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The Local hero

This post belongs to small series of posts. The main post is Heroes.

Throughout these posts of mine on heroic behaviour, my main metaphor has been the wild west. One of the well-known archetypes there is the famous hero gunslinger. In this post, I’ll address the software equivalent of this.

Wild West heroes

In the Wild West, the fastest gunslingers usually become the natural leader. Using their skills to perform various heroic actions, they can gain a reputation with their peers and the local townspeople. The can end up being known as saviours, as someone you can rely on, someone that knows what to do when push comes to shove. Tales of their heroic exploits may spread their reputation far outside the realm of their immediate environment. To most of the locals1, they have become Heroes.

These local heroes are placed on a pedestal by their peers. In some cases, the heroes may even end up being ‘worshipped’ by some of their peers. The more people that place a hero on a pedestal, the more the heroes reputation will grow and the more people will potentially turn to them and start following them.

Software Heroes

Now how does this all relate to software development? Where can those heroes be found in the IT world? In the software world, in a company, the equivalent of heroes are those software developers that carry a lot of weight with their peers, most of the time with management as well. Through whatever actions that they have done in the past, they have earned a good reputation and are considered to be very valuable, almost indispensable. All which are good things you might say.

So let us discuss some of the dangers that lurk in having Local Heroes around.

Dangers of Local Heroes

Ego

Obviously one of the biggest danger for a hero is the ego. Even when the heroes have the best of intentions - and not all heroes necessarily do - it is hard to not get too full of ourselves when everyone considers you exceptional. Because when people are constantly relying on you, give too much weight to your opinion, delegate practically all their judgement to you, then is hard not to start losing objectivity. You may end up believing that you are truly exceptional, and you might very well be God’s gift to the software world, but developing a huge ego can easily have a negative impact on your own performance, and almost always has a crippling effect on the team.

Individuals with a huge ego often are their own main liability and downfall. However, if an ego receives a hero status from their peers the negative impact becomes something to reckon with. Now obtaining a hero status is not something that is always under our own control. It is mostly determined by the environment one operates in. But we can try to rein in the ego at least.

Ego Battling grounds

Now as software developers, we typically tend to couple our ego with our technical knowledge and intelligence. I think it is our equivalent of quick-draws, of showing who’s best. So allow me to quote this little tweet:

The smartest people I know:

  1. Admit they know very little
  2. Constantly seek more info
  3. Encourage intellectual debate
  4. Have strong opinions, loosely held
  5. Are comfortable being wrong
  6. Surround themselves with great people
  7. Realize life isn’t black & white
  8. Fear bias & arrogance

If one really feels the need to, there are better ways of demonstrating one’s intelligence then always wanting to be right. Which is pretty self-evident, we all know this in our day to day life. But in the workplace, this is apparently easily forgotten. Because we typically take pride in our skills in our profession. So a little pro-tip for my fellow heroic super intelligent software engineers out there: Be humble!

Seriously. Everyone wants to be special. But no one knows everything and everyone makes mistakes. Even if it is so much cooler to be a ninja than a janitor. A janitor is useful. Constantly learning and improving yourself is definitely an admirable trait. But that doesn’t make you Gods’ gift to mankind.

Dealing with ego’s

A little mental check that I do is keeping track if I ever heard someone admit that they were wrong or saw them change their minds by someones else argument. When someone can never admit a mistake I try to avoid getting into an argument with them altogether. Their ego has gotten the better of them. No matter how competent they might, personally, I start placing little value on their opinion or ‘arguments’. Because they aren’t being honest.

They are not trying to help, they are trying to win…

Of course, it is normal that people argue and defend their points of view, to a certain point. We all do this to some degree. But if someone is truly incapable of decoupling their ego from their solution then it is impossible to have a meaningful conversation. Because the ego does not permit them to admit that they are not omniscient. So there is really no point in debating them. One is just wasting time and money. That is why, when I am looking for people to work with, I look at their mentality first. No matter how competent or genial you are, the ‘mission’ comes first. We are all smart people. But can we work together?

The hero status complicates all of this. Because if someone with a huge ego has achieved a hero status in a group they are much harder to deal with. Avoiding them is no longer an option. If the local hero has a loyal following, then that can even produce an organizational risk and you’ll need to deal with their minions as well.

