Leaders Don't Lie

It’s 9:58am and you’ve been preparing for your 10:00am meeting for the past two days in a haze of caffeine and increasingly dangerous levels of stress.

You’ve checked the figures again and again and again.

The burn-down is burning… but not quite as sharply as you hoped two weeks ago. That feature you thought was a week, turned into two, even though the team said it smelled like two to begin with. Three of the team went to a Ruby conference that was booked months ago; they even had the audacity to put in a holiday the day they flew back home to rest.

It’s 9:59am now; what status are you going to say for project X?

Is it green? Can you make this time back up? What if Bob and Sally were to pull some overtime during the next sprint? What if that two week feature actually got done in one week?

It is amber? Are you saying it’s not under control? You just said if the stars aligned the team will be back on track by sprint 9… so why worry everyone when you don’t know if they need to worry?

It’s sure as hell not red! Not on your watch right?

10:02am.

‘Trevor, how is Project X going since the last meeting?’

‘Project X is running fine…’

You bottled it.

At that precise moment you failed because leaders don’t lie; no matter how bad is looks or how bad it actually is.

You could have everything planned to the finest detail, only for something completely out of the blue to knock your perfectly planned little world into complete chaos.

The scary thing? It’s normal.

Nothing ever runs exactly to plan. Ever.

‘Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.’ — Eisenhower So if nothing ever runs to plan, why do we find it so hard to admit it?

It looks bad on you.

The most common reason that we as humans don’t want to tell the truth is because it makes us look bad. It’s ego, pure and simple. A software engineer will pride themselves on how smart they are in their intended technology; they want to be the smartest person in the room.

It is how we are wired.

Even when we make ‘oh shit’ mistakes on our favourite craft, we try everything we can to cover it up and fix it before needing to admit it to anyone.

I once dropped a temporary database table called #customers during the middle of a busy Friday. The ‘oh shit’ moment was when I forgot to add the # and dropped our entire customer table causing our B2B business to grind to a halt.

Did it hurt when I had to tell someone what happened? Hell yeah.

Did I feel stupid? Yup.

Have I done it since? Nope.

Shit happens and one of the biggest ways to show your team that the sky falls all the time is to openly admit when something isn’t going well. The awesomeness of replying to a question with ‘I don’t know’ rather than making up some bullshit shows your team that it’s ok to tell the truth, even when it looks bad on you.

Have you ever listened to someone discuss the status of a project and just knew deep in the pit of your stomach that something was wrong?

Beware of the watermelon.

Green on the outside but red when you delve into it, the watermelon is a common occurrence in most organisations.

The watermelon is usually rolled out two weeks before go live when your lead engineer mentions she spent a week bikeshedding some UI bugs instead of fixing the messaging service.

The next time you are sat in front of your peers and your boss, ready to give them an update on Project X, don’t feed them watermelon.

Feed them the truth because until you embrace the reality that things don’t go to plan you aren’t ready to be a leader.

That, unfortunately, is the truth.