Lessons for me on leadership, from a film about apes

Watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes gave me some thoughts about dictatorship, and more broadly, leadership. Mostly regarding at work, but also in other areas of my life. These are things that are also present in the real world, but somehow, it took a movie on apes for me to grasp them.

Dictators (both Caesar and Koba) take power. They don't wait around for a consensus that they're the leader. They take decisions, and you must accept it (or take a chance and rebel). This—taking one-sided decisions—is something I suck at. I always try to be "reasonable" and listen to others' opinions. This is nice (it makes me a great colleague) but makes me poor in situations where consensus is unclear, or where strong leadership is needed.

This assumption of power is connected to confidence. For it to work, the dictator must not entertain doubt within themselves. They must believe completely in the legitimacy of their rule. For Caesar and Koba to be effective, they couldn't afford to have moments of repentance. No impostor syndrome. No wondering, "Who even gave me the right to be in charge? What if these people realize I'm no more special than they are?" Nope, you move forward. Even when you seize power via a coup, you must not doubt that you're right.

Dictators create their own authority. Sometimes through fear, sometimes through respect.

I think that these things are why dictatorship works, and also why it doesn't work. A dictator is always taking a gamble. Sure, they don't depend on consensus, but that also means consensus could someday overthrow them. Or another dictator could rise against them.

Translating this to my work (and life): I'm often reluctant to take power. I'm fine with being appointed or elected to lead, but I rarely decide to be in charge of others. I'd rather do shit myself than ask people over whom I have no explicit authority (eg superiors, peers, even juniors that don't explicitly report to me) to do it. But that's because I play it safe. I don't like taking a gamble, taking the risk of people refusing to cooperate or my leadership being questioned or my decisions backfiring. This is something I should improve on.

My ability to listen to others' opinions is gold, and I should not lose it. But at the same time, I should be ready to matter-of-factly take decisions when needed, and not always shy away.

Postscript: Interestingly, the feedback I got in my last peer review kinda amounted to this. Positive feedback talking about how I'm a great engineer and teammate, and critical feedback saying I could improve in confidence. It makes sense now.

I write about my software engineering learnings and experiments. Stay updated with Tentacle: tntcl.app/blog.shalvah.me.

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