My Most Toxic Leadership Beliefs

| 7 min read
#leadership #hypotheses

Picking this one up from the draft bin and seeing that I originally had this drafted last October. Well, it's the new year now, and I think the new year is a good time to level set where I stand with my beliefs. This is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek analysis of my strongest (and most bullheaded) beliefs about the responsibility of people who would call themselves leaders.

I have a lot of what I’m going to call (tongue-in-cheek), toxic, leadership beliefs. People who have status, I believe, should be held to a higher standard of behavior than people with less status. I decided to collect some of my thoughts here:

My Four Most "Toxic" Leadership Beliefs

  • The Leadership Management Dichotomy is BS
  • Your Status is your Stake not your Investments
  • Leadership Isn’t For “Best Intent”
  • Servant Leadership is not "the only way"

Photo of a chess board with many fallen pieces

The Leadership Management Dichotomy is Bullshit

There's been a huge effort in the last ten years or so to draw a huge distinction between being a leader and a manager. A lot of effort has gone into this idea that leadership is an ideal to strive for while management is... the end result of bureaucracy. It is true that people can lead without being a manager. That’s, in fact, the entire point about positions like “Staff”, “Principal”, “Architect” roles, and positions like “Product Management” in the tech field. You don’t have a direct say in what people are or aren’t able to do, but your goal is to get them to do certain things, nonetheless.

But, contrary to popular arguments, you cannot be a manger without being a leader. That sort of dichotomy that’s been sold by “thought leaders” who would like to throw away classes of management because you’re “just managing” and not truly “leading” is creating this wave of behaviors that one attributes to the “bad way” management, versus the “good way” leadership.

The example is always something like “leaders lead through inspiration” while “managers lead only through authority”. Like, the absolute worst. Sometimes you need people to do things to keep the lights on, and the goal is not in fact there to be inspiring. It’s because someone has to do cleanup. That’s management and it’s leadership.

The dichotomy is there to paint the perspective of a world where change only happens through big moments and ideas and not through hard work and slow progress and iterative improvements. It’s such an impoverished way to look at the world. We can have an honest conversation about what makes someone a “good leader” and talk about whether or not being inspiring is a core component of leadership, but to separate certain behaviors out into being “merely” a manager is to short change an entire conversation with a false dichotomy.

Your Status is Your Stake

The way I see most people treat professional growth is an investment that accrues over time. (Like a house, a stock portfolio, or a savings account) This leads to a lot of behavior that’s default conservative, protecting the status at the cost of growth, learning, and team development. This sort of perspective treats leadership as a general, universal role we ascend into, instead of a specific moment in time that we’re at.

I say this because we often treat the “do nothing” position, especially as we accrue more status, as the safer option. The “don’t speak up”, “don’t rock the boat” option as more protective of our investment. But… from a betting perspective, “do nothing” is just another form of bet, not different from any other risky action.

I think we shy away from this because that perspective makes it all seems so much more… tenuous. But that’s what it is. Your value as a leader is dependent on the social, political, and financial structure of the company you’re at. And maybe, if you want to continue on that path, there will be other similarly structured companies that will be interested in those skills. But status is a bet. For example, your ability to be an effective software engineering leader probably has minimal (or less) overlap with your ability to control a classroom of elementary school students. Because of the relative values our society places on those roles, one is more important (or more financially viable) than the other. But if that importance was suddenly flipped, I would not expect the software engineer to necessarily jump into the teaching role, purely because of previous status.

Often the people who most recognize this sort of picture aren't the people immediately next to you on the org chart, they're the people who have less status. As you get more defensive and more conservative about your viewpoints, a wider gap appears between the world as you see and the world as it exists. This is because your status insulates you from those challenges, and if you never stake it, never put it up for grabs, you're never actually exposing yourself to the sorts of risks other people experience more frequently. This is especially possible at larger orgs because the risk profile on most decisions is so low, and the cost of that emotional gap for the people with less status than you is close to zero.

But, I believe each decision you make as a leader is a bet. It’s chips on the table arguing that a particular vision for the future will come to pass. If it doesn’t, those chips go away. That can be socially, in the form of reduced trust, or literally, in the form of being put on different pathways for your career at a company. Status as a “stake” also comes in the form of your ability to martial forces socially. If you are preaching a vision for your team or your division or your company that never comes to pass, it doesn’t matter how much your formal authority remains, you are losing that bet with the people who follow you as they see the difference between the vision and reality.

