The Prominent Tech Team Leadership Styles of Middle Earth.
So as a hobby project of mine I’m 25k words into writing a novel. It is based on a future dystopian society on Venus. Who would have guessed it? Someone in tech writing about science fiction. I’m not an avid reader. In fact I find writing, and the little of it which I do, to be a more gripping pursuit. Even though I barely write I am apparently still prone to writers block. After writing what I estimate to be a quarter of the first draft, I already have a general idea of where the book is going. For that very reason, some of the spark has been snubbed out of the creative process. I already have the template in my head, now I just need to colour it in. It’s a bit like an architect sketching a perfect architectural diagram, finding that it is complete for implementation and now going through the motions of constructing it. Or a developer, having sketched out a series of perfect APIs, entities and abstractions. All that is left now is to write the implementation. The difference here is, is that I know the architecture is probably deeply flawed, so colouring the diagram in isn’t hugely motivating.
So! With that said, it’s time to write a blog to help me get over that “writer’s” block, although it should just be called “block” because as I mentioned above, I am not a writer. I’m actually a Tech Lead at Picnic by profession. A recent leadership training from Pat Kua had me thinking about a strange analogy when we were asked to pick our favourite book on leadership…
So what’s the project?
Take the ring to Mount Doom and destroy it once and for all, introducing an age of peace in Middle Earth.
Who are the project’s stakeholders?
Entire of Middle Earth, but the key stakeholders are the races of: Wizards, Men, Dwarves and Elves for which they each have a representative present in the team.
Who are the team members on this noble quest?
Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn, Sam, Frodo, Merry and Pippin.
That’s a decent team size, so who are the team members that have some form of leadership role within the team?
Gandalf, Boromir, Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn and Sam.
What is the project team called?
The Fellowship of the Ring.
“Great! Where are we going? — Pippin”
Leaders of the Fellowship
Let’s take a look at the leadership roles. There seems to be a lot of them! You might even suggest that this project is going to be over-managed. Nevertheless, they all have their own leadership style which they are aiming to employ. Whether their role is to help ensure that other team members are happy and reaching their max potential, or that their project is technically sound, or that the project is staying on track and on time.
Boromir is the obsessive and possessive tech lead. He cares about the fine details, and wants to take control of the power which the junior developer Frodo has in his possession. Deep down he wants to complete the same objective, but through different means. He employs a highly directive style of leadership towards the hobbits, and in particular, Frodo. He does not trust Frodo to take care of the ring, or to do his job autonomously. He offers minimal support to the fellowship. He would rather take this responsibility upon himself, and he is unaware of this weakness which he possesses until the project is brought to the brink of failure! He dies caring very much for the success of the project.
“You call this good API design?!” — Boromir, mid code review. 1
Aragorn is the engineering manager. He cares deeply for the safety and well-being of the hobbits. He coaches all of them directly on a daily basis up until the project falls apart. He is struggling with his own personal dilemmas, you know, being forever parted from this immortal love and being the lost Gondolin heir and all that. But as a good engineering lead he does not let this get in between him and looking out for the well-being of his team members. He conducts regular check-ins, performance reviews and maintains a short feedback cycle. When the project is over, he gets a big promotion as the leader of men, even though he didn’t want the role in the first place! Boromir teaches Aragorn a great lesson on how directive leadership is not effective towards Frodo in the Fellowship, but that it is effective when leading men in to battle.
“I’m not of the race of men, but caring for and protecting them is my duty and of my lineage.” — Aragorn, even though he would rather be a lone cowboy/ranger developer.
Sam is the pair programming teammate. He is just as junior as the other hobbits, however he is capable of looking through the murky smog of project issues, and to see the light on the horizon. He therefore takes it upon himself to employ a highly supportive and low directive form of leadership toward the junior portion of the team. He wants to help share the burden of the project’s toughest task, but soon realises that doing this would lead to his own demise. He therefore helps Frodo carve out his own path, and becomes the true project Hero.
“POTATOES. Protection Of The APIs, Tests, OKRs, Executables and Services!” — Sam trying to save the day.
Gimli and Legolas, are senior engineers. They are engaged in deep competition with one another, and are often so blinded by the technical details, that they fail to see the big picture. They do however offer lots of support to the junior engineers, and set good engineering examples. They do not question the project direction.
“Shall I describe the tech debt to you? Or would you like me to find you a box?” — Legolas, trading banter with Gimli.
“43 bugs squashed ya bastard! Whats ure count?!” — Gimli, post coding marathon.
Gandalf is in the co-product manager/architect role. A great and wise leader, leading with reason, experience and a vision of clairvoyance. He can also be lead with reason. He challenges leadership and even expels his own leader. He isn’t particularly involved or a prominent team player, and leads primarily by delegating and having periodic checkins with the team. He makes sure that the project path is clear and removes as many obstructions as he can along the way, slaying the biggest of project daemons. He offers minimal direction and support to Frodo; instead he is there to guide Frodo with wisdom.
““I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — Gandalf, providing wisdom to Frodo on how to deal with a major system outage.
Other Team Members
Frodo is a very talented engineer, but suffers alone. He has the biggest responsibility in the team, and hence there are so many people around him trying to manage him. Like Boromir, he wants to face all of the project challenges alone. He resists being lead by most apart from Gandalf, who even admits to Frodo that not even he can direct the project. Gandalf advises Frodo to be weary of the directive leaders in his midst, including Boromir and Aragorn, and to place faith in the supportive leaders, i.e. Sam.
Merry & Pippin. A noteworthy mention of these two rascals. It can be interpreted as a showcase of leading from behind. Born leaders they are not, however they sound their values and opinions to others that have a huge impact on company culture. When the Fellowship team is disbanded, they play highly influential advisory positions to some of the project’s key influencers and stakeholders like Treebeard, Denethor, Gandalf and Éowyn. They are extremely brave, and often put themselves in danger.
“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” — Nelson Mandela
“Fuck it! For Yolo Swaggins!” — Merry and Pippin charing naively, albeit bravely, into a wall of tech debt, showing leadership from behind.
Even though the team was a failure, the project still succeeded in the end despite the team’s demise. The leaders and team members all played critical roles at one point or another, and for better and for worse. Each leadership style was employed, and even Boromir’s style was a showcase early on to the rest that his approach was not effective for this project.
- Yes, I am intentionally steering clear of the classic Boromir meme here. ↩︎
All screenshots are the property of TM & Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. The fair use rationale under the Copyright law of the United States, for usage of the screenshots for the purpose of this non-profit educational blog are that of Wikipedia:
- The images come from a DVD intended for mass distribution.
- Fair use is held under the fact the images illustrate the nine main cast members.
- There are many similar frames within the same films.
- No public domain images are available.