A while back, I happened upon a Twitter thread about incompetent management that I found, initially anyway, quite insightful.
First-time founders, CEOs, and even employees should understand the playbook of the Incompetent Leader (IL).— Shreyas Doshi (@shreyas) December 18, 2020
The IL is savvy & charismatic, and excels at 4 things:
1) Feign competence
2) Create confusion
3) Buy time
4) Fail up
The IL playbook & what to do about it
The full thread is worth reading, but to quickly summarize: Incompetent Leaders exist around us, they use their savviness and charisma to fail upwards into important positions, and then create confusion to buy enough time to move onto the next gig before the entire house of cards collapses, rinse and repeat. He even suggests a book—Stealing the Corner Office—as a read on exactly how this kind of behavior is encouraged as a way to understand and play the career game.
Then I came across another thread, from a senior/tech lead-level engineer, who talks about many of the same behaviors, but frames them as instances of virtuous leadership:
i saw a tweet a while back (will link it if i find it again) that the single most useful skill of any senior++ IC or engineering leader can be stated in simple terms:— Denise Yu 💉💉 (@deniseyu21) February 5, 2021
In every conversation you’re part of, create clarity and reduce chaos.
So—which is it…?
I have a working theory of management. I think people attribute everything, positive or negative, to people higher on the org chart beyond their own scope and visibility. If we assume that most people are unsatisfied with their jobs1, it’s not a stretch to see that as a driving force behind much of the incessant griping about amorphous “management” ruining workplaces. Any cursory reading of Glassdoor reviews will verify that managers are simultaneously incompetent and malicious.
Which is another way of saying that within corporations, managers are the scapegoat for the unknown, whether it’s merely unintended consequences or context beyond the aggrieved’s line of sight. It’s a bit analogous, in the United States anyway, to how the government is distrusted because they’re held responsible, by commission or omission, when bad things happen™. With companies, problems as wide-ranging as culture to business performance to promotions2 to the all-purpose complaint of “bad communication” can and often are laid at the feet of the management team.
Going back to the original topic of incompetent leaders, since outcomes take a while to manifest themselves, leadership actions in-the-moment can be interpreted in whatever direction that suits the observer, a Rorschach test that allows them to ascribe whatever they believe about the management onto the situation. To use an example from the Twitter thread, a VP who turns over the team can do so because they need to up-level the talent, or because they’re just stalling for time before leaving for the next gig; it’s pretty hard to conclude one or the other while folks are being hired.
To be fair, in the modern definition and conceptualization of the role, managers are pretty much expected to be responsible for, and held accountable to, everything under their purview. If the team’s culture is not to someone’s liking, then of course it’s the manager’s fault for not establishing a better one from the onset. If the code quality sucks, then it’s the manager who should have set up better code review processes or participate themselves to hold a higher bar. If folks are underpaid, then the manager should be more generous with their raises and bonuses3. It turns out that the flip side of encouraging managerial empowerment and autonomy is that anything not done can be interpreted as purposeful neglect.
Usually the lack thereof, but sometimes—also too many!↩