Attila, Can You Bring Donuts?

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Attila was the king of the Hunnic empire in the 5th century and is not generally regarded as a nice guy.  His nickname was “The Scourge of God,” and he conquered people and lands from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.  Further, according to a manager in whose chain of command I used to work, Attila never drank with the Huns.  The manager proffered that dubious bit of historical minutiae to my supervisor as a warning against getting too close with your staff.  The manager believed it was important not to socialize with the employees, lest they get confused about who’s in charge.  I’ve reflected on that bit of advice from time to time over the twenty-ish years I’ve been a supervisor and manager, and I’ve decided it’s horse shit.

I believe the “don’t have fun with your employees” advice comes from the book Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, but I can’t say for sure as I have no interest in reading it.  I know there is very little historical information about Attila, so the book must be highly speculative at best.  Even if it is an accurate portrayal, I’m not sure I want to follow in the footsteps of a tyrannical conqueror who killed his own brother to take charge of the Huns.  Moral dilemmas aside, I’m skeptical that leadership techniques that were effective with eastern European nomads  who had no access to social media – or toilet paper, for that matter – would be particularly useful in my office.  There are few nomads in my building, as indicated by the fact that the staff show up to the office most days, rather than travel about the land, as nomads are wont to do.

The book was first published in 1985, so I presumed the employee party prohibition was just an outdated notion from the heady days of Wall Street glory when books like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War were treated as relevant to success on the corporate battlefield.   Unfortunately, just last week, I learned that a friend who works as an executive in the corporate world was told by his boss not to spend so much time talking to the staff and, God forbid, attending their potlucks.  Instead, he should stay in his office, as that’s where executives belong.  Seriously, that was the performance evaluation feedback he received.  Attila is alive and well in corporate America.

I am proud to say I do not subscribe to that belief.  I like getting to know my staff.  They are interesting people, they make me laugh, and they work hard.  They certainly know a lot more about the work than I do.  Aside from simply enjoying their company, if I don’t maintain a decent relationship with them, they could ruin me.  Based on my years of experience as a leader – which is roughly equivalent to Attila’s tenure – I’d like to offer a somewhat less tyrannical bit of management advice.  Ready for it?  Here it is:

Drink with the Huns.

Whether or not you literally imbibe, if your staff are willing to spend time with you, don’t squander the opportunity.  If they’re not inviting you to their potlucks, you may have a problem.  As a manager, I make decisions, and those decisions affect my staff.  If I make a lot of bad decisions, the staff probably won’t want me around.  In my experience working with leaders, there are a couple of management pathologies that tend to result in bad decisions.

1. The Arbitrary and Capricious Manager

I have known managers who are more than happy to solve any problem that passes before their eyes without feeling the need to consider facts or consequences.  They believe their extensive experience has given them the ability to identify the correct solution with no consultation or personal reflection.  Sometimes, the solution works, but the staff are pissed because they didn’t have a voice in the process and they resent the manager who treated them as though they needed to be rescued from themselves.  Other times, the problem will worsen as a result of poorly considered solution. Ironically, the staff may delight in the fact that the boss was wrong. It’s called schadenfreude, which is one of my favorite words.

2. The Woefully Ignorant Manager

Some managers heed the “no potlucks” advice and stay in their office, waiting for the staff to come to them asking for a decision.  Unlike the Arbitrary and Capricious Manager, the Woefully Ignorant are open to advice and counsel.  The problem is it takes so long to get them up to speed on the issues.  In fact, it may be impossible for them to fully grasp the nuances of the situation.  The staff have been working on the problem for a long time and need the manager to decide whether and how to proceed.  The effort required to educate him or her may cause the problem to worsen simply by the delayed response.

I try to avoid being arbitrary, capricious, or ignorant by knowing what the options are and how each can burn us in different ways.  I can gain that knowledge by being there when the problems are identified and the options are developed.  The best chance I have of being included in the tough conversations is if they like having me around.  I want to know what’s going on. I need the truth, and I certainly won’t get it if they don’t want me at their potlucks.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the third management pathology: The Micro-Manager.  I am not interested in controlling every aspect of the work.  Who has time for that?  I can’t even control my email.  Rather than controlling, I simply want to be aware.  I don’t need to be involved in every detail, but I want to be in the car along for the ride.  I love road trips.  I don’t need to drive the car, but I am willing to take my turn filling the tank.  Full disclosure: I get it wrong sometimes. Probably many times.  However, I think I’m given credit for having been in the car for the long, boring miles with the team.

I’m willing to admit that my management approach may not be ideal for laying waste to Constantinople (now Istanbul).  Then again, Attila didn’t manage that feat either.  As he stood before the walls of the city, he recognized he and the Huns didn’t stand much of a chance.  And that’s why I think the “don’t drink with the Huns” advice is horse shit.  Attila was there with the Huns, fighting battles, winning most of them, and recognizing when it was more prudent to turn around, head back to camp, and have a drink.  I still don’t think Attila is the paragon of leadership, but I think he had enough sense to listen to his team and learn from their shared experience.  Next round’s on me.

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