Leadership Patterns and Anti-Patterns – The Growler

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Prior to starting my career in IT (twenty years ago this month…seems like yesterday), I spent a little over eleven years in law enforcement as a Deputy Sheriff. Over those eleven years my assignments ranged from working a shift in the jail (interesting stories), to Assistant Director of the Training Academy, then Personnel Officer (even more interesting stories), and finally, supervisory and management positions (as many headaches as stories). To say that it was as much an education as a job is to put it mildly. I learned useful lessons about human nature and particularly about leadership.

One of the things that I learned is that leadership and management (they are related, but separate things) have patterns and anti-patterns associated with them. Just like in the realm of software development, it can be difficult to distinguish between what’s a pattern and what’s an anti-pattern (there’s an interesting discussing to be found on this topic in the classic “Big Ball of Mud”). Hammering a square peg into a round hole “works”, albeit sub-optimally. Pattern or anti-pattern?

One pattern/anti-pattern from my time with the Sheriff’s Office is what I call “The Growler”. A high-ranking member of the department was a master of this technique. When approached for something, particularly when the something in question was a signature on a purchase requisition, the default response was a profanity-laced growl (the person in question had retired from the Navy as a senior NCO) demanding to know why he should grant the request. This was extremely daunting, but I learned that the correct response was to growl back. When he growled, “%$@$ a !#&^ing $@!#*. More $%&^ing computer stuff, why the @#*& do you need this?”, I would answer, “You know when you ask me a question and I respond in five minutes instead of three hours”. This would result in a shake of his head, a “Yeah, yeah”, and most importantly, a signature.

More than just an endearing quirk of his character, it was a triage technique. If the person who wanted something tucked tail and ran, it wasn’t important. If, however, the person stood their ground, then he would put forth the effort to make a decision.

Right up front, I should make it clear that I don’t recommend this technique. First and foremost, Human Resources finds “salty” language even less endearing today than they did twenty-five plus years ago, and they weren’t crazy about it then. There’s also a big problem in terms of false negatives.

Most of my coworkers back in my badge and gun days were not shy, retiring types. Consequently, I never saw it backfire for that person. Later on, though, I did see it fail for an IT manager (and yes, while gruff, he was significantly less “salty” than the one at the Sheriff’s Office). This manager had a subordinate who would retreat no matter how valid the need. Consequently, that subordinate’s unit, one that several of us were dependent on, was always under-staffed and under-equipped. When his people attended training, it was because someone else had growled back for him. It was far from the optimal situation.

While not quite as bad as the “shoot the messenger” anti-pattern I touched on recently, “The Growler” comes close. By operating on a principle of fear, you can introduce a gap in your communications and intelligence network that you rely on (whether you know it or not) to get the information you need in a timely manner.

Fear encourages avoidance and no news now can be very bad news later.

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9 thoughts on “Leadership Patterns and Anti-Patterns – The Growler

  1. In my 3rd job from grad school – after a tour in Vietnam – I worked for a large international construction company. I was on a team that was designing and deploying a 3D CAD system for piping design. This was based on the Evans and Sutherland Picture system. It was wire frame collision avoidance and pipe hanger design.
    We had to present to the Sr. VP of Construction services, who had driven a cement truck for the father of the current President and Chairman of the board of the firm. A firm that had the founders name at the top of our campus building. Sweeny Tuck was his name.
    He asked in response to our request foir several million dollars of systems “we pour concrete and weld pipe I don’t like computer or people who fool with them. Tell me again why you young punks what this !@# #$%^ money.
    We turned to the charts that had been prepared showed the savings, the increased quality in designed, decreased rework in site, decreased delivery time from the fab shops in Koeran, etc. etc. etc.
    OK, but !@# $%^&* I don’t want to hear any gloating about how you got me to authorize this crap I don’t even like. Get out of my office NOW.
    Those type of people held everyone accountable for their actions. When the actions were the right ones – which ours was – they knew it, but still had to play the role of the “tough guy cement truck driver, from 1947 Atlantic Richfield refinery days in El Segundo.
    Best post I’ve read of yours, thanks for sharing and bringing back memories.

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  2. “This manager had a subordinate who would retreat no matter how valid the need.”

    To take a page from The Daily Worse Than Failure, here’s the real WTF. I tell people I manage to know when to stand their ground and defend an idea and to know when the ground isn’t worth standing on and the idea isn’t worth defending. This manager should have been doing the same if he’s using “Growling” as a triage.

    Not that I growl much. I just can’t pull it off. I also don’t directly answer a lot of questions, though. I make the other person give an opinion and then defend it. Even (especially?) when the opinion given is a good one. That way, I can tell if the person knows a good idea or just stumbled blindly into one. I have also in the past assigned work to junior developers specifically for the purpose of building skills like cost/benefit analysis, due diligence, research, and above all, making a recommendation that will be subject to serious questioning.

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    • “I have also in the past assigned work to junior developers specifically for the purpose of building skills like cost/benefit analysis, due diligence, research, and above all, making a recommendation that will be subject to serious questioning.”

      Exactly. In my opinion, the best manager/leader is the one who can make themselves unnecessary rather than indispensable. The funny thing about these leaders is that they can go on vacation without the world falling apart, yet no one would dream of doing without them permanently because they’re obviously the “secret sauce” that makes things run that well. Rather than worry about having subordinates who know more than them, they actively recruit them and continue to develop them, knowing that the better the team performs, the better the leader/manager looks.

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  5. Good Post.
    Just an educated guess, but I’d venture to say that the morale of the staff under Mister foul mouthed grumbly pants was maintained at a constant low. Not much of a “team” dynamic when negativity is the norm. Besides, I think it’s rather counter intuitive to cuss & grumble at someone who is wearing a gun ☺.

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    • It was definitely an “interesting” dynamic. I got to know him better over the years and while we agreed on little enough, I at least gained a better understanding of him. I can at least say that there were others far far worse that I had to work with.

      “Besides, I think it’s rather counter intuitive to cuss & grumble at someone who is wearing a gun ☺.”

      I know, right? You’d think “strong personalities” and firearms would be a volatile combination, but we (*) never had so much as a fist fight. Then again, we didn’t have the first member of the ATF trinity around, so maybe that’s the magic ingredient. 🙂

      (*) the department as a whole, not just he and I (had to go back and add that when I realized how that read).

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