Leadership Anti-Patterns – The Thinker

'The Thinker' by Rodin

My interest in leadership, how it works and how it fails, goes back a long way. Almost as soon as I learned how to read, history, particularly military history, has been a favorite of mine. Captains and kings, their triumphs and their downfalls, fascinated me. The eleven years I served with the Henrico Sheriff’s Office honed that interest. It allowed me to go beyond theory and the hearsay attendant in just reading about leaders. It allowed me to both observe firsthand and to get practical experience of my own.

For most of the latter part of my career with the Sheriff’s Office, I led a unit responsible for providing support services for the jail (canteen, recreation, laundry, hair-care, maintenance, and coordination of volunteer programs). In addition to their primary function, members of my unit, as sworn staff, also served as a ready reserve to the security staff during the busiest parts of the day. It was a challenge for me, because I was responsible for managing a group of experts with diverse duties. It was a challenge for them, because the way I led was something of a change for them.

Like everyone, I started my career working a security platoon in the jail. My second posting, however, was in our training academy. Roughly half of my responsibilities involved record keeping and administration of the training program. The other half of my time was spent in class, delivering training. Something about that resonated with me; I loved it and it strongly influenced my leadership style.

When necessary, I was fully capable of issuing orders to be complied with immediately. The operative word here being “necessary”. What’s necessary under emergency conditions and what’s necessary the other ninety-nine percent of the two are two different things. The majority of the time, my leadership style involved more coaching and little or no dictating.

I still laugh when I think of the first time a subordinate came to me for a decision. After her laying out the problem, rather than serving up a solution, I asked a simple question, “What do you want to do about it?” The speechless expressions I received in response were priceless. Having someone in authority ask for her opinion was so utterly foreign as to be beyond belief.

[Note – this is not the same thing as “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”. That type of bumper sticker philosophy is a good way to have people avoid you when they don’t know what to do, which is when they actually need you the most (and likewise, when you most need to know what they’re dealing with).]

By making sure that those who worked under me knew the boundaries they had to work with, we were able to divide things into three groups: the routine that was unremarkable, that which they could deal with on their own and tell me later, and that which they needed to get me involved in up front. Even with the last category, I asked for opinions. If it was a decision that I could make, my bias was to go with their recommendation unless I had a really good reason not to (as I noted above, most were specialists and knew the details of their position far better than I, so overruling them solely because I was “in charge” would be a really bad idea). When the decisions were above my pay grade, I would still give them credit and endorse their recommendation. My goal was to have a unit that could operate as well when I was not there as when I was.

At this point, you may be wondering where’s the information about this “Thinker” anti-pattern. All the background above, is to serve as contrast to one of my colleagues, a lieutenant in charge of a jail security platoon. This person informed their platoon that they were paid to do the thinking and their subordinates were paid to do the doing. No one other than this lieutenant was allowed to make any decisions, period. While I doubt this person had ever heard of Taylorism, they had a firm grasp of the principles of it.

Under the most normal of circumstances, there’s much to criticize about The Thinker’s way of doing things. The method doesn’t scale. It places a lot of burden on the Thinker. Getting a bathroom break in between decisions to be made is hard enough, but vacation? Forget about it.

The thing about a jail is that it’s not the most normal of circumstances, so there’s an added disadvantage. In the event of a hostage situation (something that’s more of a risk in a correctional environment), if the Thinker was the hostage, then they would be in for a very long ordeal. Unless one of their subordinates decided to ignore the Thinker’s orders and call for help, they would be stuck until someone “authorized” to think reported for duty.

Ignorance of the law (of unintended consequences) is no excuse.

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5 thoughts on “Leadership Anti-Patterns – The Thinker

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