Connecting the dots

Good Cop or Bad Cop

February 01, 2015

Over the past few years, I have worked in various teams with very different team leaders. Different leaders have motivated me in ways that are strongly at odds with each other. Fresh after reading the biography of Steve Jobs, I decided to use the main characters to portray these differences and what kind of leader I would like to be in the future.

One of the people I have worked under has an uncanny resemblance to Steve Jobs. Jobs was both a shocking and amazing leader at the same time. Though I still have not come to terms with some of the incidents he was involved in, I cannot deny his contributions to the computing industry.

Jobs was a genius at manipulating people. He had the ability to turn any situation to his advantage using his charisma alone. Because he was able to read people like an open book, he knew exactly what to say to get his job done. He knew how to play his cards very well. If any situation was unfavourable, he had this exceptional ability to build his own version of reality to deal with it. Apart from believing this himself, he was even able to impose his contorted version of reality on his team as well. The result was unrealistic deadlines and product features which seemed impossible. Jobs always wanted to be in total control of everything that was happening in Apple. Even the very tiniest of details had to be approved by him and if he thought your idea was shitty, there was pretty much nothing that you can do about it. He was brutally honest with his opinions and he didn’t think twice before hurting someone’s feelings. If it was necessary, he could (and he did at times) lay off people from the company without batting an eyelid.

This model is very good if the leader has a crystal clear vision of how things ought to be done. People in Apple rallied under Steve and his vision. Since one person was clearly in control, the decision process within the company was lightning-quick whereas other companies like Sony were fighting it out internally about the direction of their products. People who did manage to survive the brutal onslaught of Jobs and took it as a challenge to perform better, managed to do incredibly well – conquering one seemingly impossible milestone after another. It was amazing how many engineering and operational challenges were overcome – just because they had to be. For example, when the engineers working on Macintosh decided that they would not be able to make the deadline set by Steve Jobs and they would require at least 2 more weeks to finish the code for the computer before it could be released, Steve did not postpone the shipping date of the computer, “You guys have been working on this stuff for months now, another couple of weeks isn’t going to make that much of a difference. I’m going to ship the code a week from Monday with your names on it”. And that was it – the engineers did manage to make the deadline – because they had to.

However, this reality distortion did not always produce miracles, it also backfired from time to time. There are things which are just downright impossible to do within a given timeframe. For example, a critical flaw in the original iPhone led to 1 in every 100 phone calls to be dropped. If they had time to test the phone well and if they were not rushing to get a phone together just before the shipping deadline imposed on them by Jobs, I am sure this problem would have been rectified before it was released. Though people who were able to handle the pressure managed to excel, there are a lot of people who just couldn’t handle the pressure of working under such a leader. The burn-out rate among the employees of Apple was quite high. Numerous people resigned from Apple because they felt that such a lifestyle would not suit them.

In the Apple parlance that we have been following, the other kind of person I have worked with is Steve Wozniak – a kind-hearted person who gave a lot of importance to the relationship he maintained with his co-workers. It is fun and inspiring to work with such a person. He was an expert and knew exactly what he was doing. He did not micromanage, gave you the freedom to try out what you think is the best solution to the problem – even though he knew that it was probably not the best approach (You would realize that he was right all along much later!)

The perks of working with such a person is that you are self-driven. The chances that you burn out are much lower. You work harder because you truly want to become better at what you do (like your leader) – not because you have that impossible deadline to meet. The relationship between the team and the leader is based on (mutual) respect and not based on fear.

However, since this model of leadership is based on how awesome you are, I doubt if you can inspire people who are better than you to work for you. World-class engineers worked for Jobs not because he was a better engineer than all of them. In the alternate universe where Woz was the person running Apple, I am not sure if his good-cop nature would have got him too far. Sometimes quick, radical decisions are necessary. So do you have to be a jerk at times to run a successful company?

Well…Personally I would like to emulate the second category of leaders since it better fits with my nature. But at the same time, you should not hesitate to execute decisions that are hard or might piss people off. If you are truly passionate about what you do and want your company to succeed, you won’t have a problem taking such decisions — even if you are a good-natured person. You can rally your team without running behind them with a whip. If you recruit the right people and show how passionate you are – that is a much better motivation for people in your team to come up with miracles.

I feel that you should try being a good-cop most of the time and you need not be a bad-cop unless absolutely necessary. Jobs had an ego problem that did not let him admit that he was wrong at times. I feel that you can get your vision across to your team mates without being as harsh as Jobs. This is not a sign of weakness and does not mean that you are not in control – if you can’t convince your team of your vision rationally, then how will you be able to convince the world about it?

PS – I love Steve Jobs!