The Tyrant

“I will rule with an iron fist.”

I jokingly said that once, when being sort of interviewed by someone I felt was a peer, but in the discussion they were higher up on the food chain than I was. As I said it with bravado and such, it was taken as a joke and I followed up to say that I was kidding and we laughed and began to describe how I would actually manage/lead a team.

At that point I had done some reading on the subject of managing development teams, as the years went by, I read more and more on the subject of development team management and just overall business management.

 

There are as many different styles of management as there are managers. I’ve identified three major styles: two easy, dysfunctional styles and one hard, functional style, but the truth is that many development shops manage in more of an ad-hoc, “whatever works” way that may change from day to day or person to person.  –Joel Spolskey — On Management

 

Lister establish seven anti-patterns they dubbed Teamicide:

  1. Defensive Management

  2. Bureaucracy

  3. Physical Separation

  4. Fragmentation of People’s Time

  5. Quality Reduction of the Product

  6. Phony Deadlines

  7. Clique Control      — Coding Horror

(Paraphrase)

Your management sucks if your business is like a golf-cart. Reason being is that when you take your foot off the gas/go pedal of a golf-cart it stops going. So if your business is such that when you get sick or take a vacation, everything stops, your management style sucks. Your way of managing should be such that when you’re not there, the business continues, because most likely your customers are still buying whatever it is that you sell, so they will get it from someone else and thus everyone that works for you will soon be out of a job (including yourself).                — Your Management Sucks, By Mark Stevens

But over my career I have had the unfortunately pleasure of working for several types that I would dub “The Tyrant”, I feel that is more accurate a description than “The Dictator”, because you can have a benevolent dictator, but it seems you never hear the word “tyrant” following the word “benevolent”.

Tyrant: any person in a position of authority who exercises power oppressively or despotically.

It got so bad with one boss, where nothing I did seemed to be good enough, and all of the ‘good’ assignments went to him and his buddy that was, in title, doing the same job as myself. I mean, there are advantages to power, you can scoop the good and fun work for yourself and you are at liberty to assign the ‘shit’ work to whomever.

But the thing is, no one is an indentured servant, at least not here in the USA, we are all doing the job for the money (some folks do it for the love of Puppies and Kittens, eg My Wife, but she was getting paid as well), so a leader regardless of if they are middle-management, departmental or C-level execs, needs to understand that without their team they are nothing more than an asshole with a whole bunch of work and no one to do that work.

I have sat in meetings where I had to defend my team from a Tyrant’s reign, stating that “No one my team signed up for that kind of work load.” I began to describe how we could possible convince my team to do more work (the workload that was being discussed wasn’t just a seemingly benign dev crunch cycle, it was “Man this job sucks, I’m outtie” level).

The Tyrant stated that they are getting a paycheck so what more should they want. The uber-exec in the room, said to figure out the necessary incentive and get it done, he just wanted the deadline met and seemingly understood that folks need to be compensated to go above and beyond when the ridiculous is required.

The Tyrant was genuine in his statement about the paycheck, and with that said, I know that many, many people fled his reign and found gainful employment elsewhere, which was a loss to the company.

I imagine that the Tyrant views any manager that has empathy with their subordinates as some sign of weakness. But for me, the empathy makes me a better manager, knowing how to work people to get the most out of them (through positive reinforcement whenever possible) is by and large the best thing I learned as a manager.

Negative reinforcement is necessary, even with the most kind-hearted folks, sometimes being nice about it just doesn’t get through, but generally you don’t have to be a dick about it. There are a million ways to say something, and the vast majority don’t require you to be a raging asshole.

I’ve worked for middle-managment Tyrants and for Owner/C-Level Tyrants. In both cases they have the notion that you need that job more than they need  you to do that job, the only real difference between the two, is the Owner/C-Level likely has the absolute power to remove you on a whim. (Here in Texas, it is “At-will” work, so technically they can let you go for any reason at all, or quite frankly no reason at all.)

But the middle-management Tyrants, those ones always seemed to just kill me with their logic, because to me, I really needed my team to do the best they could and sometimes there would be a “No I said, do it my way.” moment, but I always had a good reason and I would explain the reasoning and on a few occasions, it came up that my reasoning was flawed and we eventually changed, but for the time being, we had to do it my way. But the Tyrants tend to take a “You will do it my way, because I said so.” and give no explanation, entertain no real discussions about whatever it is and if a discussion is had, it is really just to go through the motions.

At another company, I realized I had started working for a Tyrant and decided I needed to exit stage-left and thankfully I was able to change jobs fairly quickly, but in other cases I had to work along-side the Tyrant for YEARS. It can be tough, and I like to think that I kept it civil and did my job to the best of my ability, but I also kept my interactions with such folks limited, because quite honestly if you don’t like to be around someone at work, why would you want to spend any more time with them than you really were required.

So there is a small part of me that feels that maybe the companies that we worked for would have benefitted more by me and the Tyrant being friends, having beers, discussing hypothetical business and product stuff, but I feel that I never harmed a company, I never went out of my way to avoid a Tyrant or attempt to sabotage the Tyrant (eg Depose the Tyrant).

The first Tyrant I can recall, I was prepared to scrape together every cent I had and get my ass back to Michigan (and live in my mom’s basement), but I talked with the CEO/Founder of the company and he transferred me to a different department, in a few months the Tyrant was gone and the “VP of Everything” contacted me and offered me my old job back, as a senior level, with more money, which as I found out later, I was getting put in line with all the other folks that had been hired in that department, but I had to train them and do the job search for our boss. So in that case, I had that Fight or Flight instinct kick in and I went for the flight, and it worked out.

So I guess I lean towards extricating myself from a Tyrant, because generally speaking, the Tyrant has come to power and wants to keep it, and I don’t like the dirty politics typically necessary to take down a Tyrant, nor do I think it is worth spending years being miserable waiting for them to leave.

This quote (to me it came from one of the rebooted Batman movies, but I am sure it has origins elsewhere)…

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the Villain.”

 

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