Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

20 June, 2016

Management vs. Leadership
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:43 PM

First, some news: I finished the bulk of the work on the DLC writing for March of the Living. It still needs to be debugged and playtested, but the majority of my work is done. I had hoped to get this done sooner, but the writing took longer than anticipated and interviewing took a chunk of time out of my schedule. Keep in mind that Dave has his own schedule for releases, so you probably won’t see the DLC released tomorrow.

But, I skipped my Saturday post in order to finish the writing over the weekend.

Anyway, today I want to look a bit more at leadership and compare it to a very similar, but distinct, concept of “management”.

What is management?

Management tends to be associated with all the boring things in business, contrasted (as we’ll see later) with all the touchy-feely good things associated with leadership. Reminding people they should be working instead of surfing Facebook? Management. Inspiring people and making them so excited they want to be working rather than surfing Facebook? Leadership.

Most of us past our school/university years understand management because we usually report to a manager. Management is the actual process of getting people to accomplish a goal. This is done with planning, organization, discipline, and focus. Often we look at these as somewhat unpleasant things. Hell, most people look at managers as somewhat unpleasant things.

Part of the problem is motivation. Managers do their job best when they keep things on schedule and under budget. To do that, sometimes you have to do what’s expedient rather than what’s right for the people working under you. So, a manager judged solely by project performance is not necessarily going to be motivated by making sure he’s on everyone’s Christmas card list.

In the game industry, we generally have two types of managers: team leads who manage people of a specific function, and project managers (usually producers, creative directors, etc.) who keep the project moving as a coherent whole. However, the game industry is creative and runs on “team chemistry” often. A manager who is hated by the whole team is unlikely to survive in their position long, especially if that means losing key people who could potentially double their income by taking their tech skills to another company. Unfortunately, that means that actual management tends to be lacking, which partially explains why so many games are late or not quite what was promised.

Management done wrong

Part of the problem with management is that humans like simple solutions to complex problems. Managing people is a complex problem. We have a whole genre of time management games which are hard enough, but now imagine if the person you were directing around the kitchen or whatever had their own hopes and dreams and aspirations that you had to take care of. I’m talking about something a bit deeper than buying a new, cheery wallpaper for the dining area.

This means that often management gets boiled down to a bunch of rules of thumb, general framework, or heuristics that people try to apply universally. Instead of trying to figure out the situation, people try to apply some theory they learned to every situation. When all you have is a hammer, everything indeed looks like a nail.

I read an article on management and how MBAs tend to be terrible for teaching people how to manage a business. Business consultants come in and apply the heuristics they learned from business school; they sound sage, but they are rarely held accountable for the results, according to the article.

I think the article perhaps exaggerates to some extent. From everything I’ve heard, MBAs know that they aren’t really learning management; it’s about making contacts and demonstrating your commitment to management. The same way a degree in Computer Science doesn’t make you a superlative programmer, but it demonstrates you could learn enough technology to satisfy instructors and could commit to several years of courses. (Of course, if the real value is the contacts, then online MBA programs are merely a way to demonstrate commitment. You’re missing some of the actual value by not seeing other people in person.)

But, the lesson here is that learning management by rote learning is not really making you a good manager. A lot of management “science” through history has been anything but scientific; although if you look at the other “soft sciences” like sociology and psychology, you can perhaps understand that studying people doesn’t make for the easiest science. And, management consultants aren’t going to get paid for a bunch of “well, maybe this will work!”

Tip of the hat to my friend Jens shared that article on Google+.

Management vs. Leadership

Often the difference between Management and Leadership is often described in platitudes. Managers command, but leaders inspire! Managers press down with formal authority, but leaders lift up with personal charisma! Managers focus on the work, but leaders care about the people! It’s enough to make you think if we just killed all the managers and replaced them with leaders, we’d all live in a beautiful utopia of perfectly unleashed creativity!

A lot of these platitudes seem to come out of startup culture. This makes sense, though, as people work for startups for crap pay because they generally are fed up with an “established” company and its army of middle managers. A startup leader needs a lot of personal charisma to attract smart people who are willing to take big risks for potentially big rewards (and often little compensation in the mean time). Talking about this in a positive way makes it easier to attract those people. “I won’t manage you, I will lead you!”

The reality is that both management and leadership are necessary. In smaller companies, you generally don’t need someone to manage everyone. Smaller companies need “self-starters” who “wear many hats”. And, the inspirational leader is often right there in the office every day with you, making it easier for that personal touch to motivate you.

At larger companies, “Heaven is high and the CEO is far away” to paraphrase the Chinese phrase. In this case, you will need people to keep the larger body of people moving in the same direction. The leader will still set the direction, but because of the sheer number of people it falls on others to implement the plan. The managers pay attention to the details so that the leader can hopefully continue to lead the company, but that means the manager often doesn’t have the opportunity to truly lead if he or she has to take orders from another layer of hierarchy above them.

What do you think? What is your experience with leaders vs. managers? Do you see them as different? If so, what differences do you see?


  1. There’s a difference between being liked and being respected.

    The manager who drives a team hard enough to actually get a product made won’t get many Christmas cards. But that manager will be respected after a few years (and a production credit), where the nice manager — who was more concerned with not hurting anyone’s feelings than with demanding results — will be mentioned dismissively if at all.

    That’s usually how it works in the non-game development world, where I’ve always been the nice kind of manager. I suspect the game development world is not much different… or am I wrong?

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 20 June, 2016 @ 9:05 PM

  2. Bart Stewart wrote:
    I suspect the game development world is not much different… or am I wrong?

    Somewhat. As I said, the game industry works on “team chemistry”, more than most other non-game technical businesses. A manager who focuses on driving the team hard will probably be seen as a “slave-driver”. Particularly since driving the team hard will likely mean NOT listening to suggestions, which really destroys the main reason why those programmers are making half their market wages in order to work in games.

    Plus, finishing the game is only part of the answer; the other part is how successful the game is. Getting a game done on time that turns out to be a critical flop does the hard-driving manager no favors to his reputation. A game that comes out late but that is a big hit will be remembered more fondly. As Shigeru Miyamoto said, “A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.” And, unfortunately, there’s no repeatable magic formula to make a game a guaranteed success.

    I think this is one of the big reasons why management in the game industry is really hard, because managing creative people is always a challenge. I don’t think there’s any one universal way to handle every situation, though, so the best managers are those who are flexible and can adapt; and, not to fall too much into platitudes, a good game development manager is someone who knows how to lead instead of merely how to manage.

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 June, 2016 @ 8:37 AM

  3. Some people have the personality to be a good leader. And I have worked for a couple of charismatic leaders before who could sell the vision for the team/company/project and make you believe. But if you don’t have that, there is still the baseline rule of leadership that anybody can apply, which is “lead by example.” If you are demanding quality work but are putting out half-assed efforts yourself, you’re doing it wrong. If you are demanding long status reports and detailed time tracking, and then demonstrate you pay no attention to either, you’re doing it wrong. If you are making people work late or on weekends but you’re going home on time, you’re doing it wrong.

    You don’t have to do all the things and be the bestest at all tasks, but people will be able to tell if you’re putting in the effort or not.

    I had a bad manager at one point… nice guy, but in way over his head… who confided to me years after we worked together that he used to shut his office door and just listen to music or sneak out early, as though it was a big surprise. I had to tell him we were all very much aware of his lack of effort, even if we weren’t tracking his every move. I had to sit through enough project status meetings with him where he demonstrated his ignorance time and again, making my job as one of his leads just that much harder.

    Comment by Wilhelm Arcturus — 21 June, 2016 @ 8:39 AM

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