I asked my future boss what his role was in the company he founded. I wasn't sure if I wanted to work for him yet.
He told me his job was to apply grease. That sounded good.
He went on to explain that he saw his company as a machine. When things were going well, when the machine was functioning as designed, his role was to stay out of the way. If his machine slowed down he would apply grease to the situation. At the time I thought he meant he would fight for the best ideas, I didn’t realize it amounted to little more than firing people who weren’t producing. Nevertheless, he promised he would do everything he could to stay out of the way, to only appear in the rare situations where he could unclog the flow of revenue. I accepted the job, and true to his promise, I barely saw him in the entire time I worked for him.
Years before Greasy, I worked for a boss we nicknamed, "Bottleneck." This wasn't done behind his back, we openly joked about his tendency to delay projects. He simply couldn't resist the urge to personally approve everything that his company shipped. It was hard to blame him, his name was baked into the company logo. And despite the delays and frustration it caused the team, the work was generally better after he added his fingerprints. But why would someone hire creative people only to redo their work?
I resented the style of both of these men. I didn't like that Greasy was removed from the day-to-day grind, that he got rich without participating in the creative process. I didn’t like that Bottleneck inserted himself into our work, derailed it right before it could have shipped.
Does this match what you’ve seen in companies where you’ve worked? Leadership is either too deep in the weeds or too far removed from reality? Is there an alternative to the micro-manager bottleneck and the greasy empty suit? Sure there is. But it’s rare. It is rare because each of us secretly feels the pressure to be like Greasy and the Bottleneck.
We don’t want to be Greasy, but who doesn’t want to create a self-sustaining money printing machine that we can walk away from and effortlessly get rich without ever having to do the tough creative work? Who isn’t tempted to outsource the heavy lifting?
We don’t want to be Bottleneck, but who doesn’t want to affect the work of others, to improve it, to add our signature to great work? Who can resist the urge to delay a project if it means we can guarantee that the things with our names on them meet our high standards?
Do you see the contradiction here?
We want the autonomy to do our best work, independence to create things free from the distortion of meddling managers. So we seek out companies with leaders who hire the best workers and then get out of their way. A greasy angel gets his wings.
We want the fulfillment that comes from working for a company with purpose, for an organization that exists for more than printing money. So we seek out companies whose leaders are so passionate about the mission that they couldn’t possibly resist injecting themselves in the day-to-day tasks. A bottleneck is born.
I am a bit short on answers for this catch-22, but here is my theory. The thing that is missing from companies with leaders like Greasy and the Bottleneck is mentorship. A mentor is someone who gives you the right balance of autonomy and purpose. If you are lucky enough to work somewhere where mentorship exists, don’t take it for granted. A good mentor can apply grease without being Greasy and they can collaborate without being a Bottleneck. It is a rare ability, but mentors are out there.
Thanks for reading. You should follow me because every Saturday I write about conundrums like this one. Stay creative.
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