Everybody is the main character

April 2023

As a manager you are seen as the default main character of your team. In group meetings, you tell the collective story that guides everybody.

But an important part of being a good manager1 is to have others be the main character as well. You should give each of your reports space to write their own individual story in one-on-ones. 

By definition, they are the main character of their own story. But large companies often don’t make them feel that way. This is universally demotivating. If you don’t feel like the main character of your story, you don’t do much, you lose agency.

This is one of the biggest problems large organizations have. But it is also an opportunity: you can greatly expand people’s agency by reminding them they are the main character of their story.

Parallel and intersecting stories

We tell each other stories to simplify the world but the world is not made out of crisp stories. Infinite things are happening at the same time. For any given account of “the facts”, we can choose to tell many different stories, highlighting different arcs and effectively choosing different main characters.

For example, The Playlist describes Spotify from multiple angles, one per episode:

  • The Vision: Daniel Ek starts Spotify.
  • The Industry: Per Sundin, a music record executive, gives Spotify legal rights to music.
  • The Law: Petra Hansson, a lawyer, negotiates with the record labels.
  • The CTO: Andreas Ehn, a programmer, makes the first version of Spotify.
  • The Partner: Martin Lorentzon, main investor, believes in Spotify and funds it.

These stories are mostly happening in parallel and intersecting in key moments. That is how working with a group should feel like.

Doing this is easier than it sounds! Constraints force Hollywood writers to have one main character:

  • No customization: Hollywood is forced to make one movie for the entire audience.
  • Fixed time: Movies only have so much time2 to develop each character.

But in a company, you are not bound by those constraints: you can spend O(employees)3 time and make space for many individual stories.

Here are some tactical bits on how to tell these stories:

  • Reference the individual stories when telling the collective story
  • Be generous with causality
  • But don’t lie
  • Balance the spotlight
  • Underemphasize your role

Reference the individual stories when telling the collective story

When doing a recap of what happened last week say things like:

Alice delivered Project X which enables Priority #2 which is very important

This ties Alice’s individual story to the collective story and reinforces in a group setting what you’ve been discussing with Alice in an individual setting.

Yes, it is that obvious. Social reality is in people’s heads and has to be constantly maintained through words and actions, most of them obvious.

Be generous with causality

If someone helped the team achieve an outcome, reinforce that. Unless they are totally out of line, be generous when telling people how they contributed to important outcomes. For example, somebody comes into a project to provide a bit of information. Did they do anything? Depends. But you should still thank them for it and reference how it affected the collective story when you talk to them (see above).

While this sounds obvious, I’ve seen managers do the opposite. Consider this exchange:

  • REPORT: I am glad X happened, it will benefit many.
  • MANAGER: We didn’t do X because you asked. We were going to do that anyway.

This is indirectly saying “you don’t matter”. There are very few scenarios for which that is the right thing to say. If you make people feel small, they will resent you for it.

But don’t lie

No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar

– Lincoln

Lying is bad, don’t do it. It is also ineffective. People are much better at noticing inconsistencies than you are at creating realities. When you tell someone “you are the decision maker”, you can’t turn around and also say that to some other person. Inconsistencies will eventually blow up in your face.

If you are too generous with causality (see previous section), it might make one person feel good but it will erode the trust others have in you. If what you say matches what they see, the value of your words go up. Conversely, every time you stretch the truth, it cheapens your word. So, reinforce people’s contributions if you yourself believe they mattered. Just verbalize that more than you normally would.

Balance the spotlight

When telling the collective story, there is only so much room for each character (like in movies). If you spend all your time talking about Alice, and don’t leave any time for Bob, he will be offended.

This is not hard to do for most people. Well-adapted grown ups seek to have balanced conversations where each person has room to participate.

Underemphasize your role

As stated above, the sheer fact that you are the one telling the collective story gives you main character status. When telling the collective story, don't waste the fixed time on yourself, give it to others4.

