Eliot's Ramblings

Debugging the Boss: The Superhero

Like The Martyr, The Superhero does their team’s work to make up for not managing. They are super smart, super capable, and they can often do most or all of the jobs that their reports do better than their reports. They also care deeply about the quality of the product their team works on. Unfortunately, they are not inclined to delegate any of the interesting work, because they want it all for themselves. If one of their reports comes to them with a problem, they are more likely to just do the work for them than teach them how to solve the problem.

Essentially, the Superhero would rather be superheroic than excel at managing and mentoring their team. Their heroics may be appreciated by some, but they will make everyone under them feel lousy. You can easily imagine that in their internal monologue, The Superhero’s favorite line of dialogue is “I could do this all myself.”

Behavior in meetings: You barely need a guide to ID this boss. In meetings with their team, they will be very critical, often without suggesting improvements; when they do suggest improvements, they will do so at a pace too rapid to facilitate understanding and in a manner which makes people feel stupid. They will not necessarily hype their own work, however, as they’re not necessarily Glory Hogs), and it’s not impossible for Superheros to be modest. This is a very clear contrast that lets you know you’re not dealing with a Martyr (post coming soon).

Impact on team: This boss is a super de-motivator, because they are always acting like they are better. The Superhero makes this a self-fulfilling prophecy. Firstly, they commit their team to work based not on what they can do, but what they might deliver if they were composed of clones of the Superhero. Secondly, they create an environment where it’s embarrassing to ask for help, or even clarification. The tasks their reports should execute are set up for failure, the work doesn’t come out right, the Superhero redoes it, and no-one is happy.

As with The Martyr, team members will not drive to finish, as the Superhero will just finish their work anyway. The Superhero’s team in particular will stop caring about the quality and timeliness of all the work they do, whereas the Martyr only enables their team to avoid the crappy work.

Potential managers working under a Superhero are likely to internalize this behavior and pass it on in turn.

Impact on product: Note that Superheroism is a trait, not an ability. It’s inevitable that at some point they will fool themselves into thinking they have expertise in areas where they only know enough to be dangerous, because they are so used to being the expert. At that point they are likely to make a disastrous design decision that down the road maims or kills the product, or just costs tons of money and time to fix, while customers complain loudly and the brand tarnishes.

Trait gone wrong: The drive to make things the best they can be.

Debugging: The Superhero doesn’t appreciate that other people don’t share their super powers, and thus can’t understand why no one can do anything as well as they can. They also misunderstand the nature of their responsibilities, by focusing on the work their team does, and ignoring the growth needs of members of their team. Start by teaching them what a manager really does.

Often Superheroes just don’t care that much about the true responsibilities of managing, but it must be made clear to them that every time they do work on a team member’s behalf, they are demonstrating a failure of leadership.

The Superhero might be incorrigible. Return them to individual contributor status, reap the rewards of their abilities, and keep them from harming those around them.

Not to be mistaken for: The Martyr, who loudly heralds their sacrifices, only picks up the work their team leaves behind, and who otherwise may care for their team well enough.