Leadership Mode Activate

November 30, 2018

Congratulations, you’re getting promoted! You have excelled at the Thing You Do to such a degree that you’ll now be leading a whole team of people who Do That Thing. Very responsibility, much excite.

Okay wait, you may say. That’s cool, but I like Doing the Thing. I’m pretty good at it, and if I’m leading a team, will I still get to do it? Will I still get to perform the work that got me to where I am today?

The short answer is: Yes, you can! If it’s important to you to keep doing some “individual contributor” work as a manager, you can make that happen.

The long answer is: Well, you can. Like, if Mark Zuckerberg wants to go in and make some code changes to Facebook, he has the authority necessary to do that. And reportedly, in frustration with a pet bug or issue, Zuck has been known to bang out a fix and submit a merge request – which then hits a series of roadblocks around coding guidelines, localization, automated testing, and oh god why is this stuff so complicated these days ughhhhh.

And that’s good. It’s helpful for leaders to get their hands dirty from time to time, to get caught up on what their teams are doing, how they’re doing it, and get more context for the detail work involved.

But let’s be honest. Is Mark Zuckerberg’s time best spent mastering Facebook’s latest pull request rules around internationalization flow, or would that same time be better spent, I don’t know, figuring out how Facebook can ruin the world less?

As a manager, you too need to consider these tradeoffs. Yes, you have the ability to dig in and do the work yourself, but you now have a specialer ability: you can multiply your efforts across a whole group. As a leader, you’re in a position to solve bigger problems than you ever could by yourself, since you can deploy the full force of a team.

In other words, you are now a mech pilot.

Megazord Assemble

If you’re not familiar with the concept of a mech, it is basically a giant robot you can use to go around and do badass stuff that you wouldn’t be strong enough or capable enough to do by yourself.

A mech pilot doesn’t have the fine-grained control or precision they might have on foot, but they can achieve much more due to the mech’s broader abilities, sensors, strength, and skills. You might not be able to see behind you, but your mech can – and it can take evasive manoeuvres, deal with issues before they become problems, and do more at once than a mere human.

At its best, being a leader feels like piloting a mech. Your team can achieve far more than you can. As a group they’re stronger, smarter, and can see more than you can. When your team smashes a problem into bits, it’s not literally you that did it, but you can get the deep satisfaction of smashing problems that are bigger and scarier than you could ever smash yourself.

At its worst, being a leader can also feel like piloting a mech. Sometimes you try to go somewhere, but nothing happens. Maybe there isn’t enough fuel, there are serious technical issues, or you haven’t given a critical part the care and attention it needs. Maybe a request is refused – “ERROR: COMMAND UNCLEAR OR ILL-ADVISED”. Maybe you hop out and set your mech on autopilot, only to later realize it’s rampaged off doing exactly as you’d asked for weeks straight, and now you have this big fancy video editing feature built out that had no budget or detailed requirements.

You know, typical giant-robot stuff.

As a leader, there will be times where you’ll be tempted to get out and just do the work yourself. And sure, sometimes that’s pragmatic or necessary, but that’s not leadership. A leader investigates, identifies their team’s problems, and gives them what they need to be fully operational.

And then, they get back to smashing giant space bugs.

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.