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Love the Team

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash


“An effective leader knows that the ultimate task of leadership is to create human energies and human vision” – Peter Drucker

I was sitting at a conference table, interrogation style, across from my boss and his deputy; I knew what was coming. “Buster, what is wrong with this program? We aren’t meeting cost and schedule targets and engineers are asking for reassignment. You are an IPT [Integrated Product Team] Lead, so give us your perspective from the inside.” I blurted out without a thought, “program leadership doesn’t love the team.” I had nothing else to say and looked up slowly. The two were stunned, but then nodded sadly, instantly understanding that we had hit on the root cause of the problem. My experience on that project had been frustrating, because at my level as a subsystem engineering lead I had tried and failed many times to get some relief through difficult conversations with program leadership, but in the end I had to resign myself to being just a buffer, shielding the team from its own leadership and trying my best to take care of them at my level. I’d like to say I did a great job, but I did not. The team was leashed, completely constrained; I was miserable, and everyone saw it. My love was necessary but not sufficient.

Love and engineering are not terms that are used often in the same sentence. Engineers carry stereotypes of painful introversion at best, and lack of soft skills at worst; however, this is not my experience. Engineers are just people and they span across the complete spectrum of personalities and capabilities. It is necessary nonetheless to address what love means in this context. “I’m not talking about warm and fuzzy feelings of love, but the kind of love that allows your staff to be imperfectly human” (Cuellar, 2018). Sorry engineers, but you and I are, and will forever be, imperfectly human. When we are in a team the whole point is to align our purpose, our mission, and our interest so we can collaborate and achieve together—to get to our common goal. This is only possible if we have permission (from ourselves and from our teammates) to be imperfectly human, because even without permission we will be. I’d like to focus on the two foundations of this love: trust and accountability…er…I mean vulnerability and vulnerability.

“Trust and vulnerability grow together, and to betray one is to betray both.” – Dr. Brené Brown

The best leader I ever met was a plant manager for a manufacturing facility, who I will refer to as George. I did not work for him but was in the position of reviewing his operation and getting a personal tour to give his plant a “grade.” I noted that he always carried work gloves in his pocket and wore safety glasses. Three times in our tour George walked away from me, completely ignoring me so he could don his work gloves and help one of his workers with one operation or another. Members of his workforce were unsurprised and unfazed as they engaged in some small talk as they worked together—this wasn’t BS, and he did not apologize to me. When we finally reached his office, I noted that he had a list of about 12 names on his whiteboard, and I decided to ask about it. “George, what’s that list for? People in trouble?” I came to regret that smart-ass-ness. He simply replied, “yes, actually. I don’t really talk about it much, but these are folks on the floor who are in the middle of fighting personal battles with health or family issues or all kinds of personal struggles. I have this list and I make myself read the names, think about ways I can help them, ensure I follow up, and I pray for them personally…at least once a day.” I was floored, and simply replied, “I need a list.” I doubt that any of those people knew they were on a list, that they were being thought about daily; but I’d bet $20,000 they all knew who George was as a person and a leader; they knew he was human and vulnerable and that they had permission to be, as well. I’d bet a limb that they trusted him and knew they were trusted. The team had overwhelming symptoms of love.

On a technical team I have seen that trust is built as people tell the truth: to each other, to partners, to customers, to stakeholders, and – yes – to leadership. Vulnerability comes into play because truth on teams is about all the following (and more):

- Competence and growth opportunities

- Compiling and sharing data

- Teaching and learning

- Receiving and processing (especially before transmitting)

- Accepting credit and accountability

- Courage and respect

- Support and defend/Defend and support

- Objective and nonobjective factors (we are imperfectly human, remember?)

That an engineering team must share nonobjective truth, including moods, emotions, passions, impatience, biases, distractions, issues, etc. etc. etc. is downright uncomfortable. That we may need to think, “Joe just had a baby so he may be stressed and tired” or “Sarah’s daughter is still in the hospital so she may need non-work help,” is essential. Technical excellence sounds objective and heartless; however, the technical team member is neither. I am not talking about sharing everything, but instead sharing what is important to enable the team to connect and achieve its objective. If something – anything – is in the way let’s get it out of the way; if anything can help us be effective and efficient, share it; if anything helps us better work and play together, get it out on the table.

“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” - Norman Schwarzkopf, Gen, US Army

What does this mean for technical leadership? Sorry, but you as a leader are nothing more than another member of the team, providing a vision, a good example, removing barriers, and empowering your teammates. Your vulnerability is essential! As a leader lack of vulnerability on your end is a huge barrier to being a member of the team—it just comes across as arrogance, and nobody on your team is going to share necessary truth if you do not. In fact, your obligation to trust and be vulnerable is greater: you must find a way to give your teammates absolute ownership, hold each member accountable, and defend them. You must sacrifice for them. It’s downright scary! In essence, you must love the team first and always for them to succeed.

“A…most-demanding form of soldierly love is expressed when leaders put themselves at risk to protect their subordinates.” – Pete Kilner, Lt Col ret, US Army (Kilner, 2018)

We were wrapping up a portfolio management review when the Deputy Director pulled me aside and whispered, “you know, Buster, you are doing a fantastic job with your team. But when you defend your people you are really hard to work with.” BEST COMPLIMENT…EVER. I walked out of that room beaming. But at the risk of trying to channel the great Yogi Berra, you better be right if you want to be righteous. I could only be proud of that criticism because I knew how far the team had come; they were in a place where the members held each other accountable, had identified and documented deficiencies, and were finally self-healing (working together to leverage strengths and overcome challenges). If this was not true, then my defense would have been artificial and the sacrifice of my reputation with a key leader stupid. But my Berra-like quote above still ended up haunting me.

Right after this incident, I walked back to my team area and was still on cloud nine. My Superintendent stopped me and asked for a moment to talk to me alone in the conference room. Uh oh. “Sir, did you look in the mirror at your uniform this morning?” I looked down but didn’t see anything amiss; I was embarrassed. He sighed, “everyone is looking at it. You are out of uniform because you have two different-sized career badges on. Per standards the badges can be any size, but they all have to be the same.” Well, crap. I simply said, “Wizard, you are right. I’ll fix it. Thanks—I mean it!” A member of my team had held me accountable for not meeting the team’s expectations and, while it seems a small thing, I was in the way of the team’s success. I hoofed my tail to the uniform store, fixed the situation, returned to the unit and made this experience the only topic of discussion at our next all-hands meeting; I was brutal about my failure and ecstatic about being called on it. Another team member had stepped up to lead me (and the team) and it became a teaching point for all of us; out of shame came truth that we are all going to make mistakes but the way we deal with them is through shared accountability. It took courage for the team to tell me the truth and for me to hear it. That is vulnerability playing out as complete trust.

As imperfect humans—even as highly educated, highly trained, highly scientific team members—we must find ways to work together. The J-O-B is too complex and too big for any one of us, so we must come together as a work family, lift each other up, and deliver the goods. Families require love, which requires trust. One of my favorite books about leadership is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and I have though often about the quote: “if he had asked them to follow him to the moon without space suits, they would have done it.” (Card, 1991) I have been on teams where I felt this kind of loyalty and trust for the leader; what’s better, as a leader I have felt this for my fellow team members. However, I have only felt this on teams where we had permission to be vulnerable. In the military I used to think, “I’d die and kill for you.” Nowadays I find it easier and better just to think, “I love you.”

- Buster

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