The best management book I've ever read

There has been a good bit written and said recently about story telling and the hero’s journey. One company I worked at even had senior leadership training on the art of storytelling.

I’m really happy to see this. For thousands of years humans have been crowding around a fire, telling each other stories, helping our species learn and evolve through those shared experiences. Humans are natural association engines - our brains are made to rapidly compartmentalize and categorize. So it’s understandable that even our stories get bucketed, and not just into genres. We see patterns even in the completely unique experience of life.

When people ask me what book I recommend they read if they want to be a better manager, I point them to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It was the book I was directed to when I asked that question to one of my mentors, Doug Kubel. In it, Conrad helps us understand the elements of the hero’s journey as it’s been written throughout history. He explains that every person, every character, is the hero in their own story.

This includes villains. When I’m faced with someone in my professional world who acts like a villain in my story, I try to understand where they are in their own hero’s journey. If I’m getting blocked by a senior leader, I avoid the trap of thinking of them as my enemy by empathizing with them as their own hero. When you do that, you’ll see what their goals and struggles are, and you can find a way to align your goals with theirs. Suddenly they’re not an enemy anymore - you’ve made yourself a supporting character in their story, and now they’re helping you accomplish your goals. You will also work with people who have a hero complex - they manipulate circumstances to create opportunities for them to save the day. For example, I’ve seen a head of engineering who was constantly getting called in nights and weekends, and working weekend after weekend to support releases. He was resisting an automation project that would cut that off hours work dramatically. I’ve also seen lead developers hoard knowledge that forced them to context switch all day to answer questions from junior devs about the systems they were working on. These people love being relied on; they enjoy being the single point of failure. Like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up the same hill every day, they are absurd heroes, and they are hurting your teams.

Managers are often perplexed about what to do with these people, but if you can see their journey from their perspective, the answer is much easier to find. You have to show them how reducing risk to their teams will enable them to become an even bigger hero. Maybe that’s through a new project or system you need them to build, or maybe you can help them recast their understanding of their current role as an anti-hero. Each individual is different, but how you deal with them has to start with empathizing with them through this lens of their own story.

You’re a hero, too

Where are you on your own journey? Self awareness is the first thing you need to build in order to improve. Think about yourself and your team members through this lens and see how it changes your approach.

If you’ve run into situations like I described above, or if you’ve built different ways to think about these things, I’d love to hear about it on Twitter or in the comments.