR
I see this pattern in experts who become managers ALL THE TIME:
They have (reasonably, understandably) always appreciated a large degree of autonomy themselves when they were individual contributors
They become a manager
They know they should provide some guidance and expectations and feedback, but no one’s shown them how, and they certainly don’t want to “micromanage” people…
…so they basically don’t manage their team or team members at all, and predictable, avoidable problems occur.
Under-management is an enormously larger problem in expert-led teams than micromanagement.
This happens elsewhere, too. Way back in issue #17 I had already talked about Google Project Oxygen several times. In Project Oxygen, Google found that managers who weren’t succeeding had three common problems:
They were having trouble making the transition to manager,
Lacked a consistent approach to feedback and performance conversations, and
Spent too little time managing and communicating.
The thing to realize is that communicating expectations, monitoring progress, and giving feedback does not take away team members’ autonomy. On the contrary, it creates an environment where a team member can flourish and make independent decisions while still being confident they’re on the right track.
In this older article which is making the rounds again, Lipman talks about a prototypical under-manger:
Take Jamie, a product development manager (he’s not a real person, but a composite of numerous people I’ve known). He knew the technical details of his team’s products well and got along well with other department heads in his division. He was a good communicator—unlike several other product development managers in the division, who were stronger on the technical side than in dealing with human beings—and his team liked working for him. They reported above-average morale, unlike many teams in the company.
But his team struggled to deliver results. For example, on large projects they had persistent trouble meeting deadlines.
Lipman encourages such managers (people like us!) to not be conflict-avoidant, view goal-setting as foundational, and encouraging peoples best work.
The Art of Setting Expectations as a Project Manager - Amy Shoenthal, HBR
Within our community, I generally describe project management as “a system of communication practices to ensure something gets successfully finished”.
I occasionally catch some criticism (not entirely unfounded!) for that, for leaving out the planning aspects.
But within our community, the planning part almost goes without saying. And frankly we are way too eager to start developing intricate, mechanistic project plans and diagrams.
And if that’s our focus, we are going to struggle. Because while thinking ahead is valuable, it’s only likely to lead to a successful outcome if we also communicate our hearts out from before the project even begins to after all the lessons learned documents are completed at the end.
Shoenthal has five suggestions for setting and maintaining expectations throughout the project:
Consider the roots of everyone’s expectations
Approach project management as couples therapy - it’s everyone vs the problem, not group A vs group B
Create and foster relationships with your teams
Build a structure that’s sturdy but flexible
Keep the team grounded in the overall vision
And that’s it for the week! I hope it was useful; Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me about how a newsletter or community about management for people like us might be even more valuable. Just email me, leave a comment, reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox, or schedule a quick Manager, Ph.D. reader input call.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,
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