How to avoid a leadership horror story

What horror movie title describes your worst leadership mistake? Consider these familiar scary stories
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TEP Halloween 2014

If you’ve seen the movie Scream, you may be familiar with something called “The Rules.” But anyone who has seen even a few horror movies will recognize these remarkably consistent plot devices, dialog points, and character types that always –always – end in unpleasantness:

  • “What’s that noise outside? I better go out and check… alone.” CHOP!
  • “I’m going to go get more beer…” (never seen alive again)
  • And of course, “Hey gang, we better split up and look for –" HACKSCREAMCRUNCH! Cue shrieking violins.

At the movies, it’s all part of the fun. You know who’s gonna get it, and you know why. Spotting the tells is a game the director and the audience play together.

But in leadership situations, it’s less fun, and the consequences are greater than a little spilled popcorn. So, in the spirit of Halloween, let’s take a look at a few classics:

See? I told you it was nothing…

There’s a sound outside the window. One character gasps and startles, and the other goes outside to check, seeing nothing…until the monster grabs him right when he turns and says, “Aww, it was just an owl….”

In our world, we see signs of trouble often: a complaint from a customer, an employee who misses a key communication or meeting, or a conflict that brews up and then dies down on a team. Sometimes these things are just one-offs or resolve themselves, but it is always best to make sure.

[ Also read IT leadership: How to defeat burnout. ]

I once managed a team in which one person was consistently missing deadlines. In scrums, people noticed but never addressed it. When it was brought to my attention, I followed up with the person, who responded, “It was just this one time.” (It wasn’t.) Ultimately, what could have been easily addressed early turned into a bigger issue when the slight delays added to a major roadblock.

The lesson? When you think there might be a problem, treat it like it is a problem. Never assume it’s just a noise in the night.

Look, the villain is dea- … hey, where’d they go?

The team is struggling. A key person left for another job, taking their specialized and hard-to-find skillset with them. You send out postings, work with your talent acquisition team, reach out to your networks, and finally find a replacement who seems to have not only the right skills but even more experience. You’re saved!

When you think there might be a problem, treat it like it is a problem. Never assume it’s just a noise in the night.

Until weeks later, you learn that the new person has never connected with the team and was not onboarded or given the proper background and support to step into the role. Ultimately, they fail, and you’re right back where you started.

I’ve been there. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve been that replacement.

The lesson here is not to assume your problem is solved too quickly. In this case, the immediate need – finding a new person – did not address the real issue: keeping the team and the project running effectively.

Failing to create the right fit and conditions for success is like hitting the killer on the head with a frying pan and then walking away just because he falls down. The problem is still there, and in fact, it might even be worse.

Always follow through before you drop your defenses, take a deep breath, and close your eyes …Chop!

Jump scare!

Just like in the movies, these happen when you get complacent. Everything seems to be running fine, so you relax – maybe a little more than you should – and “BOO! Mwah ha ha!!”

Out of the shadows it leaps, right when you least expect it.

Does that mean you should be a worrier? Certainly not. But always check the little things, even when they seem to be running smoothly.

Wait here, I'll be right back...

Recognize this one? Someone’s hurt, tied up, trapped, or otherwise helpless, and their friend says, “I’m going to get help…” leaving them defenseless and destined to become lunchmeat. When – or if – the friend does come back, it’s always too late.

If you’ve ever faced a large organizational change as a manager, you know that having your team members’ backs is one of your primary jobs. It’s especially hard to do this when your position might be in danger; self-preservation, or the “run for help” reaction, can be overwhelming.

But remember: Even if you survive and your team collapses, this reaction does none of you any good. Maybe you can’t change the outcome due to organizational politics or foregone conclusions about what is needed. Maybe the monster will eat you both. Even so, never leave your people waiting.

Part II, Part III, and beyond

Another thing many horror movies share is sequels – long, long strings of sequels. (How many Halloween movies are there now?)

The same is true for leadership horror stories. But these are, unfortunately, almost never single features but parts of an ongoing franchise – and the final chapter always carries a question mark at the end.

Business conditions, team dynamics, and your own characteristics as a leader may change, but they will never disappear. Just because you fight the monster once, don’t assume it will not come back. Be ready, and next time, look for the telltale signs of doom – preferably before the violins crescendo.

[ Want more expert insights on leadership, strategy, career development, and more? Download the Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

For more than 20 years, Jaeson has been working with in-house and agency teams to conceive, lead and deliver digital experiences that solve real problems. Jaeson helps define digital product and service strategies for clients including Charles Schwab, Delta Community Credit Union, LifeScan, and others. Jaeson holds a BA in Music and English from the University of California at Be