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Like a Boss: Four Talents for Middle Managers

Short descriptions of four talents department heads and project leads should cultivate including: leadership, management, facilitation, and research.

Last week a would be Studio Lead Game Designer asked me to summarize the traits of a good middle manager. I came up with four:


Leadership and management are not the same thing. Leadership requires that your team listens to you. Before they will listen to you they have to respect you. Leadership requires the kind of confidence that can only be gained by sticking your neck out there at the risk of looking like a fool: think public speaking or stand up comedy. As a leader you need to make decisions and provide solutions. It also requires being honest with yourself and your team. I suspect this last point is where most people fail. One of my favorite frequent utterances of Zen master Dogen Hosokawa is "I don't know."


The act of management doesn't necessarily mean the management of people. You could manage inventory, or a portfolio, though as a department head you're probably managing people. From this perspective, management means allocating the right resources (people) to the right projects. It also means firing people who are not making a positive contribution and hiring those who you hope will.


There are two types of facilitation that a department head or team lead will have to engage in frequently. The first type is like that of a counselor resolving interpersonal conflicts. The other type is helping your team to navigate your organizations political structure. You know what will help them be productive and happy, now make it happen.

Facilitation requires that you be able to "read the tea leaves". You need to be sensitive to the feelings of others. If you attack too straight forward the other person will become rigid and they will not hear your words. More on this in Research below.


Don't make decisions out of hubris or ignorance. When you don't know the answer to a question you have three options:

  1. Admit that you don't know.
  2. Make up an answer.
  3. Research until you do know. Ask your staff for their opinions, ask your peers, and scour the internet. Combine this knowledge with your wisdom and come back with some solutions.

Another aspect of research is an empirical approach to management/leadership. You will come across many situations that you've not had to deal with before. Conduct your own experiments and learn from your own success and failure. These can be experiments with new team structures, management methodologies, business models, etc.

You can also experiment with your communication. As you are talking with someone, be aware of their body language. If they start to look defensive, confused, bored, or uncomfortable find a way to lighten the mood and then try to communicate the same thing from a different angle. Each person responds differently so what worked with one person might not work with another. Keep up these experiments and build up your wisdom.

On Fear

Zemsky Roshi used to tell me "the primary concern of managers is to protect their position in the hierarchy." If you are a manager, please don't do this. Don't be afraid of someone usurping your position; if your decision making process is governed by protecting yourself instead of making the best product or protecting your team, then you will be making sub-par decisions.

If someone does get promoted above you, or replaces you, then it was probably time to move on anyways.

Also, you have to involve yourself in all kinds of potentially uncomfortable situations such as speaking in front of your team, having disciplinary meetings, or making proposals to your boss. It is natural to feel fear in these situations but you must find some way to engage in these communications despite the fear.

And as I mentioned in Research, don't be afraid to conduct small experiments.

Further Reading

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