For more on loyalty and heroics see the Posse

Stagnation

Even when someone is capable of keeping one’s ego in check, being ‘worshipped’ is still not a good thing. Even though somewhere deep down, we all like to be the object of adoration, worship runs the risk of stifling the heroes own growth because they are no longer being properly challenged. They can get lazily in their thinking, get too used to ‘being right’. People like to be properly challenged and engaged in their job. Once someone is placed on a pedestal when everyone follows their lead all too easily. this not a challenging environment to be working in. The heroes will leave for more challenging grounds where they can further improve their skills and be challenged properly. Or they will stay and stagnate. Becoming the one-eyed king in the land of the blind.

Lack of ownership

For the software development team, the peers of a hero, and the software that is being developed, having heroes around isn’t without risk as well. The danger of having a Local Hero is that people get lazy, that they stifle their own growth. Because after a while the hero is no longer questioned. Just follow the leader of the pack, be safe, take it easy.

When there are heroes around, people tend not to take ownership themselves. They feel secure in the presence of heroes or intimidated. They run the risk of becoming complacent, just following along, not challenging the leader but also not challenging themselves. No responsibility needs to be taken. They run the risk of not living up to their own full potential. This way, heroes often block the team members from using their full potential, which is not only a waste but also dangerous.

Decisions can get postponed until they get approval by a hero because people don’t want to make the decision or take the responsibility themselves. Or run the risk that a decision taken when the hero was absent will be immediately overturned when the hero returns. This not only starts resembling a dictatorship but it turns the hero into a bottleneck.

This passive behaviour is very dangerous for the software and the company. Because we are all humans.

No one can know everything, think of everything or is infallible.

Even if you should have found some of those mythical infallible IT-heroes, even they can not be everywhere at the same time. The team needs to ready and competent to handle everything without the heroes being around.

That is why we need everyone to pitch in, using all the brain power available. Even when there are people that are more knowledgeable, experienced or ‘smarter’ then you, allow yourself to grow and don’t remain in the hero’s shadow.

It is ok that people seek guidance or mentoring. It is not ok if they stop thinking for themselves.

Emergence of Minions

Even when the heroes have nothing but the best intention, dominating heroes also can complicate the political landscape. It can happen that a little cult of followers starts forming around one person. Even without them actively pursuing this. Apart from the ownership issues mentioned earlier, this is also a dangerous thing politically. Because it adds the additional complexity that next to the existing organizational silo’s, typically present in an organisation, there is an additional group that runs across organizational boundaries. In this case, the leader of the hero cult may gain more power than the organization/ customer is willing to consciously give to them.

The group of minions also can lead to a certain tribalism, a certain group pressure. Us vs them. Where they can gang up on someone outside of the group, under the protection of the reputation of their leader. This can lead to competent people leaving the firm because they aren’t willing to play petty politics and are unable to do a proper job. Again, the customer loses.

This is closely related to the Posse

Again in the best case, the heroes themselves have only the best intentions. When giving too much power, one might end up using it without knowing it. One might not even be aware that one has power. But the heroes are of course just people. They may give in to the temptation of using that power and risk becoming bullies.

Conclusion

The danger of the heroes lies not so much with the heroes themselves. But more with the impact that they have on their peers. More specifically, the impact their peers allow them to have. Heroes need to take care that they don’t become bullies, that they keep their ego in check. 2 But they themselves aren’t responsible for any passive, worshipping attitude that their peers might develop. If the team, or management for that matter, didn’t consider them as heroes, their ego or at least the impact of it, would automatically be kept in check. The source of the danger is placing someone on a pedestal.

As an employer having your own local heroes may seem comforting and reassuring. Everyone speaks so highly of them, we should treasure them. Just make sure that even the legends can take a vacation or, heaven forbids, change jobs. No one sticks around forever. Everyone must do their part. It is a good thing that the business can place their trust in their software engineers. But this should be the logical consequence of the team doing a consistently good job. No worshipping should come into play.

References

  1. I make the distinction between Local Heroes, which this post talks about, and between some of the very well known names in our IT world (Kent Beck for instance), which this post doesn’t talk about at all. Hence the name ‘Local’ hero. 

  2. A book on leadership and people. Chapter 4 deals specifically with the ego. Extereme ownership