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More Powerful doesn't mean Smarter

7 replies on 1 page. Most recent reply: Aug 2, 2003 7:29 AM by Mike Morris

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Ron Jeffries

Posts: 5
Nickname: rejeffries
Registered: Jul, 2003

More Powerful doesn't mean Smarter (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Jul 29, 2003 11:20 AM
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Becoming a boss doesn't make us smarter, nor is it a license to use our power unwisely. We need to listen to our folks, and let them act on their own, sometimes even when they're wrong.
"When I was more junior, I did what I was told. Now that I have been in the league a few years, others do what I tell them or I fire them--it's that simple. When I want someone's opinion I give it to them."

When these words appeared from the e-pen of an otherwise esteemed colleague on a mailing list I frequent, I tried hard to remain calm and reasonable, but I fear that I may have failed. The final words of my reply were: "Frankly, I am appalled." Here's why. [1]

First, and most important, we owe it to those around us to treat them the way we would like to be treated. We are not a race of queens and drones. Though we are surely all different, we are the same in our essential humanity, and our common human needs.

When I discuss things with people, I use logic, fact, fantasy, wit. I even use ... sarcasm. I know all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and ... satire. I am vicious. [2] I cheerfully expect the same from others in the discussion. I try never, however, to make a personal remark or to pull "rank", not least because no one has useful rank in a business or technical discussion. It's true that someone may have the final decision, but that doesn't guarantee them correctness, only blame.

The position that others' opinions are unworthy because they are of lower rank is wrong. It is morally repugnant, and what's worse, it doesn't even work. The cop on the beat, the coder on the keyboard, often has a perspective, and knowledge, that's critical to the situation.

When by virtue of our rank, we get to make the call, let's remember that while our pronouncement may be the last, it isn't automatically the best.

Second, even if we were qualified to make all the decisions, that simply won't work. Even if I do know everything, which even some who know me seem to doubt, I haven't the time or the ability to communicate and enforce all my infallible pronouncements. In order to get things done, the only viable choice is to make one's values and objectives clearn, and then empower people, nay demand of them, that they do their best to understand and accomplich those objectives while working within those values.

Long ago, when I had been left out for the wolves and was raised instead by a roaming band of itinerant Jesuits, I was taught, "Hate the sin, and love the sinner." I'm trying hard to do that, but of one thing I'm certain. The quote that begins this entry is a sin. I hate it. I respect the person who wrote it, and suspect that the words don't really reflect his true values.

[1] The author of the quote has since made clear that he was describing what he believes to be a prevalent and bad attitude among managers, not his own position. (Whew.)

[2] These words, of course, are borrowed from Monty Python's tale of the notorious Piranha brothers. I'm not really like that -- or am I?

James Britt

Posts: 1319
Nickname: jamesbritt
Registered: Apr, 2003

Re: More Powerful doesn't mean Smarter Posted: Jul 29, 2003 1:09 PM
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Over the years I've learned the difference among bosses, managers, and leaders. I know I've been at least a manager. I hope I've been a leader, and I've tried to never be a boss.

It takes zero brains or skill to be a boss. You just get a copy of the rule book and make your underlings tow the line by threatening to fire them if the break they rules. Supposedly this makes you a Big Man (or Woman). This is also a great technique for gettng shit performance from people.

It's a bit harder to be a manager, whereby you learn how to movtivate people through desire, not fear. You try to elicit the best from people by appealling to their strengths while understanding their weaknesses. You understand that your "subordinates" are your coworkers, and what's good for them is good for you. They are a source of insight and education.

Anyone with the attitude "when I want your opinion I'll give it to you" should be given the boot, because they end up short-changing the company they work for. They're the sort of assclowns who kick thier dogs and beat their wives.

Curtis R Cooley

Posts: 1
Nickname: darksavant
Registered: Jul, 2003

Re: More Powerful doesn't mean Smarter Posted: Jul 29, 2003 1:44 PM
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This reminds of the Stephen Covey 'Stewardship Agreement'

Alexander Stockdale

Posts: 1
Nickname: softa
Registered: Jul, 2003

Re: More Powerful doesn't mean Smarter Posted: Jul 29, 2003 2:01 PM
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A minor point. I agree with the gist of what Ron writes, but I'd like to address the use of <i>sarcasm</i> and <i>satire</i> in discussions with 'subordinates'. Whether you make a big deal of being 'the boss' or not, the people on your team are certainly aware of your status, and as such may not feel that they engage in discussion with you on a 'level playing field'. In particular, sardonic or satirical remarks or comments that would earn a well deserved comeback from a peer may be quietly accepted because your subordinates do not feel safe engaging in the give and take of equals.

