Redshirts and stuff.

5 Jan

“How do you identify leaders who can lead people? And if they’re not a good fit, how can they move to a place where they do fit without shame, loss, demotion, or defeat?”

I’ll split this up into three categories. These categories aren’t perfect, there is some crossover, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s just a few things that really stick out to me.

Personal character, hard skills, and soft skills. For most leadership positions I think this is the order of importance. No amount of skill can compensate for a lack of integrity.


Do they have a healthy amount of self doubt? Good leaders aren’t always right, but they are able to admit when they are wrong. Enough self doubt allows a leaders followers to call them into question on issues they may have been blind to. Do they admit personal failures in order to ensure the teams success? Or when their hard skills are not sufficient, do they sweep problems under the rug? Mistakes shouldn’t be hidden, and when an underling points out a potential problem, they should not be quickly dismissed. Humility trumps arrogance in the long run every time.

Do they keep commitments? At one of my first jobs out of college I was promised that after a probationary period I would receive a raise if I met certain expectations. I met and exceeded expectations, but when the time came for the promised raise, I was brushed off. I left (fired that boss) as soon as I could.

Years later, I was brought in (elsewhere) as a third party consultant. A few weeks into the job, the guy who hired me said that he couldn’t pay me, because the other party was not paying him. A few months later, he approached me with another job offer. I should have either declined or protected myself contractually. But here’s the thing: you shouldn’t need a contract to trust a leader. A leaders word is their own self-enforced and sacred bond.

Do they treat the redshirts well? Some leaders show up to the front lines, other ones send in the redshirts. This may be because the leader is stronger suited for strategic operations than tactical. Or it may be because the leader holds their own safety above their crew. A good leader, front line or not, assures the crew that the interests of all are taken into account. You may recall a certain angry restaurant manager shouting through a rage filled vein bulgy neck: “And when James gets back: TELL HIM TO PICK UP THAT LIME!”

Hard skills:

Hard skills are so varied from job to job that I almost didn’t even make this a category. But there are a few things to be said. “Fix it or buy a new one” falls loosely under the umbrella of hard skills. If a leader keeps bad eggs around for too long, that’s not good for the team. If a leader repeatedly fires new hires without even trying to foster growth, that’s even worse.

Some hard skills are easy to acquire, some are… hard. I’ve worked with some leaders who didn’t have the necessary hard skills to be so close to the front line operations, but upper leadership saw in them the capacity for more “big picture” management. That leader was not demoted for their “shortcomings”, instead: promoted. Also, lets not confuse the word promotion with the word reward. More often than not, a promotion means getting thrown into the deep end. Usually without floaties.

I think it was Richard Branson who once picked several perfectly qualified candidates (as far as hard skills go) for the same job. The final test was to see who was kindest to the driver between the airport and his office.


Soft skills:

Do they make their underlings feel included and valued as integral parts of the team and mission? If you don’t feel like part of the team, you probably won’t act like one. And what employee would feel inclined to add value if none comes back on them?

Do they foster growth? Leaders aren’t the only ones who can sense stagnation. Employees know when they are working a dead end job, no matter what level they have reached. And the old trope “if you’re not growing, you’re dying” has grown and not died out for a reason.

Do they listen to the experienced gut feels? After doing the same or similar thing many times, you will develop a “gut feel” where you can’t really put your finger on it, but somethings seems just not right. There have been a few times where I had the gut feel and ignored it, and the situation spiraled out of control. There have been other times where I listened to my gut and brought it to the attention of my managers only to have them tell me to continue as usual. Most of the time that didn’t turn out well. Good leaders don’t only listen to their own guts, but the guts of their more experienced redshirts.

Are they good at giving and taking feedback? Humility and a little knowledge of the hard skills are needed for giving and taking feedback. If a leader is unable to properly communicate a problem to an employee, that’s a problem. If a leader is unable to hear that they may be the source of the problem… iceberg ahead.

We all know that hard skills can be developed. But until recently the soft skills have been regarded as genetic and static. This is simply not true.


“And if they’re not a good fit, how can they move to a place where they do fit without shame, loss, demotion, or defeat?”

I think the key to avoiding shame/defeat here is to keep the professional and personal separate. You could do a two sided evaluation where the evaluator and evaluatee both do the same evaluation on how they are performing in different aspects of their job. Of course, performance expectations should have been set out clearly from the beginning. Some leaders may think they are absolutely crushing it in certain categories, where their supervisors may completely disagree. It’s not that a certain leader is a bad person, or that you don’t like them, it’s that they aren’t meeting certain professional standards. This is where upper management can say something like: “You’re not very good at this thing, but you are outstanding at this other thing. Would you like to work on your weaknesses, or would you like to focus on your strengths and move to where they would benefit the team/clients most?”


This issue has been bothering me for a while, it’s about instilling motivation. I’m against both the stick and the carrot when it comes to this issue, (see Barry Schwartz “on our loss of wisdom”) and believe that intrinsic motivation is superior to both by far. I have seen too many teams fail because they were fixated on rewards, or obsessed with not being “made an example of”, instead of prioritizing the mission. But how in the world do you incept intrinsic motivation in employees, co-workers, or even superiors?

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