leader guy cape

Don’t Ask Me to Lead, I May Not Follow

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While getting my kids their passports, I saw an article in the Star Tribune that said Minnesota IT companies are desperate for talent. It was the primary reason Amazon dropped Minneapolis as a candidate for its new headquarters (not that I’d want it to be here — mega-corps come with their own baggage). They want them local and experienced. The ones who can analyze and lead a team. And even singled out Java and DevOps skillsets.

And as I was completing my yearly resume revision, I realized I had more leadership experience than I thought. My last two jobs, I could put “team lead” for my title. That makes me a valuable commodity. But the reason I forgot about it is that I don’t think of myself as a leader.

I’m selfish, hard-hearted, time-conscious, impatient, unempathetic, unsympathetic, and uninterested in the lives of others. In other words, a sociopath. Sometimes I think I have autism because of how unconnected I am to my fellow man (but I took an online test that said I’m not autistic, so that’s out). I need to keep a writing reference on how humans display emotions. I don’t like being responsible for others. I don’t like being a babysitter or a goalie, keeping the puck in play. Maybe that’s because I know how I work and I wouldn’t want to have to lead me.

homer simpson leader beans

Maybe companies are so focused on gaining or cultivating leaders because there are so few of them. They’re like me–hesitant to accept that much responsibility. Leaders get the blame when things go wrong, even though X number of people below them were the ones who screwed up (with X being any number from three to three thousand). Look at the president (the position, not THIS president). It’s only one of the three sides of the government triangle, but it’s basically the focus of any and all ire about the country. There are 650+ other people in the triangle who fiddle with the rest. Plus all the state, county, city, etc. governments that are actually probably responsible for the thing you hate.

So not only are you accountable, you’re also the face of any conflict, the first line of defense. Plus, you may not be doing the same job as those you manage. You end up sifting logistics and keeping upper management happy. I resent a lot of my bosses because they hand out edicts and dictums, but haven’t programmed in years. They don’t know what the situation is like for us people in the trenches (e.g. fighting with your computer because it won’t install Firefox).

I don’t have a great history with leadership. When I joined Quiz Bowl in my last year of high school, I was made captain of the “B-team”, purely because I was eldest. We sucked. Also, I selfishly tried to get on TV more than once (there was an A/V room in Burnsville High School). I still cringe when I think of that. At the grocery store where I worked, I became the senior-most non-manager courtesy (read: maintenance/janitor) person in six months because of all the turnover. That didn’t make me so much a leader, but there were a few times I had to dole out tasks to the less experienced. But mostly, other people shat on me, talked behind my back, in the typical way high schoolers do.
bad leader office conference room grumpy man suit
Fast-forward twelve years later and I’m a seasoned software developer. I feel like hot shit in my new place cause I’m a big fish in a small pond. But that means you’ve got to corral the guppies. This was a consulting firm where you had fresh-out-of-college kids (instead of outsourced Indians). Problem was they were in South Dakota and I was not. For a guy with no experience in management, this was a terrible way to start. The only way I could communicate with them was email and IM. I didn’t know where anybody was, if they were at their desks or not, how far they were on something, what to do when they got uppity or surly, and how to praise and/or punish. Or basically any leadership dynamics or guidelines. Didn’t help that the clients were douchebags either.

Then at my next job, the team lead role grew around me, because the real manager left (due to stress, I should mention, because the company had no interest in improving processes). I was the only one with the courage (or anal-retentiveness) to organize and dole out JIRAs, act as an SME, and sometimes go to meetings. Then the idiots promoted me for doing what I was doing anyway. I didn’t need to lead anyone–they maintained themselves. And the term “leader” was pointless because no matter how much I complained about what we needed, no one was interested in getting it. In the end, I left because I was sick of repeating myself for the reasons why XYZ didn’t do the thing they think it should have done. That and I got a douchebag middle manager who was only interested in keeping his bosses happy, not about the team’s goals and obstacles.

fry power hungry asshole meme

But remembering those times, I realized I kind of missed it. Maybe it was the feeling of authority and reverence and esteem, or being seen as someone with a valuable perspective, not just a grunt. But then I remind myself: “If this company thought it could save 0.1% of its budget by firing me, it would not hesitate”. I can’t remember where I heard it from, but that’s what I always remember. Business holds no loyalty to you. It doesn’t even know your name.

So yeah, leadership. It’s not for everyone. Maybe I’m good and don’t know it, but I’d need the right environment and support to thrive. And introverts rarely make good leaders. You need charisma and the ability to be eloquent unscripted.

It’s not like you get to direct people to carry boxes. It’s that you make sure others are carrying boxes while you carry bigger boxes. Everyone loves you for carrying those boxes, but no one helps you carry them.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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