The Thrill of Becoming Obsolete

A heuristic I've been trying to follow in my leadership position: Aiming to make myself obsolete.

January 29, 2018
Jonathan Libov

It’s been about a year and a half since I joined Figure 1, the first stop in my career that I’ve held a leadership or management position.

It’s probably impossible to list a set of universal principles for being a good leader or a manager, and god knows if I did that here I’d be very discouraged with my own progress (read: I’m one of the most humble people I’ve EVER met). For better or worse, I’ve found one heuristic—not a principle but a heuristic—to be the most satisfying and, I hope, effective means of leading and managing: Aiming to make myself obsolete.

The long form version: Teach the teams or people you manage or lead the skills and sensibilities you have that they don’t. Take the skills and the tools and qualities that made the people who hired hire you, and give them all away with abandon.

This is scary because the more skills and sensibilities you transfer, the less they and maybe the rest of the organization need you. On multiple occasions I’ve had one of the people I manage or lead show me work they’ve done that, months or even weeks ago, they might have needed me for. I grow fearful that the skills and sensibilities I possessed, which I had prized as precious and rare enough for me to get the job in the first place, are now a commodity. In short, I’ve made myself obsolete, and Imposter Syndrome sets in all over again.

It’s a dreadful feeling, especially when you recognize all the skills and sensibilities that the people you lead possess that you’ve never possessed, which makes you feel paranoid, as it means you’re now even more obsolete. But really, what could be more motivating and thrilling than conquering the fear that you’re becoming obsolete? Time to level up.

Only the paranoid survive, and I want to be among the paranoiacs left standing.