Stuck in the Middle: The Vassalizer…

Gravekeepers Vassal DR1-EN011 Non-Holo

As I continue to look at leadership tactics and styles, one of the more interesting management personas is the Vassalizer. A leader can be an all-in Vassalizer or only possess some of the traits, depending on their skills and ambitions. The root of the word isn’t in Vasaline, as in a smooth operator or slick mofo – but instead vassal. The Vassalizer is one who makes vassals, my own definition. Yes, I could have called it the Lord persona, but I prefer more a obtuse reference on this since this persona in principle is slow to recognize and generally hard to wrap your head around.

So with my newly coined word for the maker of vassals being a little obscure, I’ll proposed another title which may work to help conceptualize this persona: the bizaaro team builder. Yes, bazaaro as in Superman’s [tag]Bizaaro World[/tag] where everything is opposite.

So where a typical team builder guides, coaches and assembles people towards a common goal for the good for group, this is not how it works in the bizaaro serfdom. The Vassalizer creates an group of indentured folk over time who are working to ensure his or her success, while convincing them all is right with the world and there is only upside for them.

Make no bones about it – you like this person, they’re intelligent, you find them mildly interesting as a person and they appear to be executing more than the average bear from a distance. Just remember actively does not equal results, but the Vassalizer LOVES cross functional status reporting and activity is the key metric presented for his/her team, while other groups are just not producing the necessary results for his/her team to meet their obligations to the business.

This persona is more interested the status report than the actual work – the status report becomes the vehicle for building the serfdom. He who’s group authors the status report wins, no really…. This is a power which can be used for good or ill and the later is the Vassalizer’s use case. Perhaps we should ensure we are all aligned on what a vassal is.

vas·sal [vas-uhl] –noun

1. (in the feudal system) a person granted the use of land, in return for rendering homage, fealty, and usually military service or its equivalent to a lord or other superior; feudal tenant.

2. a person holding some similar relation to a superior; a subject, subordinate, follower, or retainer.
3. a servant or slave.

So if this persona makes folks vassals – how does this happen? The befriending happens immediately and you WILL like this person. Apparently nice, seemingly intelligent and someone you want to align with, but you can’t come into their tent until they invite you. The Vassalizer wants to first make sure you are just a little dimmer than him/her before you are eligible for being drafted on their team.

This persona looks for the lesser endowed members of the organization who can help his/her agenda and might have some career risk on the next couple of status reports. This leader waits for the appropriate [tag]status report[/tag] where they can “help” a lesser leader by shaping the status report, just a little – to relieve any potential negative fallout for a vassal candidate. Once this public save is done, the [tag]team building[/tag] begins.

There is no such thing as a free lunch and should someone allow the creation of a revisionist version of a status report, they are officially a vassal in the serfdom of the Vassalizer. The functional leader may not know immediately, but once the next report is shaped, it is quickly understood they are beholden. Once the functional leadership is stacked, on to middle management. After all the world needs blacksmiths and cobblers for the whole [tag]feudal system[/tag] to work.

With leadership quorum secured, a Vassalizer will begin recommending middle of the road [tag]middle managers[/tag] in other groups, groups where they have serfs – pronounce them as wunderkinds. These newly indoctrinated serfs should be involved with nearly every project – regardless of need or skills. Often these serfs introduce limited assistance to the goal of the project, but they do champion the agenda of the leader who has anointed them as landed super tenants.

With multi-level moles on nearly every key project this person now starts building their serfdom in earnest. The other special thing about being a serf, is the Vassalizer sets up meetings before the meeting for this band of serfs, effectively serfdom status reporting, kinda like being a club. The club also has meetings after meetings to ensure alignment for the next reporting period and correct course on any items which could be negative for the serfdom. In fact, during the real meeting him/her may actually remain fairly silent and appear in agreement to decisions or direction, while having the indentured present alternative versions or paths sponsored by the leader of the [tag]cabal[/tag]. Yes, I am mixing metaphors. I’m a little conflicted on this persona, as it may actually be good for some and helps mediocre people move on to better things, even if above their contribution and skills – so it’s hard not to fall inline with the opportunities presented by the Vassalizer.

Each status report represents another opportunity to show the organization how him/her could ultimately do things better, even if they are silent on report, since the objective status report speaks for itself. The real interesting thing is the serfs often don’t understand the impact they are having on the business, their own careers and the livelihoods of those not in the kingdom of servitude.

Over time this person may pick up a significant set of resources and other functions to ensure success for future projects, since the newly made vassals effectively confirm all the assertions by the leader when queried, since it is in fact in their best personal interest.

The only way to combat this control freak leader is to document early, often and wide. I hate micro-messaging on a project, but that is what you have to do. Confirm open items, missed dates, decisions and provide a more open version of project status. Artificial escalation through the of “cc” line on emails is recommended, in fact go a little larger than appropriate. Use up levels, but also cross functional up levels when writing you horribly generic and optimistic notes on where the project is, while weaving in the project reality as a subtext. Word choice is critical.

By using soft inferences and recommended solutions you can effectively limit the impact of this person on your life and the part of the organization you are responsible for, but not necessarily the organization.

Organizations take a little more time to realize the negative impact of this leader type, since they appear to have the confidence of fellow leaders, understand how to improve the NEXT project and are in general seemingly OK folk.

The warning signs that you have this type of leader are fairly hard at the business level to detect, since the are symptoms which mimic other non-benign things – people resigning, forceful recommendations to exit others and project misses.

People leave all the time and it can be easily rationalized that they are getting more money or some other intangible. Ultimately people have choice and opportunity, so this easily explained away and seldom do folks burn bridges, so they don’t disclosure all the reasons for leaving.

This person will strenuously influence the exiting of key dissenters out of the business and ultimately people are taken out all the time, so any person is as good as the next and hey – remember we like and trust the Vassalizer. I mean the Vassalizer is a hands on [tag]micromanager[/tag] who seems to understand the nuances of every project.
The final symptom, slipped projects is just a fact of business. Projects slip all the time, so what the heck and the status reports clearly explained how someone else impacted the success and timeline.

Time is the only real foe of this leader, over time the patterns will emerge and become easily recognizable by those who have been cleverly enlisted in the cabal and now somehow report to the Vassalizer. New members of management quickly see the behavior and a global feedback theme begins to develop and is openly socialized at multiple levels of the organization. Churning out dissenters ultimately backfires, at least the Vassal could previously discount feedback from those who him/her helped leave the business. Project participants who have repeatedly been burnt by an inaccurate status report begin to see the pattern and may begin to be more demanding on how things are reported.

At the end of the day, patience is a virtue and ultimately who knows what happens with the Vassalizer- maybe you get whacked in the process, but at least you have your integrity. All you ever have is your integrity, so protect and honor it. Integrity is the central required attribute from which all other parts of [tag]leadership[/tag] develop.

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3 Comments

  • Reply Great Series on Spatially Relevant: Stuck in the middle « LensNexus October 21, 2007 at 6:16 am

    […] Stuck in the Middle: The Vassalizer… […]

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  • Reply publisherhash October 5, 2008 at 4:31 pm

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