Temporarily bench people

Some weeks, the collective story doesn’t need Alice’s contributions. In those cases, it is better to say so explicitly and keep Alice’s trust than to try stories that don't resonate with her. Most people are fine being relegated to supporting roles temporarily as long as they get to shine later.

Micromanaging done right

So far, the essay is all about giving agency to your reports. But what if you think your report is making a mistake? Overriding your report feels bad. Only micromangers override their reports and we all know that micromanagers are bad! But are they?

If you think about it, we should all love micromanagers: they are helping us do our job! By making decisions for us, checking our work, and giving us constant feedback, micromanagers are making our jobs easier, not harder. But despite this, nobody likes micromanagers. Why?

If you don’t feel you can make meaningful decisions, you lose some of your self-worth and dignity. Micromanagers take your agency away and relegate you to secondary character in what should be your story. Everybody resents that.

I am not arguing for people to “micromanage” less. In fact, as the first paragraph in this section implies, I think good micromanaging, engaged management is undersupplied. There is a reason you are the manager5. Some common reasons:

  • You have exhibited good judgment in the past and the company wants you to exercise that good judgment over a larger scope.
  • You have lots of relevant expertise over the domain and the company wants you to use that expertise to make good decisions.

We should micromanage as much as possible without making somebody feel like we are reducing their agency. In my experience, the best way to avoid this is to treat them like an apprentice:

  1. Demarcate the areas where they have agency.
  2. Give feedback without killing their agency. 
  3. Graduate them out of apprenticeship when they are ready.

As the last point suggests, this apprenticeship should be a moving target. In the best case, you graduate them out of all areas quickly. In the very best case, you find ways to become their apprentice in some areas.

(1) Demarcate the areas where they have agency

For example:

Before you decide on architectural decisions like the database schema we should use, you need to implement features that show the trade-offs between different schemas

  • This sets a path they can follow to learn.
  • It makes it less painful when you give them feedback on architectural decisions.

(2) Give feedback without killing their agency

As an apprentice, they should expect to get detailed and overriding feedback on everything they do. The objective of that feedback is to:

  1. get a good working product and
  2. for them to learn how to do it on their own. 

While the content of your feedback should be aimed at getting (a), the form of your feedback should achieve (b).

Imagine your report comes with a system architecture designed to process bank transactions. It uses transactions to prevent money from being created or destroyed but in a very inefficient way. Here are three ways to react:

  • Let them fail
  • Scold them and take control away
  • Teach them how it should be improved

Let them fail

I see some problems but we can try it and see if it works

  • Agreeable and disengaged managers often use this case as a way to avoid confrontation.
  • The company is not a university. The objective is to get results, not to teach. By letting someone fail on the job you are setting the company back.
  • It results in a bad product and wastes everybody’s time.

Scold them and take control away

This is all wrong. You are locking the entire table on every transaction. I better do it myself.

  • This is the platonic micromanager from hell.
  • Not only it makes the feedback about the person (i.e. “You suck!”) but also takes control away (i.e. “I better do this myself!”), minimizing the report’s contributions.

Teach how it needs to be improved 

The design prevents money from being created or destroyed. Good. But the transaction locks the entire table. It should lock only two rows. Here are some materials on transactional semantics that show the difference. Please redo the design to account for that. This is hard to get right, let me know if you need any help from me.

  • Recognize what is working, and the progress made so far.
  • Explain why certain parts need changing.
  • Offer help.

This approach is clearly better than the other two but it takes a lot more time, effort, and tact to deliver. It’s worth it.

(3) Graduate them out of apprenticeship when they are ready

As soon as the report is good enough to make their own decisions in a certain area, graduate them out of the apprenticeship for that area. Some signs they are ready:

  • You rarely find mistakes in their work.
  • When you do, it is only because they were missing some random context6, and they adjust as soon as they learn it.
  • When you offer feedback, they sometimes have good reasons to do things their way that you hadn’t considered.

