Five Common Leadership Anti-Patterns
If you're a leader in the software industry, perhaps you pause every now and then to ask yourself if you're a good one. If not, I would encourage you to start. You may have been tagged as a natural leader when you were young. Some people think they can spot "natural leaders" in much the same way you might spot a natural runner or a natural swimmer. Unfortunately, being a good leader is much more complicated than that—it requires effort and intentionality. In particular, good leaders evaluate their mistakes so they can learn from them.
We all make mistakes. From my perspective, failure is less about the mistakes we make and more about our inability to learn from them. But wouldn't it be even better if we could learn from the mistakes of those around us? To that end, let's take a look at some common leadership anti-patterns, or examples of what not to do. I hope you find a useful nugget or two as we walk along the path.
Anti-Pattern #1: Zeus
Meet Zeus. He likes to keep his distance and avoid getting his hands dirty, even when the team is struggling. The team’s responsibility is to deliver on time with good quality without his assistance. Zeus’s responsibility is to carry the lightning bolts and use them when necessary. For teams who are doing well, a little distance can communicate trust in their ability to execute, which is a good thing. But for Zeus, this is not about trust. Little to no effort is spent figuring out if commitments are reasonable or feasible. Zeus is often happy to make decisions that add additional complexity to the delivery, including agreeing to a fixed timeline before requirements have been defined. When the project eventually fails to be delivered as promised, the team must then be held accountable.
Turning the corner: Zeus is the anti-pattern that I see most often. Good leaders are actively engaged with their team, especially when things are not going well. They succeed together and they fail together. Zeus often isn't close enough to detect issues with team dynamic or to know who is performing and who isn’t. Most leaders in the software industry got there after years of development experience. This means they have valuable experience and insight that can be leveraged. Because Zeus keeps his distance, he essentially robs the team of this insight.
It’s important for leaders to act like they have skin in the game. They should collaborate, make suggestions, and offer ideas that the team has the freedom to use or not. The key to collaboration is not feeling threatened or taking it personally when someone disagrees with you as a leader. The team has to have the freedom to do that, or it’s not collaboration. When a project doesn’t go well, everyone needs to learn from it, including the manager. Lightning bolts are not necessary for that to occur. Because you were engaged, you are able to have a post-mortem conversation with the team that is collaborative and not punitive. If you made decisions that contributed to the failure, you should take responsibility for that. Make it clear at the start of the conversation that your decisions are fair game as well. The best and most valuable constructive feedback you will receive as a leader will likely come from your team, not those above you. Leverage it and the sky really is the limit for your career.
Anti-Pattern #2: The Buddy
The Buddy manager wants to be everyone's friend. Buddies are great people. Everyone loves to be around them, invite them to lunch, and listen to them talk. None of this is bad, actually. Some of my favorite managers were Buddy managers, but there has to be a balance and that can be difficult without intentionality. Eventually, the Buddy manager’s authority will either be tested or completely ignored, because some people are predisposed to go rogue. They'll just start doing whatever they want regardless of whether or not leadership believes it's in the company's best interest. Others simply don’t interact well with others. The Buddy manager will then have a grandfatherly chat with the person to gently guide them down the right path. When this doesn’t work, what does he do? Keep trying? Maybe they’ll come around eventually? How this is handled is critical because the rest of the team is watching. It’s very likely that they know the problem exists and are desperately hoping someone will do something. Buddy managers can be naturally avoidant, which is a huge problem when leading a team.
Turning the corner: Buddy managers should make sure they are comfortable exercising their authority when the situation requires it. Toxic people on the team will wreck a team’s effectiveness. The issue has to be resolved quickly so the team can move forward. This often means having uncomfortable conversations or making difficult decisions. A good leader does what needs to be done to protect the team and guard the company’s interests.
Anti-Pattern #3: The Control Freak
Control freaks sincerely believe that the only way things will be done right is if they do it themselves. They will often end up modifying or rewriting someone else’s deliverable before it can be called done, or funneling all decisions through them—even the minor ones. They are essentially bottlenecks. In choosing not to collaborate and/or delegate, the control freak is stunting the growth of the team. Opportunities for mentoring are ignored and the team learns nothing. What's worse, the control freak is doomed to have to fix whatever was wrong again somewhere else (perhaps repeatedly) because the issue was never actually addressed with the person who committed the foul. Those around the control freak feel like they are not trusted or valued, which is very demotivating. As a result, productivity declines sharply as people sense that their efforts have very little value.
