Why Leaders Should be Human Crapshields
Here’s a wayback post from the archives. It’s one of my all-time favorites and it always resonates with leaders whenever I share it. It’s always helpful to trot it out of retirement from time to time and remind leaders their job is to be enablers of their teams. Here’s how you can be a human crapshield:
“So what exactly do you do around here Mike?” The question was posited by the snarkiest of my direct reports during my staff meeting (a subject I’ll opine on some time in the future). My job was to direct “the business.” Theirs was to run their respective business units.
“Well, I set direction for you guys, set aggressive goals, coach, recruit, and mentor team members. Most importantly though, I act as a Human Crapshield for you guys.” Puzzled looks all around.
“A Human Crapshield? Give me a break.”
“Look – you really never want to know the volume of crap I shield you guys from so you can focus on your job rather than dealing with the crap.”
“Yeah, I’m sure the crap is unbearable. Sounds to me like you’re justifying your role as useless corporate overhead.” Ouch. I’d hate to know what it would be like if my team members didn’t like me…
Middle managers and junior executives often find themselves in a pickle. They’re no longer the front-line “doers” nor are they the high up muckety mucks who make the big decisions and the big bucks. They find themselves in the purgatory between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in an uncomfortably undefined role. Yes, they’re responsible for all the items I list above (and then some) but the one role they might be unaware of and underestimate the importance of is the role of Human Crapshield.
A Human Crapshield? What exactly does that mean?
I’m glad you asked.
I had a great company commander back when I was a young platoon leader (which was 15 years and 15 pounds ago). I had a penchant for running slightly amok on the “battlefield” in training sessions. I would occasionally change the plan and do something different for, as they say in the army “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Needless to say, I sometimes made boo boos during my overly zealous charges into the jaws of “enemy” forces.
What my commander taught me was that no matter how badly I messed up (unless it was an issue of safety or ethics), he would take the heat from “higher.” He thought it best to learn from mistakes and he understood he was ultimately responsible for everything that happened or failed to happen in his unit. After witnessing him suffer a blistering dressing down for one of my “battlefield decisions” I asked him why he didn’t implicate me.
“Because your job is to fight the best fight you know how. My job is to create the environment where you feel safe doing that and taking appropriate risks to win. Think of me as your Human Crapshield. I shield you from the crap raining down from above so you can do your job.”
That gem stuck with me and I resolved to do the same for my people regardless of the organization I belonged to. In my view, being a good Human Crapshield means:
– Forcing “higher” to prioritize work and initiatives so my team doesn’t get overloaded or run into the ground
– Eliminating worthless meetings, email threads and reporting requests (if the answer to the question doesn’t change what we’re doing, don’t answer the question – just get back to work)
– Minimizing flip-flopping of strategic direction or hasty focus on short term metrics to buffet my team from getting whipsawed due to knee-jerk overreactions
– Saying “no” to requests from higher if they won’t meaningfully affect business performance (everyone knows when they’re doing busy work – my job is to kill busy work before it happens)
– Protecting my people by accurately and objectively representing them in discussions with senior personnel (senior folks get far fewer interactions with my team than I do and sometimes can come to hasty or inaccurate conclusions about a person’s performance based on limited data). My job is to present a balanced case for my people to ensure they’re not harmed by inaccurate perceptions about their performance.
Sure – you can’t put “be a good Human Crapshield” on your annual goal setting form. It’s hard to measure. It’s one of those “you know it when you see it” things. But it’s one of those leadership “intangibles” people always talk about but never explain. Hopefully the role is somewhat clearer now.
As a post-script, I had occasion to take a two week long vacation shortly after the aforementioned staff meeting. During that time, my direct reports attended my boss’ staff meetings in my stead. When I returned sporting a wonderful tan, my snarky subordinate commented “I’m so glad you’re back. I had no idea the amount of crap you protect us from. Thanks. I’m going to go get some work done now…”
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The military has taught us some great leadership skills, but this is a great reminder for ALL leaders out there. Employees need you to be their Human Crapshield! Step up and protect them from the “crap” raining down on them.
I have always understood the proper role of a manager from when I began work (blocker removal, vision transmitter, resource guarantor, shield) – because that was the only way it made sense to even have such a job in the company, structurally speaking. I have always appreciated working under a manager who does this job like you describe, because to be honest without having them in my early career, I would’ve been fired long ago just for being a little too serious and sometimes not totally conformist (I’m not kidding – my new joiner probation was extended because I “don’t smile in the elevator”; of course, today I would’ve asked for that in writing, but back then I was too green to be that savvy).
But luck can only run fair for so long. I am now in a technical consulting department, and have a client department who has a new manager who *doesn’t* do these roles well at all, and it will be tough helping them do what they need to do because they no longer have a manager that helps them move, and in big orgs, things stagnate pretty fast when that happens.
This is a leadership blog, Mike, but what is your advice for the followers in this situation? As for me, would you advise I just stick to my scope strictly and ignore the client department’s larger problems?
I’d suggest bringing it up to your boss if they’re the one maintaining the primary client relationship. Express it as a concern about the client being able to continue to do the work you guys are working on. Perhaps your boos can go higher in the food chain than this bad manager and make a case for change. Given that it sounds like you’re a more junior member of the team, this feels like the right route to go.
Thanks Mike, that seems like a good way of putting it.
Perspective is everything. I have been in healthcare for twenty-six years and in healthcare leadership for the last ten. This definitely resonates with me. I have seen such poor opinions by corporate management regarding staff that are busting their butt and keeping the business functional. You find yourself advocating quite frequently. I find great joy in doing so too regarding that the team growth has been phenomenal. Finding yourself in the zone of being the “Human Crapsheild” you get to see the rewards of the hard work. This is why we sleep well at night.
Great post!!! Love it!
Thanks for sharing…
I told my guys that my office was their sewer reservoir. And if anything leaked, I’d failed as its custodian.