Moving Chairs, and Why It’s Cool

Many people think leadership is about being in charge and making a legacy and doing great things and everyone loving you because you changed their lives. But it’s not. Mostly, it’s about moving chairs and other little victories that no one notices.

Leadership is like Ronny Cammareri’s love, from Moonstruck:

Love don’t make things nice, it ruins everything! It breaks your heart, it makes things a mess. We’re not here to make things perfect. Snowflakes are perfect, stars are perfect. Not us! Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and— and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and— and die! I mean, the storybooks are bullshit!

Similarly, great leaders make as many enemies as friends, and most of what they do goes unnoticed for a long, long time. Leadership is about taking the initiative, about challenging the status quo. Leadership is about vision and perseverance. It’s about listening and humility and letting others take the credit and pleasure in the little gains that other people accomplish. Leadership is about setting an example and letting someone else run with it. This is the kind of leadership that may earn you no accolades, no awards. In fact, people may criticize you at first, because they don’t see the difference it makes. Even worse, they may ignore you. But it does make a difference. Or rather, a bunch of little differences.

Occasionally, you’ll make a big difference, but never by yourself. My last performance review was a shock to me, and it was because I was not talking enough with my manager or with his boss. Now, I could have just let it slide, which is one’s natural instinct. Why rock the boat? After all, you can’t force someone else to talk to you or to listen to you. And with your manager, if things don’t work out, you can’t fire him.

But I knew there was only one professional course I could take. And I also knew that others had been saying the same things I have, that we don’t know how our efforts fit into the team’s long-term goal or into the corporate vision. I went further: I don’t know what management expects of me. And I went further even than that: Management doesn’t know what I expect of the company.

Then I committed to meeting with my manager each week to discuss these issues. I didn’t know how that was going to go over, because you can’t force someone to talk to you or to listen to you. But the option with the greatest risk also has the greatest reward. And there was only one professional course I could take.

Now, my manager’s boss goes over my performance review, as a matter of policy. And he had a meeting with me to hear my thoughts. And I told him exactly what I thought. I told him that I disagreed with parts of the evaluation. And I told him that I thought I needed to talk more with my manager, because I didn’t know what he expected of me, and he didn’t know what I expected of the job. And I told him that I didn’t understand how my work fits into the team goals or the corporate vision.

And he was on the same page. He has now started having regular lunches with the software department. He’s already explained to us his vision for the future and opened a dialogue. And when I went to talk to my manager for my first weekly chat, he was open and receptive. He listened, and I listened. And I ended up thinking, This could work.

The honeymoon isn’t over yet. Wait another few months, and then we’ll see how permanent or effective these changes are. It somehow feels like too big a step to make all at once.

What does any of this have to do with moving chairs? Well, in my team, moving chairs was a little step, one of those things most people don’t even notice as significant. But it excites me. It excites me as much as the corporate-and-team-vision thing.

A few months ago, we moved to a new office space. In our previous space, the four of us shared two offices, two developers per office. A short hallway joined the two offices. You’d think we’d have pretty good teamwork, sharing space and being relatively close together. But the opposite happened. We felt closed in upon and cramped, which does not foster openness. And the hallway between the two offices meant that those of us in one office rarely talked to the people in the other office.

Our new space affords us each a normal-size work-area. But we don’t have cubicles. Instead we have alcoves, three walls and a missing fourth side. This was not our choice. I myself would have rather had a fourth wall. But at least we all sit together. And one of the side-effects is that I can look out from my desk and see two of my colleagues. And if I can see them, I can talk to them, too. Each of us can do this. It’s as if we each had our own area in a big, common office.

Here’s where the moving chairs come in. Shortly after we moved into the new space, one of my colleagues asked me to help him with something. We have no guest chairs, so I grabbed my chair from my desk and wheeled it across into his space. The practice caught on. I remember the way I felt when one of the other engineers wheeled his chair into my space. It’s such a little thing, but it represents something to me. It represents camaraderie. It represents that the four of us are not living in isolation, but that we’re part of the same team.

Recently, we had a design meeting in my manager’s alcove. One by one, we brought our chairs over to sit as we worked on his white board. Someone walked down the hallway that divides our space, and we joked that they were walking through our conference room.

This, all because we were moving our chairs. And I did it first.