Sometimes, control freaks are hiding their own weakness. Maybe they are behind on the latest technologies or methodologies and would be at a disadvantage in a conversation that would require them to defend their position. They say things like "just trust that I know what I'm doing" to avoid an actual discussion.
Turning the corner: Control freaks need to collaborate effectively (even with people who have less experience). Good ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes inexperienced people with fresh eyes see things that others don't. They also need to remember the importance of mentoring those around them and resist the urge to do it or fix it themselves, unless they need to do it to provide a reference implementation to better facilitate the learning process. People tend to learn better by doing, so its best not to take that away from them.
Anti-Pattern #4: The Survivor
The goal of the Survivor is to be the smartest person on the team and the last one left on the island. They are deeply afraid of being challenged, and are constantly evaluating people to see if they are a threat, including candidates they are interviewing. They will sometimes even lie to their superiors about perceived threats in hopes that the threat will be removed. In short, their best interest is more important than the best interest of the company. You may be able to spot a Survivor by watching for their tendency to have confidential conversations about other people. While they're talking negatively about them to you, they're probably talking about you the same way to someone else.
Turning the corner: The Survivor needs to relax and recognize that the office isn't a reality TV show. Their longevity will be primarily determined by their ability to contribute to the company and not by their ability to play the game. In actuality, treating it like a game is likely to shorten their stay.
As an aside, a good practice in general is to discourage "confidential conversations" about other employees. You could refuse to get involved and tell them to go deal with the person directly, but I don't think this deals with the triangulation at play here. In my experience, it's more effective to pull both people into a room with you and have them sort it out with you there as a mediator. If lies have been told, you're pretty much guaranteed to discover it that way. This experience might create incentive for Survivors to keep it honest.
Anti-Pattern #5: The Bully
The bully may have no filter, or he may have anger management issues. The most important thing to the bully is "getting the job done right" (the right architecture, the right design, the right implementation). It doesn't really matter how many bodies are left in his wake as long as he gets his way. The end justifies the means. He sincerely believes that he is doing the right thing for the company. In reality, this person is a cancer within the organization. The rest of the team has probably stopped offering their own opinions for fear of the backlash that may come their way. Code reviews can be particularly painful, especially if their work is severely criticized out in the open or at their desk. The bully's response to opinions he disagrees with may be condescending, disrespectful, or rude. He may not realize that his response is being perceived that way, and he may not care. At the end of the day, he's doing the right thing and protecting the company's interests. "If that's the best idea Steve can come up with, he probably shouldn't be here."
Turning the corner: In my opinion, this person should be put on performance plan and moved out the door as quickly as possible. It doesn't matter how productive or smart they are. Sweeping bad behavior under the rug only reinforces it. It simply makes things worse. Often, bullies are unable to turn the corner, particularly if they're unable to recognize that they did something wrong. No one on the team should be considered indispensable, including the manager. The most important thing is to protect and heal the team so they can reach their full potential.
These anti-patterns are real examples of leaders in the software industry. Each one is damaging to the team and to the company in its own way. Zeus values accountability, which is an important part of managing resources, but he leverages it in an extreme way. The Buddy Manager values relationships, which is equally as important. Unfortunately he is often not good at accountability when the situation calls for it. What’s needed desperately is balance. It’s usually not good to lean hard to one side of an issue. While we often want life to be black and white, the right path is usually somewhere in the middle. While accountability is sometimes necessary, what we’re really after is influence which requires trust. Influence requires a relationship that can be leveraged. If influence fails then accountability is probably necessary to get things turned around.
The other common thread we see in these anti-patterns is a strong focus on the leaders themselves: their ideas, their needs, their abilities. The Survivor is actively trying to protect himself. Control Freaks and Bullies believe they’re the smartest people around and can’t trust those around them. Zeus is more interested in making sure nothing sticks to him than he is in actually helping the project be successful. The Buddy manager seems to be more interested in avoiding discomfort than in protecting the company’s interests. They all put themselves first. Shouldn’t employers be able to expect that employees are putting the needs of the company ahead of their vanity, comfort, or anxiety? If the company has entrusted a team to you, maximizing that team’s effectiveness should be at the top of your to-do list. If you’re a leader, be a good one. Everything else you worry about will fall into place if you get that right.
Which anti-pattern have you seen most often during your career?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.