The Lessons of Seagulls and Mushrooms: Tech Leadership Advice from Dr. Zero Trust

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You know when leadership advice feels more like a pat on the back than a reality check? Meet Dr. Chase Cunningham, aka Dr. Zero Trust, who has recently published an unapologetic takedown of the toxic tactics and colossal errors have torpedoed careers and companies.

The distinguished cybersecurity leader and Retired Navy Chief exposed the darker sides of leadership — from the absurdity of “Mushroom Farming” (keeping your team oblivious and misinformed) to the destructive “Dumpster Chickens” approach (squawking around at problems, and then cr*pping on things), his vivid metaphors illustrate the catastrophic impact of poor leadership.

Keen to learn more, Techopedia interviewed Dr. Cunningham to talk about leadership challenges in tech, where brilliant minds often rise to leadership levels without the requisite skills or desire to lead.

He calls out the tech industry’s “brilliant jerks” and the toxic environments they can create, insisting on the need for environments that harness their abilities without damaging team morale.

About Dr. Chase Cunningham

About Dr. Chase Cunningham

Dr. Chase Cunningham is a distinguished cybersecurity strategist and retired U.S. Navy Chief, with more than two decades of expertise in cyber forensic and cyber analytic operations across esteemed agencies such as the NSA, CIA, FBI, and others.

His focus has been on enhancing security operations centers (SOC), deploying counter-threat tactics, and advancing network security through solutions including artificial intelligence and machine learning. His educational background includes a Ph.D. and M.S. in Computer Science from Colorado Technical University, and a B.S. focused on counter-terrorism operations in cyberspace from American Military University.


Formerly directing cyber threat intelligence operations at Armor, Dr. Cunningham now aids senior tech executives in embedding comprehensive security measures, leveraging varied frameworks and tools to fortify business operations against evolving digital threats.

Q: When talking about leadership in tech, you mention the phrase, ‘falling from your ego and hitting your IQ on the way down’. How have you seen this manifest among leaders, and why is it crucial for them to recognize and address it?

A: We have this weird phenomenon in the tech industry that you don’t see in other organizational structures. Someone can come out of college with a good idea and write code or something like that. They’re very technically adept, and they start building something.

Before they know it, they’ve got VC funding and are in charge. They never wanted to be leaders and are up there because they’re super bright.

The problem is that they get high on their supply and think they are the best thing since sliced bread. They need to understand why everyone is not accepting of the same standard, operational need, or whatever else they have, and they need to get knocked off that pedestal.

Dealing with those people is detrimental to the business and the employees. Netflix has an excellent book about dealing with so-called brilliant jerks, and they had somebody write the no asshole rule.

Q: What are the three non-negotiable currencies that every leader must have?

A: It’s a three-legged stool, and my research revealed that it involves time, trust, and respect. What I mean by time is if you’re in charge, you should think about the currency of time, not just time as a thing, but the currency of it.

Everyone on this planet only has a certain amount of time allotted to them. It’s just the reality of where we are. So, anytime you, as a leader, come up with things that take people’s time away, if there’s no real value to it, you’re robbing them of their time on planet Earth where they could do other things.

In the military, we used to call it mandatory fun. Nobody wants to be there. It’s a waste of time. But people show up because the boss says so. This then filters into the trust and respect side of things.

If you’re stealing my time, I will lose my trust that you care about me as a person. That factor will cause me to stop respecting you. So, these things are dependent on one another.

You should look at these as currencies in the bank. If you’re not investing in them, you’re taking away, and sooner or later, that bank total comes to zero.

Q: What strategies do you recommend for managing highly talented but equally occasionally toxic employees without stifling their creativity or harming overall team morale? 

A: Many times, people wind up in leadership roles, and they would tell you that they don’t want to be there. But they like the ego bump of being in that spot. It’s not that they’re enjoying or even good at it.

Brilliant jerks can be valuable and can do incredible things for the company. They can grow revenue, but the people, the culture, and the entire organization would be better if you just put them in their own space and let them do their thing.

