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Posted on: Saturday, 20 February 2010 by Rajiv Popat

I am in a conversation with a young and budding manager who has recently been promoted. He has inherited a young team of programmers and a couple of database administrators. He begins his discussion around what is wrong with his new team and how he plans on fixing things.

I cringe.

Besides not realizing the fact that the basic traits of human beings do not change, this budding manager has taken his first tiny step to becoming a micro-manager and a dictator both rolled into one.

The problem that is causing this otherwise wise and experienced programmer to not see the big picture as he takes his first step in leadership can be described in one word: Power.

A quest for power, disguised under multiple excuses (the whole I-want-to-help-people-grow being one of them) remains one of the primary reason which attracts people towards management. Steve Yegge describes this problem in his legendary post on Not Managing Programmers where he believes that most managers consciously choose the management route to purely fulfill their unrelenting quest for power. He explains:

If you want to manage badly enough, then you will manage, badly enough. Hence, before you jump in, stop and think about why you want it. Are you tired of engineering, or were you perhaps never very good at it? If so, technical management isn't much of an escape, because your engineers will know, and they won't respect you. Do you want to manage because you want authority? If so, it's a trap: you'll still be on a leash held by the folks above you.

Or maybe you just want to be a little higher in the pecking order, so you can peck downhill? If so, then you're what we call, colloquially speaking, a "pecker".

Think hard about why you want to be a manager. I've worked with a hundred managers with a hundred different motivations, and all of the underlying reasons, including my own, seem suspicious to me now. Especially now that I work for a company that works, and well, with almost no managers or management overhead. Now that I've seen it working, I question the motivations of anyone who wants to manage.

I'm suspicious of all the mother-hen types: they want to nurture their teams, but tend to smother them. And I'm suspicious of the overly-organized types: they want to bring process to chaos, but process stifles invention, and it can be used to disguise incompetence for an entire career.

I'm suspicious of empire builders; too often they lower their hiring bar. I've heard or seen a hundred reasons for becoming a manager, and I now view all of them with suspicion, because each reason is a potential psychological problem waiting to manifest itself on a soon-to-be-unhappy engineering team.

The point that Steve Yegge makes in the rather long winded post is simple: why you want to become a manager or leader will ultimately define how good a manager you become. More often than not if quest for power is the primary reason that motivates you to become a manager or a leader, chances are that the same reason will start messing up your mind as soon as you get take your first couple of promotions.

I have spent years watching young and budding managers get very excited about their promotion, desperately trying to take control and trying to fix everything that they believe is a wrong in their team. Some of them claiming that they are putting their teams under pressure and trying to bring out the best in them while others claiming that they are working for the best interest of the organization. In most cases however, all they are doing, is satisfying their quest for power.

Put simply, I have seen the quest for insanely insignificant perception of power, corrupt and confuse some of the brightest of the minds that I have worked with.

Today, I leave you, dear reader, a thought worth harping on from Steve's post:

The catch-22 of software management is that the ones who want it most are usually the worst at it. Some people, for worse or for worst, want to be managers because it gives them power over their peers. There's nothing good that can come of this arrangement: you should never give power to someone who craves it, for reasons that I hope are obvious.

If you are a young and budding manager who has just inherited a team and has started out by noticing everything that is wrong with your team or building plans on fixing everything in the next couple of weeks by throwing your new team in an instance pressure environment, I want you to take a long hard pause, do some soul searching and answer the million dollar question:

Why do you want to manage your team, dear reader? Is it really because you want to help, or do you really want to quench your unrelenting thirst for power?

How you answer this question will ultimately decide how you do as a manager. Before you start fixing everything that is wrong in your team, spend some time doing some serious soul searching and find your answer honest answer to this question. If your answer to this question is that you do not want to manage your team at all, chances are, that you will be rather good manager.

I wish you good luck.