Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a great example of cult television. It had a relatively small but rabid fanbase, was timed perfectly so it ran just as the internet and internet culture was taking off, and featured content that was actually deeper than the “monster of the week” image it had on the surface. Buffy was also a part of the “girl power” phenomenon of the late nineties, showing the world that it was more than possible to be feminine, powerful, sexy, smart and heroic all at the same time.
On the show, Buffy was the superpowered Slayer. A young woman with super strength, endurance and fighting skills which she would use to fight the forces of evil. She was challenged by evil things on a weekly basis, forcing her to understand her enemies, learn, adapt and engage. She had a team of friends helping her in this, each with their own skills, knowledge, experience and goals. They would contribute to the end goal of fighting evil, but ultimately would fall in behind Buffy, as she was the “chosen one”. As the show ran for seven seasons, there was some turnover in her crew as well. Some people left, new people joined, but the goal was the same, to fight evil. Also, the group grew up as the show went on. They evolved and progressed, having dealt with all the pitfalls and issues of high school life, to the issues felt in college, to the everyday issues that adults face all the time. So on top of things like killing vampires, defending the innocent and stopping the apocalypse, they would worry about romance, family problems and paying bills. On Buffy, the mundane met the supernatural regularly, and often times was the scarier of the two.
As the leader of the team, the bulk of the responsibility fell to Buffy. She shouldered the majority of the burden, and no matter how good her team was, how much they contributed, she was the one that was ultimately accountable for success and failure. She never had all of the answers, never knew the most about the area of expertise her friends had, never could replicate their work in that area. Yet she had the vision, the skills to bring the together, and the ability to push them to reach their goals.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, in fact, a manager.
Think of the fight scenes as the meetings with high power executives or difficult clients. Buffy shouldered the majority of those as she had the greatest skill, but it also freed up her team to concentrate more on their own goals. Buffy would go out and handle the beasties, while her team would do research. She was the one going out of her way to take the lumps, but doing her best to protect her team. She would look for roadblocks and intervene, she would try and set the time and place for conflict, and she would endeavor to make sure that her team was as protected as humanly possible. She knew she was responsible for their well being, and she took that to heart. She wasn’t always successful, not by a long shot, but her victories outweighed her defeats, and her dedication to her team was without question.
When fighting the forces of evil, it’s important to know as much as possible, get everything done as quickly as possible, look for opportunities to improve what you are doing, and minimize the amount of risk you and your team take. To that end, Buffy would have her best researcher looking into background information, her best tech whiz digging through information systems, and her jack of all trades running interference and backing up the others. She would delegate responsibility as needed, help those on her team in any way she could, but bow to their expertise in their fields. She wouldn’t sit up high and watch, she got her hands dirty and helped out along with her team. She challenged them to do their best, and encouraged them to challenge her with new ideas. She knew that when she went out to fight that big evil (executive meeting) or engage in all out combat (peer review), that she would go in there armed with the enemy defeating secret (product, project or presentation) that her team had pieced together. But because they were her, team, and she was the leader (manager), she was the one that assumed the most risk.
She made mistakes along the way. She struggled to learn how to work as a team, she let her personal life interfere with her work, she missed key deadlines, she missed mistakes made by her team, and she neglected to address issues that her team members her having. In essence, she made a lot of the mistakes that new managers are prone to making, but also made some of the mistakes that complacent managers have a habit of making. She took her friends for granted, she offloaded too much work, she delegated the wrong tasks and she fell into a pattern of behaviour that didn’t help the rest of her team. In short, Buffy was pretty typical of somebody thrown into the realm of management without any formal education, just like many of us have been.
Now, as managers we do not have super powers, we do not have a unique destiny, and we do not hold the fate of the world in our hands. But like Buffy, we constantly face a series of difficult decisions, have far less information than we would like, and have to take into account not only the skills of our team, but also their personalities and quirks as well. When we lose focus, they lose focus. When we neglect to get our hands dirty, they feel as though we aren’t willing to do the things we ask them to do. When we start to get self involved, they start to feel like the results aren’t really for the team. Buffy may be the heroic icon fighting the forces of evil, but she didn’t do it alone. There was no success without her friends. There was no chance of victory if she went into every battle all by herself. Sometimes she jumped in front of an attack to save one of her team mates, and sometimes she had to make some very hard decisions, but Buffy knew that the success of her group relied on everyone, not just her. Her results were very dependant on being able to motivate her people, and making sure that they stayed on task. But when they did, they would see some massive success. When they didn’t, they had to deal with some losses. Buffy, as the leader, had to learn from those mistakes and adapt. Every time we face comparable situations as managers, we have to do the same. We all make mistakes, we all drop the ball, and we all lose at one point or another. As a manager, we have to be like Buffy. Regroup, re-evaluate what we did wrong, and learn from that mistake.
As the show progressed over the years, a common element was that often times life itself was the most difficult obstacle of all. The simple and the mundane can become seemingly unscalable obstacles blocking our path. Whether it was something Buffy herself was going through, or something one of her friends had to deal with, it affected their work. As the leader, this was something Buffy would have to manage. Bringing her own problems to work can and did affect the team. Being human, it’s impossible for any of us to completely remove ourselves from problems at home. We all have money issues, we all have breakups, we all have undead demons breaking into our homes. Okay that last one may have been Buffy specific. But we all carry similar burdens. Our team can sense these and they will affect them. By the same token, our team obviously have their own problems that can affect the workplace. They have cars that break down, parents that get sick, or become addicted to casting powerful magic spells. That one may be Buffy specific as well… But what marks a good manager is how we handle these situations. These may be employees as opposed to friends, but that doesn’t mean you are completely without power. One of the things Buffy had to learn, and every new manager has to learn is when to step in, when to back away, and when to realize that more help is needed than you can effectively provide. Buffy learned this, often the hard way, but that’s the way many of us actually learn how to handle these things. Managers will always encounter something brand new, and it isn’t always obvious how to handle it.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how many of us are thrust into a management or team lead role without any formal training, and expected to perform. It is a difficult adjustment to make. Leadership is a unique skill set, and one that requires more than expertise in a particular field. I’ve often seen situations where the best programmer, the most gifted animator, or the QA tester with the highest bug count is promoted to a lead position. This isn’t necessarily their skill set, and while it can and does work out, it can also backfire. Being thrust into leadership out of the blue can be a thrilling challenge, but can also lead to terrible defeat. Buffy may have been the chosen one, but that in and of itself didn’t make her the leader. Her courage, grace under fire, willingness to sacrifice, and ability to inspire were the attributes that let her be an effective (overall) leader. She learned, she grew, and she made her team better. For all of us in a similar position, those should be our main goals. We can learn a lot from people like Buffy, from both her victories and her losses. We are constantly being challenged, and our measuring stick for success is going to change. We have a responsibility to our stakeholders, our teams, and ourselves to be able to adapt and perform. Buffy’s biggest asset wasn’t the ability to deliver a mean roundhouse kick, or looking great in a leather outfit. Her biggest asset was being able to overcome the odds by relying a team that she led, trusted and supported. As managers that is what we need to strive for. Not trying to be the chosen one, but by trying to be the one that is chosen.