Picture yourself in this situation: you are leading a stalled project, and you’re analyzing key issues preventing the team from performing. The issue might be a “cross-team collaboration.” You are not sure, though; it could also be a “recognizing excellence,” a “positive work environment” or even an “encouragement.” You just don’t know. You’ve never really know what any of these touchy-feely concepts are, except you know that they linger (like a bad aftertaste) on each project that includes (lazy and obnoxious) human beings. It seems like all leaders are supposed to understand these soft skills automatically, as though empathy was a normal growth stage in their puberty. One day they discovered that they started to care a little bit about their coworkers. The next day they woke up with a fully developed charisma and the ability to lead a global organization through inspiration, and humility.
But somehow this emotional growth never happened to me! Here is my dirty little secret: I have no clue how emotional intelligence works. Like, I have zero empathy. None at all. Zilch. The last emotional thing I remember doing (that was genuine) was a half-smile and a tiny nod to a consultant back in 2012. “This will do, now stop slacking and go back to work,” were probably my encouraging words while the rest of the team was celebrating his amazing success.
But of course, I’d never tell anyone that I am challenged in the empathy department, because I, like everybody, believe that all the other leaders totally understand how this emotional intelligence works. And the hell of it is, some of the leaders actually do! These are the leaders — usually named “Kevin” — whom I am forced to summon to talk to my bruised and agonizing teams after I somehow caused them an irreparable emotional damage just by saying “hello” — and perhaps by calling them the mouth-breathing imbeciles, when work was not delivered up to my level of expectations. Before someone calls HR, I have to call Kevin, my cleaner.
Kevin always comes to these clean-up meetings with a big grin on his face. This devil is always happy — and for whatever reason, just with his arrival the tension in the room visibly melts away, and now everybody seems happy. (What a bunch of pathetic morons!) As Kevin strides through a meeting room, people are usually exhaling in relief, whispering quietly to each other: “Finally, Kevin is here, everything will be ok now!” Kevin then spends a few minutes hearing about our silly little problems and occasionally nods empathically. Then he signals me to the side.
“Miha,” he says, “I want to show you something.”
This is the part I hate the most. It is always bad when Kevin wants to show me something — quietly on the side, while the rest of distressed team stares at us with big eyes, full of hope. “Take a look at this,” Kevin says, pointing to a random part of our project plan. “You see this?”
I look and frown. I have no idea what Kevin is pointing at particularly; could it be an “organizational chart”? Or is it a “work sequencing”? It could be an “executive oversight.” It could be a dead body in a burning dumpster, as far as I am concerned. I am a geek, not a counselor, don’t quiz me with this management pomp!
“Huh,” I say, looking in the same direction as Kevin’s finger.
“Yup,” says Kevin. “You got a problem.”
“Ummmm… What kind of problem?” I say with the voice that tries to sound genuinely interested, but Kevin gives me a little sideways look, which tells me that, in his view, I am the stupidest leader he has ever met — who is still able to get by without a legally-assigned handler.
I know that Kevin just can’t comprehend how I can make so many stupid mistakes in my human interactions. My people-related problems are spectacularly obvious to a guy like Kevin, and he thinks I have no style, tact or patience with “hoomans”, causing constant self-inflicting HR problems. You see, a guy like Kevin can predict — and avoid — such problems while he is sleep-deprived, caffeinated and drunk like a moose — all at the same time. Trust me; I saw it happening: even when he is absolutely disgusting and barely conscious, Kevin is still caring and supportive of his “peeps”.
I swear that I could hear at least a hint of condescension in Kevin’s voice, similar to the tone I use when I try explaining the concept of IPv6 routing through cloud-based network load balancers to a non-technical dork. Kevin slowly explains to me exactly what the problem is, as simply as he possibly could to a technocratic propeller-head like me.
“Your team doesn’t understand how the work they do supports the overall objectives of your project,” he says.
“I was afraid of that,” I say, having zero clues what he meant. As far as I am concerned, I gave people clear tasks, waited a bit, and then yelled at them when work was done poorly. And when they objected, I yelled even harder. Perhaps I slammed the door too. Perhaps I slammed it into someone’s face. Perhaps multiple times. But who keeps the score of small things like this, right? Anyhow, they should all be happy that I kept them on the project, lazy slogs!
“Yup,” says Kevin and stares deep into my soul, trying to find a shred of humanity inside me. I don’t blink and stare back when he does that.
“Can it be fixed?” I ask during the staring contest.
Well, sure it can be fixed,” says Kevin, who cannot believe what an idiot he is hooked up with. “All you got to do is to create a trust-based relationship with your people, listen to them, advise them, show genuine interest, respect, and understanding of their personal preferences.“
And then he fixes it all. He just does it, because he knows I am not capable to even think in this dimension. He somehow creates an emotional safety net, so people are willing to follow him to the hell and back. While I can architect the most innovative technical solutions, Kevin provides an empathic leadership and people will happily do literally everything he asks them to do. While I am an expert in Linux and Windows, Kevin is a master of H/OS — Human Operating Systems.
I alone can provide the greatest technical leadership known to the mankind — that nobody is willing to follow. Kevin alone can shape-up fanatical teams that are willing to do anything but are clueless on what needs to be done. Kevin and I together can drive the right results with the proper rigor, passion, and velocity. We complete each other, delivering smooth engagements with enthusiastic people and most excellent outcomes. We suck when we are apart, and we are total rock stars when we are together.
This is the best symbiotic leadership clients could ask for. The greatest synergistic value co-creation. The accelerated people-driven delivery engine. (hey, I’m getting good at this MBA babble!)
And then — BAM! Out of the blue, Kevin is gone. Leaving the firm. Leaving the team. Leaving me. He decides to move his career to another company and leave behind the horde of fanatical followers. I wonder, was it my hopeless obnoxiousness, or was it the stupendously large pile of money that contributed to his decision? Yesterday he was here; today, he is not…
I thought he and I had something going on there, a mutually beneficial relationship where I was hiding my emotional ineptitude behind his empathic wizardry, and he was hiding his total lack of technology aptitude behind my geekiness. Just like I can’t recognize personal rage and frustration in the team, Kevin can’t comprehend the differences between Mesosphere and Kubernetes. I can’t lead people without ongoing HR violations. He can’t spell AWS right. We totally need each other!
Yet he is gone now. And I am left alone. I feel dumped. I feel forgotten. I feel incomplete and incompetent, and the pain I feel at this moment is something that no natural leader would ever understand. It is a pain reserved only for handicapped dorks that realize how a good handler and guardian is not just a luxury; it is a vital necessity!
Kevin, I wish you all the best with your new role. I sincerely hope you choke and gag on all the promises that lured you away and over to the greener pastures! You will be truly and sorely missed, but I will slap you so hard the next time I see you — so you remember! You deserve the best and were too good for this place, and HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO ME, YOU SPOILED DISGRACEFUL TURD??? I SO HATE YOU!
Now, the real question is: who is going to be my next Kevin? I need a new handler before HR calls me; I think I put my foot in my mouth today when I provided a bit of constructive feedback to that new sore loser we just on-boarded on the project…