4 min read

Don’t be a Hero Leader, let people fail

A reminder to let people fail to develop their self-reliance

April 19, 2023

I absolutely love working at startups and small businesses.

Having to wear multiple hats and relentlessly push a company or team forward has been a constant condition throughout my entire career.

It is the reason I have developed a broad skill set from software engineering and project management to video production and graphic design.

If I see pain, it is my default reflex to remedy it like some sort of heat seeking medication missile.

Day after day, I solve problems, receive praise, thanks, and appreciation, and it feels great.

I’m helping! Everyone loves me! I’m a hero!

…or am I?

Now that I’m actively living through the transformation of a startup to a mid-sized company, the line between hero and villain, cop and robber, helping and hurting has been blurred.

With the company no longer in the scrappy stage of its life, I must also transition out of my long held help at all costs gear and into a more appropriate one in harmony with my new professional environment.

Because lately, instead of actually saving the day, I have been, yet again, contributing to the masking of systemic issues.

So how did I come to this conclusion?

Well before I became a Staff Engineer, my heroic tendencies were on full display as I exhibited textbook hero coder behavior as a Senior Engineer.

At all costs, projects I wrote code for would be a success.

I would get the clarity I needed for requirements, write the code, and ship the thing—sometimes leaving everyone, including my own team, behind.

…but the team did it!

We shipped the feature!

The business was happy with the team’s performance, but no one knew the team wasn’t doing so hot just below the surface.

They were unable to know.

Until one day, long running dysfunctions became too significant to be masked.

So why did these issues go on too long, how did no one notice them, and how were they unable to learn about them?

Because of me.

I don’t say this egotistically; I seriously wouldn’t let my team fail to meet our objectives, hell or high water.

It ate me alive to think we could fail, so I ruthlessly, yet politely, ensured we didn’t—always.

This is when my incredible manager at the time taught me to slow down to speed up by sharing the following African proverb with me: To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.

This one quote fundamentally shifted how I viewed teamwork as an individual contributor, and my actions that followed helped me become a Staff Engineer.

Fast forward to today, I have been a Staff Engineer for around a year, and the problematic heroic tendencies I thought were silenced long ago have recently returned with a slightly different face.

This time, instead of me exhibiting hero coder behavior, I’m being a hero leader, but the underlying pattern is one and the same:

  1. I see pain and possible failure.
  2. I relentlessly try to alleviate the pain and mitigate the failure.
  3. I encroach on others’ responsibilities in this pursuit.
  4. The team meets some objectives while continuing to harbor unaddressed dysfunction.
  5. The dysfunction becomes unaddressable because the team and its members don’t necessarily fail.
  6. Inevitably, the team visibly fails because the dysfunction becomes too large to mask or overcome.
  7. Other leaders are confused and feel significant pain around why they didn’t see this deep rooted issue sooner.
  8. Rinse and repeat.

Never in 1,000,000 years would I have ever guessed that the exact over-performing behavior I used to propel teams toward a healthier state was actually part of the reason why they could never get there.

All hero leading does is delay the inevitable, cause confusion, and leave people feeling blind and helpless.

So how do you avoid this?

Well... I’m still figuring it out, just like a child needs to fall down to know what to do and what not to do, leaders should avoid trying to catch everyone because inadvertently we rob them of highly effective moments of coaching, mentorship, and growth.

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