Erin Everhart / Culture / November 4th, 2013

How Ender Wiggin Helped Me Be a Better Leader

I have a confession to make.

Sometimes, I feel like an 11-year-old who’s supposed to command an entire fleet to defeat the buggers and save mankind.

And sometimes, I feel woefully under qualified to be doing that job.

OK, maybe I’m a few years past 11, and we’re fighting Google and spam more than an alien army, but you get the idea: I’m here to lead a team to do the best work possible for some amazing clients, and it’s a lot of hard work.

I was really pumped about the movie Ender’s Game. I read the book back in high school, so to prep for the premiere, I dusted off my old copy and dove back in. I picked up on so many things that I missed when I was a teenager and one in particular slapped me in the face:

Ender Wiggin was a damn good leader, and I had a lot to learn from him.

You do your thing, Ender.
You do your thing, Ender.

“Never have to give orders, just make suggestions.”

Good leaders don’t give orders. They don’t tell people what to do because they don’t have to; the people they’re leading are more than qualified to handle it and handle it well.

That’s what happens when you hire people who are smarter than you, anyway.

Good leaders help their team look at things a different way. One of Ender’s chief strengths was in helping his troops see things in a new light, and capitalizing on their new insight. Strong leaders do the same for their teams. They help them see an angle, a strategy, a vantage point they may have missed. They don’t force people to adopt their method, but instead give them all the possibilities and let them make their own decisions on the tactics.

“He had long since learned that the best commanders stay away unless they have some reason to visit. The boys have to have a chance to be at peace, at rest, without someone listening, to favor or despise them depending on the way they talk and act and think.”

This one is particularly hard for me, just like it was difficult for Ender to distance himself from his new squad.

I love my team. Not only are they some of the smartest and passionate people I’ve had the privilege to work with, but I genuinely like every one of them as a person. There isn’t a single one I wouldn’t want to grab a beer with.

We have a Skype group where we can drop helpful articles, get quick advice, share the latest digital media face palm of the day — like J.C. Penney or Kenneth Cole or Netflix or Habitat UK if we want to go way back — or just chat. Being spread across three offices, it helps bind us.

ender-wiggin-manager

I want to be involved in their discussions. To joke with them. To strategize. To let off steam.

But that’s not always what’s best for the team.

Even in our casual culture where we consider each other more friends than coworkers and never drop the “supervisor” or “manager” word, it’s naive to think there isn’t some level of division, no matter how slight.

It’s not that I want to alienate myself or distance myself from them. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The hardest thing for me to do is step back and let them run the show. It’s letting them build relationships with each other because those relationships are the most important ones they’ll build.

But don’t get me wrong: That’s not saying I don’t take time to bond with everyone on the team. It’s just that the best teams have a place to bond away from the person who has to give their annual reviews. It’s more important for me to be a leader than to be a friend, and that’s been a hard thing for me to swallow.

“The better Ender knew them…the better he could use them.”

At first, you may think this counters the last point, but in fact, it supplements it.

To be a good leader, you have to know your team. You have to know their strengths and weaknesses; understand their idiosyncrasies. You have to pair them with people who will make their strengths stronger and balance out their weaknesses.

Spend time with the people on your team. Build relationships with them beyond your office walls, not always as a whole group but one-on-one. This is something that I need to be better at.

For me, this focused solely on how to split up our larger team into smaller teams when we restructured. I spent a week figuring out the right mix of people, and I still made mistakes, but I’m constantly learning about each team the more I watch them working together and the more I work with them.

Ender could see which of his troops were burning out, which were able to use certain tactics to best effect and which could be counted on to pull off brilliant maneuvers. Having that depth of knowledge about each team member is invaluable, at every level of the department.

“They also knew that Ender trusted them to do as they judged best when he gave them no orders at all.” 

I’ve always had a laissez-faire leadership style, probably because I was micromanaged to the point of asking to go to the bathroom at my first job.

Trust is critical if you’re going to lead a healthy team. Your team has to trust that you have the best strategy possible, and you have to trust that they’re making the best decisions possible to further that strategy.

The fact of the matter is that I can’t be there every minute of every day — and I’d imagine that none of them really would want that if I could. So I trust their judgment. I trust that if they’re in over their head with work or there’s a fire with a client, they’ll come to me, and we’ll figure it out together.

So I let them be. We check-in weekly and talk daily, but they are accountable to one another, and they get their shit done. Because really, if you have to “manage” someone, it’s probably not a good sign.

Have you read the book or seen the movie? What other things did you pick up from Ender Wiggin that will help you be a better leader?