Since I do not know Ron, or his particular leadership/management style personally, please accept this as a general comment, not specifically directed to Ron.

James Britt

Posts: 1319
Nickname: jamesbritt
Registered: Apr, 2003

Re: More Powerful doesn't mean Smarter Posted: Jul 29, 2003 3:53 PM
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There are certain advantages to being in charge and having people know it. Not so that you can boss people around per se, but because there are times when you really do need people to just do what you say and ask questions later.

So, it's possible that encouraging an environment where people feel completly comfortable with sarcasm and comebacks, while perhaps noble, might not be the best thing. Better, perhaps, to just avoid comments that might suggest an air of superiority or smugness.

(I tend to have a sarcastic sense of humor and have been told, back when I actually managed folks, that I often struck some people as too smug and superior. I think there were some cultural differences as well, but I tried to be more cognizant of people's perception of me, and reserved being a smartass for my friends and family.)

That said, I think Ron was mostly joking with that Python quote.

Adrian Howard

Posts: 11
Nickname: ajh
Registered: May, 2003

Re: More Powerful doesn't mean Smarter Posted: Jul 30, 2003 6:13 AM
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I find some people have this weird internal model of how "management" works - and as soon as their told they're a manager do their best to conform to it.

For example, the last place I worked promoted somebody up from being a project manager gopher to a full project manager while I was there. He seemed a thoroughly nice chap and fully capable of taking on the extra responsibilities. I'd worked with him a bit under good and bad management and he seemed to know the difference.

Yet, within two weeks of him starting the new position, he had become the PHB incarnate. Setting "aggressive" schedules, pushing his team into overtime, not listening to suggestions from the team, etc. All the things he'd been complaining about when I'd worked with him.

Outside work he was still a nice person, but inside work he slotted right into the "folk" idea of manager as person-who-tells-you-what-to-do. Very Jeykyll and Hyde.

In a sensible organisation this would have been caught quickly. Indeed there would have been some kind of mentoring so he wouldn't have been able to adopt these bad habits so easily. Since this wasn't a sensible organisation he just continued to go further and further off the rails taking his team and project with him (despite numerous quite forceful comments from various people).

The myth of what a manager "should" do is so strong that people very easily fall into it

Andrew C. Steen

Posts: 3
Nickname: asteen
Registered: Jul, 2003

Re: More Powerful doesn't mean Smarter Posted: Jul 30, 2003 6:50 AM
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Excellent post and well said. Most problems at heart have this behavior as their source. They are political and organizational and they arise because of authoritarian structures and habits. Treating people with respect and dignity and being able to elicit and really listen to their information, ideas and opinions (whether they report to you, or you them or they report to someone else) is critical to success in all things. More importantly, you must continue to listen and to communicate with people who you don't agree with and not shut them out and turn them into the enemy. Very often communication ends in organizations where disagreement begins. This is where a good "leader" is really tested.

I don't know who said it but "a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still".

Mike Morris

Posts: 4
Nickname: mikem
Registered: Apr, 2003

Re: More Powerful doesn't mean Smarter Posted: Aug 2, 2003 7:29 AM
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It takes zero brains or skill to be a boss.
It's a bit harder to be a manager...

...and hardest of all to be a leader. To get your own damn ego the hell out of the way, to remove the obstacles that will trip-up your team, to take your foot off the brake and watch them create miracles.

The art of the leader is to paint them a picture of where we're all going, to explain the reasons why, to tell the stories that transform us from a comfused mob into a mutually-supporting community. Then restrain yourself while they determine how to get there. Even when it hurts. When you can see that its plainly wrong. About four times in five they will stun you with their innovation, showing you a path you would never have considered, and teaching you humility. And keep painting the picture, even as it evolves and changes, keep painting the picture.

Then make sure your team gets the credit. Even when the leader truly deserves credit for allowing amazing stuff to happen at the hands and minds of the led, the true leader gives all the praise and all the credit to the team.

Leadership of this sort is very hard to do, impossible to get completely right.

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