Best Intent Shouldn’t Apply to Leaders

There’s the saying, especially at tech companies that you should “assume best intent”. The gist goes that in situations that are unclear or where you believe someone else has done something that makes your life more challenging, it’s likely the result of a misinterpretation or misunderstanding between you and them.

During an earlier period of my career, I walked through a conversation with a boss where they argued that I should look at what I considered “unideal” behavior or outcomes on the part of senior leadership through the lens of “assume best intent”. Basically, I should assume that they weren’t trying to take action to make my life worse but trying to take action that they thought was optimal.

My boss wasn’t wrong to share this perspective, but I pushed back, and I continue to believe that it’s not a particularly useful ask or expectation when coming from leaders to the people they are leading.

Beyond the general problems with “assumption of best intent”, there are specific problems with leaders asking for an assumption of best intent, I want to specifically deal with the situations where leaders are often in new (and very uncertain) scenarios, asking for “assume best intent” from the people they lead.

I’m going to come at this from the perspective that this is a mostly functional organization, and not one where leaders are actively trying to take advantage of the people they’re leading. I think the request for “best intent” comes from a very sincere (and sometimes vulnerable) place. Leaders recognize their flaws and are asking for patience and understanding from the people they are responsible for.

I think it also comes from a place of reassurance. They want people to know that while things might be bad now, they're bad because of thoughtfulness which will hopefully change in the future. This is another area where "show not tell" is important. Company priorities change all the time, which can have detrimental effects on people in other departments. Starting with "we're being thoughtful about this" doesn't actually suggest you're thinking about and responding to the needs of the people who you're talking through it with.

Well, in my opinion best intent short circuits necessary conversations, responsibilities, and ownerships that leaders need to take to either regain or retain trust of the people they lead. When you mess up, what defines your ability to maintain the trust of the people who work with you isn’t whether or not you went in with good intentions. It’s driven by your ability to show thoughtful understanding of what happened, how the people around you felt about it, and what action you plan to take in the future to prevent it from happening again. And then, taking the necessary steps to show that growth as time goes on.

The world where you’re taking those actions, best intent and worst intent are somewhat irrelevant. My goal here isn’t to argue that you should assume worst intent, far from it. It’s more to say that when leaders are asking for forgiveness, understanding, or a retry from negative outcomes, they have to recognize that the framing around their process and their results is entirely different than it might be for someone else.

Rather, I'm saying that, if you want to be a good leader, best intent is where you should start, not a valuable question to introspect how well you're accomplishing your job.

When you’re an individual contributor, the outcomes your produce are contingent on being pointed towards the right goals. If you effectively execute “the wrong thing”, you still have value as a contributor. (Look I think you should care about doing the right thing, but it’s not the standard you’re being held to) The further you go in leadership, the less those sorts of “we tried our best” matters.

Servant Leadership is Fake

I should preface this by saying I believe in the concepts and the tenets of servant leadership. I think the writing of people like Adam Grant are valuable and worthwhile and worth following. But, the concept that servant leadership is the #onetrueway to lead a business is as much a reflection of the location and the society that you operate within as it is about the company you happen to be at.

From a business perspective, your goal as a leader is to use your brain to significantly move the lever on profits for the company. If that lever comes in conflict with other people’s jobs, behaviors, happiness, your job as a “leader” is in fact very clear. High trust societies And I don’t think we talk about that honestly enough when we talk about what that means when those two goals come into conflict. To bias one or the other says as much about what you believe your community's goals should be as it does about what is the "optimal" outcome for the business.

I think when many of us recoil at what we’re seeing at twitter, we’re viewing things from this very long term lens of “this can’t work because it goes against what I’ve been taught about how to treat teams right”. And… that’s not wrong, but it’s also looking at it from the lens of like “how can we make this a successful, socially relevant company 5 years from now”. There are other (capitalistically) valid ways to successfully run a business. They just happen to suck for a vast majority of the people involved. Even from a purely profit driven perspective, the types of decisions you make often rest on whether or not you're optimizing for a short term or long term gain. And, servant leadership often looks the best over the longest time horizons.

Our decision to choice into specific types of leadership roles that align with our beliefs, is a decision we make about the quality of certain types of leadership and the world we want to build. Being a leader that values our communities isn’t just a statement about “what’s most effective”, it’s a statement about the type of world we’d like to build and what we’re willing to sacrifice to see that through. When we talk about “servant leadership” being “the one true way” we’re short changing and devaluing the fact that it might be the best way within the society we want to live.