Picture the scene: You walk into the office, dressed to impress with victorious entrance music playing (mine would be “Bad Girls” by M.I.A.), as you swoop in to save the day for your colleagues. If this is a scenario that regularly plays out in your head, you might have main character syndrome.
What is main character syndrome?
Main character syndrome is not an official diagnosis, but it has been popularized on TikTok as a behavior that causes people to think of themselves as the protagonist of their own story, while everyone else is there to support them. At the time of this writing, the main character syndrome hashtag on TikTok has 51.8 million views.
When a manager has main character syndrome at work, it can create a toxic environment for everyone involved. I’m going to get personal: I’ve been that manager, and reflecting on my own experience as a “main character manager” made me want to learn more about strategies to let go of my ego and be a better leader.
I asked some experts and gained insight into what a good manager looks like and how smart leaders can help their team thrive.
A shift in mindset may help avoid main character syndrome at work
Apparently, my predicament was not unusual. Alma Derricks, a senior partner in the consulting practice Korn Ferry, specializes in culture change and innovation. Derricks argues that new managers need training.
“We really don’t take seriously that management skill is as much a skill as your technical skill,” Derricks says. “We promote people because of their technical skill. You should be the director of this because you’re experienced and we want you to lead it, but they leave you completely in the lurch when it comes to actual day-to-day management skill, which is at least half of your job when you have people under you.”
Y. Elaine Rasmussen is the founding executive director of ConnectUP! Institute, a social finance and enterprise development studio in the Twin Cities. She also owns consulting firm Social Impact Now, which focuses on impact investing. Rasmussen makes sure her employees know they are invited to any opportunity that might be good for their development.
“My leadership style is I want to work myself out of a job,” Rasmussen says. “Does that mean I don’t want to work? No, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, if I’m looking to advance, I need to replace myself.”
Teams need collaboration to thrive
Ross Jenkins is the founder and company director of DigitalME, a digital marketing agency based in both Valencia, Spain, and San Diego, California. According to Jenkins, one person can’t do everything, nor should they get the credit for doing everything. Jenkins delegates responsibilities to members of his team, who then own their projects.
“We have people who are frontmen for various different projects,” Jenkins says. “We’re a reseller for Active Campaign, and we’re one of their biggest resellers. We have a team member who is the front of that reselling project… he deals with absolutely everything in our project. He’s the frontman for that. So rather than me being the front of everything, that is his project.”
Additionally, Derricks points out that leaders often forget to give the people on their team projects of their own. Instead, they attempt to take on everything themselves.
“I always make sure that everyone on the team has something that they own,” Derricks says. “[When] the leader is either doing all the work or taking all the credit, you’re not getting a sense of your piece of contribution to this program. So, even if the most junior person on the team is responsible for making sure we get lunch every day, it could be something as simple as that.”
Can main character syndrome in management be a good thing?
Rasmussen doesn’t necessarily agree that leading as a main character is always a negative, especially when it comes to accountability in management and making sure the company is successful enough at the bare minimum to pay its employees.
“As a founder of a business [where] the employees work for me, I say I have two jobs,” says Rasmussen. “Almost every decision I make has to do with making sure that we make payroll. So while I invite your opinions, your thoughts, your feelings—at the end of the day, I hope to make payroll. And some of my decisions may not be in alignment with what you think needs to happen.”
Leading a team isn’t for everyone
It’s also important to note that not everyone should be—or even wants to be—a manager, and companies should take this into consideration when they develop job roles. According to Derricks, people should have upwardly mobile career paths available to them that don’t require the supervision of others.
She notes, “I think it’s a structural weakness of companies that we insist that when people get promoted, they inherit people to manage; and I think that’s a really limiting way of thinking about how someone contributes in a workplace.”
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