Managing Developers...Part 3...the Benevolent Dictator

I've written about the [[Benevolent Dictators|Benevolent Dictator]] in the past here.

But let's step back. Developers do not hate authority figures. Developers will always self-organize around those who make their lives better. This is basic human nature. The people who can make their lives better will tend to be strong authority figures.

Every developer is uniquely motivated. But there are some generalities. Some developers love to try new development tools (if coding is their life), others just want to get home to their family at a decent hour. Others may actually want to learn the business domain better. But the common denominator is that the center of the self-organized team will be its leader and that may not be what is reflected on your org chart. If you are the manager and you are not the person your developers come to when they need advice, want to vent, have questions about the product, etc, then you are not their leader. Discover who is the natural leader and figure out why other developers gravitate toward him. Emulate those behaviors, even if they are contrary to everything you have learned when you got your MBA. I guarantee that the de facto leader will not always display the typical developer stereotypes, usually because they are smarter than you or have learned how to get around the organizational politics that everyone hates. You can learn much from this natural leader.

Surprisingly you'll find that this natural leader is often more of a dictator than you could ever hope (or want) to be. That's right, the natural leader may be more overbearing than you are!!! The difference is that the natural leader will be what I call a "Benevolent Dictator". People will gravitate to him because he is smart, he understands the business, is a technical expert, and most importantly, can help the rest of the staff improve their lives. Why do you think John Watson put up with Sherlock's shit for so long? Or, think of Dr. House on Fox. People gravitated towards these assholes because they could gain something from the relationship. Those people who fought the Holmeses and Houses of the World (think Inspector Lestrade in Doyle's books or Cuddy on House) are the people who wanted to be the authority figures but couldn't, because no one respected them.

When I tell people my Benevolent Dictator Theory they cringe because the word "dictator" has such negative connotations. But it is apropos. Think about this, I would rather work for a Benevolent Dictator then some nice boss with no technical skills who invites me to his house to go swimming every weekend. The dictator can help me create a better product, advance my skills, and get home to my family faster, the nice-guy boss can't. Most developers would rather work for a dictator then a nice guy, assuming the dictator can help them.

Some people will absolutely despise the Benevolent Dictator behind his back and even complain to management about him. As a manager, be careful. Are the Complainers also the same people who will still seek out the Benevolent Dictator when the going gets tough. The Complainers will still shut up and listen when the Benevolent Dictator offers his opinion. Others will hate the BD because he makes them work harder or is more demanding. But again, the developers will still seek him out. That is the ultimate respect.

Find out who is the Benevolent Dictator. He may not be the person with the most seniority, or the "Level 6 Architect", or the Team Leader, or the Scrum Master. But he is the guy who is listened to. He is the one you must win over. Find this person and do whatever you can to have him help you be a better manager.