Sunday 29 July 2012

A Few Notes on Leadership

I was recently asked to talk to one of our teams as part of a series they're doing on leadership, taking a selection of different execs from across the business and getting their take on what it is really all about.  Leadership is a topic which resists a definition that is both concise and comprehensive, so I usually prefer to pick out a small selection of what it encompasses and deep dive on those.  Here's what I picked out for them:

Prevent entropy.  Entropy is universal and for anything to progress (or even continue to exist) we need to continually add energy to that thing.  Groups, projects, initiatives, morale, culture, all these things lose momentum when someone isn't adding energy to them, and it is a primary responsibility of leadership to be the dynamo at the center of the important things.

Configure the environment.  Make it OK to do great things, take the friction out of forward progress, teach autonomy, and empower people without making them feel abandoned.  It is a primary responsibility of leadership to establish an environment which encourages talent and quality and is hostile to impediment and waste.

Expand minds.  Not just add new knowledge but also help people to change their mental models of the world around them; to think differently and be able to conceptualize new ideas.  Experimentation, reasoning and analytical skills, and critical thinking are force multipliers for technologists.  It is a primary responsibility of leadership to change what people are capable of, to make their organizations about more than just turning the handle the same way.

Set purpose.  Everyone needs a purpose, and I mean a higher purpose, which transcends job description.  The reason you're really here gives you the confidence to make better decisions.  For example my guys aren't just here to write some code, or hack away at the Linux kernel, they're here to change the way people build web travel apps.  The better you get at describing what that means and why it matters for customers the more independent and powerful your team can become.  It is a primary responsibility of leadership to favor being highly descriptive over of being highly prescriptive, because it creates the space for teams to contribute at another whole level, not just follow orders, yet still be totally on strategy.

Hire up.  Any great human endeavor is bigger than all of us and can only be accomplished by valuing a smart, talented team over valuing being the smartest, most talented person in the org.  It is a primary responsibility of leadership to constantly raise the bar and bring in people than make you look dumb.

But the most significantly thing I think (hope!) this team learned from their research is that leadership is bigger than any one leader.  By now they will have heard a variety of different views from the cross-section of leaders they invited to talk to them.  Humans like to be able to rationalize complex things down into a single answer, or at least a small set of non-conflicting statements, and in a way I hope that they haven't been able to do that here.

The message here is that a large organization is more like an ecology than an individual organism, and therefore needs a healthy dose of heterogeneity to thrive.  As a leadership team we're capable of things that we individually could not be because we leverage that diversity; the different style and substance we each bring intersects enough for cohesion and extends enough to afford us a synoptic view.