Managing recognition: archetypes

Not everybody wants to be the main character of the collective story. Revealed preferences don't always match stated preferences:

Does not actually want to be mainActually want to be main
Does not think they want to be mainLone WolfReluctant Hero
Thinks they want to be mainPragmatistLeader, Diva

When it comes to recognition, you need to manage each of these archetypes differently.

Lone Wolf

Some people know they don’t like the spotlight and act accordingly. They rarely seek it and genuinely don’t get resentful if they don’t get it. They are rare but they exist! As a manager, not much to do here since they don’t want to be the main character of the collective story.

Reluctant Hero

Some people have been taught to reject the spotlight. They think readily accepting attention is bad form. Instead, you get a complicated dance of “Me? I couldn’t possibly save the day!” until they actually do it, get praise for it, and feel great. Like most, the Reluctant Hero secretly wants the spotlight, they just don’t realize they do.

Your job is to show them they deserve recognition. They are tricky to manage because they never ask to be the main character of the collective story (and explicitly reject it), but if never given the role, they eventually resent you for it.

For best results, help Reluctant Heroes accept they want recognition:

  1. Notice when they are frustrated because they are not getting the recognition they think they deserve.
  2. At that point, follow the Socratic method and ask “why are you frustrated?”. With guidance, they’ll be able to articulate “I guess I want recognition"
  3. It is easier to guide them to “recognition” which has better connotations than “attention”
  4. Once they say that, tell them that recognition is a perfectly good thing to want and they should fight to get it when they deserve it.
  5. If they were trained to not seek attention, this is the permission they need.

Once they understand that, you can help them be a Leader: they can make larger things happen, and give space for others to be the main character. The cycle of life!


This person says they want to be the main character of the collective story but they don’t actually want to. The only people I’ve seen doing this are pragmatists that understand that:

  • Recognition is how you get promotions, bonuses, and raises.
  • While they don’t want attention, they do want to have a good career.

This is totally reasonable and necessary. Help them get what they need if you think they deserve it. In fact, coach them on how to get the recognition they deserve.


Divas are the people that not only need to feel like the main character, they need to be publicly acknowledged and treated like the main character at all times and insist that nobody else can be main. They are very damaging: by insisting on constant public treatment they asphyxiate everybody else. In most cases, I argue for firing the divas unless they should actively be running the entire show.


In general, organizations are often bottlenecked by how many good leaders they have. If so, you should be helping people land in this category and get better at it. For people to fall in this category, a few things need to be true:

They want to be the main character in the first place: Otherwise, they are Lone Wolves. If a Lone Wolf is sufficiently motivated to run a large project, they may try to be a Leader for a while. Hopefully they like it and do more of it.

They need to understand they want it: Otherwise, they stay Reluctant Heroes. If people trust you, it is easy to help them see the type of recognition they need. Once they accept that, it is much easier to have them run things.

They need to give space to others to be the main character: Otherwise, they are Divas, which can still work but is much harder to manage. I’ve seen one example of somebody going from absolute Diva to an all right Leader, but even in that example, I am not entirely sure. So, I wouldn’t spend time trying to change a Diva into Leader. Important qualifier: ego low-enough is different from low ego.

Thank you Ameesh Goyal, Lucie Lozinski, and Nadia Asparouhova for reading drafts, talking through them, and adding important insight.


  1. Team-oriented, outcome-oriented distinguishes between the role of leader, who drives collective outcomes, and coach, who helps individuals with their careers. As such, I expect leaders to tell the collective story and managers to tell the individual story.
  2. In many ways, the magic of Game of Thrones is that you don’t really know who the important characters even are.
  3. This sounds like a lot but if each employee has an active manager, you are already spending O(employees) effort.
  4. This is why IMO managers should never receive public awards or take public credit for projects.
  5. If there is no clear reason why you are the manager, consider dropping the role.
  6. Whenever your report was missing context, consider if it was your job to give them that context.