Staying Sane: Lead, Don’t Manage

by abclarke

(5e of 5 in The Rules of Naked Management)

Trying to stay sane as a manager? This is the final step in doing that. Warning: there is some profanity in this article.

The Shit

I’ve worked with some pretty smart people(1), and when thinking about this article one of them consistently came to mind.

This person, whom I’ll call Todd(2), was an extremely smart engineer. Not only that, Todd had a lot of personal integrity, had strong opinions he could persuasively argue about, could persevere through a lot, and could be, when times demanded it, quite charming. Todd had all the right talents for getting shit done, and so should have risen up high in the organization.

But he didn’t – instead the organization shat all over him!

He had risen to a mid-management level, but he wasn’t able to rise higher. And, he wanted to. He made clear to me many times how he desired to be seen as a leader by his peers, be given a title that reflected his leadership, and be afforded the respect that his clear talents warranted.

Yet constantly, the organization blocked him; his management would not give him the title and leadership position he knew he deserved. What’s worse, his prestige seemed to be waning. When hard problems came up, senior management turned more often to one of Todd’s co-workers, a guy named Bill(3). Bill’s opinion was solicited by others when making strategic decision, whereas Todd found he had to force himself into strategic conversations. Bill was approached for fun new projects first, whereas Todd had to explicitly ask to be involved. (Now, Todd had been at the company for a long time and so, given his seniority, was able to force his involvement, but he knew he was doing the forcing.)

Eventually Todd had enough of this shit and decided to leave that company to try his talents elsewhere.

Why Lead?

Which brings me to the topics I have for this final essay: why you should aspire to lead; and how to become a leader.

Todd wanted to be a leader, and it was easy to understand why. If an organization sees you as a leader, your ability to get shit done increases exponentially.

Why?

If you’re just managing people, you’re trying to convince them to do things they probably don’t want to do. But, if you’re leading people, they do what you need them to do because they want to do it.

The difference is night and day. When you’re leading, people go above and beyond what you ask them to do because they want to impress you and they don’t want to disappoint you. You spend less time having to track how others spend time, and you start getting almost double out of your team.

I’ve managed teams where I was just seen as a manager, and it was hard work and not fun. I felt I had to constantly watch over people’s shoulders to make sure things were on track. I had an upset stomach almost the entire time.

But I’ve also managed teams where people saw me as a leader, and wow, did we get a lot more shit done together then. And it was more fun to boot – I looked forward to coming to work, and felt a lot healthier as a result.

If you’re the type of person who likes to get shit done, who wouldn’t want to be a leader?

So given that, how do you become a leader?

How to Lead

That’s easy; it’s the simplest rule of all the Rules of Naked Management:

Stop aspiring to be a leader! Instead, start getting shit done.

Todd constantly talked about what a great leader he’d make. He made his case to lots of people by letting them know all the great stuff he would get done. And had he actually done the stuff he was talking about, the entire engineering organization would have followed him to the moon. But people didn’t follow him because frankly people don’t like to follow people just because they’re told to by titles, or positions, or reputations(4). Instead they aligned around Bill because Bill didn’t worry about being perceived as a leader; Bill worried about getting shit done, constantly got new shit done, and kept challenging himself to get even more shit done. And as a result people followed him.

Think about all the leaders you’ve followed in your career, and you’ll probably notice the common theme: none of them worry most about being seen as a leader; they worry about getting lots of different shit done. (Oh yes, sometimes they have to be seen as a leader to get some goals accomplished, but it’s the goals that are obviously motivating them, not the leadership position.)

And then ask yourself why you considered that person a leader?

  • Was it because they asked you to follow them and you agreed because you were asked? Nope
  • Was it because they demanded you respect them? Absolutely not.
  • Was it because he or she was a nice guy? Probably not.
  • Was it because other people saw them as a leader? Probably not.
  • Was it because you felt this person could get the right shit done consistently? Absolutely.

So, right now if you think you want to be seen as a leader, SHUT THE FUCK UP!

Instead, focus on getting shit done! And be warned, once you start getting shit done, you’ll find that people will start asking for you to help, will start asking you to weigh on important issues, and will start following you.

Constantly get more and different shit done, and one day without even realizing it, someone will point out you’re a leader.

Getting Shit Done

And Getting the Right Shit Done is what this series of articles has been about. And, almost four months after I started what I thought was going to be a 4-week set of articles, this series is now done. Hopefully some of the techniques work for you.

I’d write more, but I’ve got a bunch of shit I need to be doing for Vlideshow right now, so I’m going back to that. By the way, if you happen to be a Flex & ActionScript or Flash & Actionscript genius and want to work at a cool company, drop me a line at aclarke at vlideshow.com.

By the way, next week I start a new series of articles. I don’t know what they’re about yet, so feel free to send me suggestions 🙂

– Art

(1) I like to be the person on any team who brings down the “smartness” average.

(2) Not his real name.

(3) Also not his real name.

(4) In a funny twist, all the members of the senior management team told me separately that they would love to give Todd the title he wanted, but first they wanted to see him do the job without the title for six months.