Many organizations make the mistake of using them to go to market or putting them out there as evangelists, and this is not their thing. They don’t enjoy it and are often the type of people who don’t do well interacting with many people. So don’t make them. It’s not going to help anyone.

Q: With the rise of remote work, hybrid working, access to digital communication tools, and AI, how do you see the evolution of the workplace?

A: We should allow the organization and its people to grow organically instead of forcing them down different paths toward a future determined by a spreadsheet or past history.

Suppose your people do excellent work working remotely. Let them work remotely. If they do better in an office, bring them to the office. If they need more time, work with them to get that time and make it available.

With all our technology and every single person’s capability, we should not try to pigeonhole people based on past experience. It is detrimental to the overall efficacy of the organization.

As a business leader, you want growth, happy people, and operational capability. Doing things the way we did five years ago is not a good way to do things.

Q: Is there a positive leadership lesson you have seen that would inspire current and aspiring leaders?

A: One of the things that stuck out to me is that everyone looked to Steve Jobs as the guy who reinvented Apple, and he did. But you probably don’t know that when Jobs returned after the board fired him, he looked at the current structure of 37 products and knew something needed to change.

Jobs walked up and drew a quadrant on a whiteboard. He said, “Here are the four things we will do, and anything that doesn’t fit in these four quadrants is done as of today”.

Although this sounds like a “whoa” moment, he immediately moved efficacy towards profitability, changing Apple computers forever.

Q:Is there an argument that Steve Jobs could fit into the brilliant jerk category?

 A: Oh, he definitely was a brilliant jerk.

Q: What initial steps or mindset shifts do you think leaders should have?

A: It’s often about the lenses you should look through. The biggest one is the lens of the mirror.

If you wouldn’t work for you, why would somebody else? And if you look at yourself in the mirror and actually go, “am I the one who should be running things? Am I doing things for the good of the cause? And is my ego the issue you’re having?”

You should know more about yourself than you do about everyone else.

This is difficult for a lot of leaders, especially people that are in leadership positions. It’s always uncomfortable to look at yourself in the mirror and go, “You know what, I might not be the person that’s best for this, but I can make things better by choosing to figure out a different way, even a different person to do this.”

Q: In your book, How NOT to Lead: Lessons Every Manager Can Learn from Dumpster Chickens, Mushroom Farmers, and Other Office Offenders, you have some colorful terms. Can you walk me through them?

A: Dumpster chicken is a term we use in the Navy. We called seagulls dumpster chickens. When you’re looking at the leadership style, you see some people flying around squawking about things, and then they’ll land, and they’ll cr*p all over the problem. But then they fly away, and you’re just wondering how that behavior was helpful and want to ask why didn’t you assist me in solving this problem?

I also refer to mushroom farming, which we’ve all seen. These leaders keep their people in the dark and feed them crap but hope they figure things out on their own. However, the mushrooms will communicate, and that’s where you get gossip problems. Then, people wonder why they are not telling them the whole story.

The last thing you want in a leadership position is for people to guess what’s happening. It’s better to keep them informed and educated and be honest with your teams. If you can’t trust your workforce to empower them with knowledge, why are they your workforce in the first place?

Q: How do you self-educate and keep up with the pace of technological change?

A: I’m a big fan of Audible, which allows me to listen to books while driving or on a plane. I also find it valuable to set a goal for the year of how many books I will read and then vary what I read by not sticking to the same topic twice. If I read one book about leadership, the next one will be about finance to help expand my horizons.

There’s no excuse not to continually learn. So I would say stay engaged, pick a level you’re willing to operate at, and then do it.


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Neil C. Hughes
Senior Technology Writer
Neil C. Hughes
Senior Technology Writer

Neil is a freelance tech journalist with 20 years of experience in IT. He’s the host of the popular Tech Talks Daily Podcast, picking up a LinkedIn Top Voice for his influential insights in tech. Apart from Techopedia, his work can be found on INC, TNW, TechHQ, and Cybernews. Neil's favorite things in life range from wandering the tech conference show floors from Arizona to Armenia to enjoying a 5-day digital detox at Glastonbury Festival and supporting Derby County.  He believes technology works best when it brings people together.