Back when I was managing at Uber, I latched onto a thinking tool that I drilled into the teams I worked with: reach the right outcomes by prioritizing the company first, your team second, and yourself third. This company/team/self framework proved itself a helpful decision-making tool, and almost always led to the “correct” outcome. It also helped me articulate why I disagreed with some of my peers’ decisions, which violated this hierarchy by placing individual or team preferences over the company’s priorities.
As I’ve become a more experienced manager, I’ve stopped giving this advice. I still believe it’s the correct advice, and I continue to see managers who fail because they are missing this perspective. However, I’ve also seen some of the best leaders that I’ve worked with burn out by following this advice too loyally.
People are complex, and they get energy in complex ways. Some managers get energy from writing some software. That’s great, particularly if you avoid writing software with strict dependencies. Some managers get energy from coaching others. That’s great. Some get energy from doing exploratory work. Others get energy from optimizing existing systems. That’s great, too. Some get energy from speaking at conferences. Great. Some get energy from cleaning up internal wiki’s. You get the idea: that’s great. All these things are great, not because managers should or shouldn’t program/speak at conferences/clean up wiki’s/etc, but because folks will accomplish more if you let them do some energizing work, even if that work itself isn’t very important.
Rigid adherence to any prioritization model, even one that’s conceptually correct like mine that prioritized the company and team first, will often lead to the right list of priorities but a team that’s got too little energy to make forward progress. It’s not only reasonable to violate correct priorities to energize yourself and your team, modestly violating priorities to energize your team enroute to a broader goal is an open leadership secret. Leadership is getting to the correct place quickly, it’s not necessarily about walking in the straightest line. Gleefully skipping down a haphazard path is often faster than purposeful trudging.
There are, of course, rules to breaking the rules. The most important being that your energizing work needs to avoid creating problems for other teams. If your fun project is prototyping a throwaway service in a new programming language, then hmm, maybe that’s fine. But if you put it into production, then your energizing detour is going to be net negative on energy generation after other teams are pulled in to figure out how to support it. Honestly, don’t worry about the other rules, just make sure to follow this one.
Back to the main topic: correctness and humans mix in complex ways. The most important lesson I’ve learned as I’ve become a better manager is that there is almost always a correct answer, but applying that answer to your specific situation will always be nuanced and messy. Further, the correct answer is almost always different if you’re taking a short-term or long-term perspective. You should always be in the longest-term perspective that you’re certain you can reach, but sometimes that’s only next week. If you’re deep in the thick of things, then it’s the right decision to compromise your long-term outcomes to avoid getting caught in your short-term challenges, even if it messes up the long-term situation something fierce. You will make some bad decisions along the way. It happens. Get some rest, reflect a bit, and get back to it.
I’d generally agree if you argued that “people aren’t robots” is obvious advice. Sure, it really is. Conversely, I really struggled with this idea for a long time. It was very frustrating to me that the correct answer to most prioritization and architecture projects was obvious (e.g. why is it controversial that we should use boring technology?), but teams so frequently did something incorrect instead. What folks may not understand, is that for a certain type of person, strictly adhering to the correct path is very energizing. That kind of person, a person who I used to be most of the time (and still revert into today when particularly frustrated), doesn’t need to do sub-optimal energizing work, because doing the correct work is inherently energizing.
However, I have to admit that I’ve never really seen this personality succeed in senior roles, because those roles require working with so many different people, and only a relatively small subset are energized by adherence. I’ve worked with dozens of extremely talented engineers and managers who are professionally stymied by being energized by adherence and demotivated by the lack of adherence in those around them. It is a powerful value system, but it is not a widely appreciated one. It’s particularly rare to find executives who are motivated by adherence. In some brilliant moments you’ll get to work with folks with the same values, and those will be some of your most rewarding moments, but you have to learn to turn those values off when they’re interfering with forward progress. Blunting this edge has been one of my most valuable lessons over the last decade.
(Alright, to be honest, you don’t have to learn this lesson. You can just keep suffering the consequences. I keep a short mental list of “lessons that I don’t want to learn,” and this could be one of yours.)