Where’s the Damn List



I’m busy. You’re busy. Everyone’s busy these days.  And maybe some of you are hoping that I’ll just get on with things and get to the list already. I mean, there has to be a list of what a leader needs to do, right? Bullet points are fine, but numbered lists are better. Well, the good news is there are lots of lists out there.

Forbes has their Leader’s Checklist , the Canadian Forces had their simple list before they updated their manuals and Howard Behar has his list from working at Starbucks.

The problem is not that there aren’t lists, the problem is that there isn’t just one. And it’s not a matter of taking all the lists out there and squishing them together, either. The problem is what works one time might not work the next and what works for one person, might not work for another.

A few weeks ago, I brought up the possibility of using non-linear science as a metaphor for leadership.  This idea made so much sense when I heard Brenda Zimmerman talking about complexity theory in our Leadership class. She said there are three types of problems:

1. Simple problems. These can be solved using a set of instructions like using a recipe to make a cake. If you follow the recipe, you should get a pretty good cake every time. The outcome is known.

2. Complicated problems. These are difficult problems like sending a rocket to the moon. Here, you need protocols, formulas and expertise. If you are successful, it increases the chances of doing it again. The outcome is knowable.

3. Complex problems. These are like raising a child. As any parent knows, having a set of protocols that are strictly adhered is almost impossible (if not laughable), and just because a certain technique worked on one child doesn’t mean it will work on the next. These types of problems are relationship-based and the outcome is unknowable.

When we think of science, we usually think of simple or complicated problems. However, leadership problems are complex. The starting conditions cannot be used to predict the final outcome. Think of gathering your team together for their first meeting. You can run the exact same meeting for every team you work with but the end results will be different every time.

Complexity has its origins in chaos theory which is not about randomness but rather patterns that develop. It’s non-linear, which means that small changes to the system can produce unpredictable results (think the Butterfly Effect) and it has emergent properties that come from the interactions between the people. Let’s go back to the example of the first team meeting. As a leader, you can give the exact same opening speech, assign the same tasks and the pattern of behaviour for each team will be different. This seems logical because each person has their own unique personality, but we can also say that each team is a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). Complex Adaptive Systems  are made up of independent agents (people) that interact because of common goals, outlooks or other needs. They are also adaptive—new relationships form, old ones may dissolve—and that is what makes them so challenging.

This is why there are so many lists. Each list is successful sometimes. This also helps explain why some managers are successful even though they possess what you might consider to be terrible leadership skills. Like the micromanaging leader that controls every aspect of your work life and is driving you crazy. Their style of interacting with people is successful sometimes. Some people like the constant guidance. The same holds true for the boss that’s on Facebook all day. Some people like being left to their own devices. The problem is that these successes can reaffirm a particular leadership style if it never occurs to the leader that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

So how do we ensure that we’re more useful as leaders than just occasionally?

Just as your team is constantly adapting and evolving, you need to as well. As leaders, I think we also have to be willing to concede that we don’t have full control of the situation; that eventually, we have to let our kids get on the school bus by themselves and see what emerges. It doesn’t mean we aren’t involved. We still have to lead. But instead of looking at the little details, we have to look at the wider situation. The patterns and interactions usually tell a story much earlier than a failed project or missed deadline.

This means that leadership is messy and unpredictable. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we get it right. Which means that about the only thing I can think of to put on a Leadership To Do List is this:

1. You have to try.

I think that’s a great place to start.

The Problems (and Benefits) of Metaphors


The world is a chaotic and messy place and it’s worthwhile giving yourself some credit for how you’ve managed to sort it out so far. We’ve all done a pretty good job since most of us manage to function in society at large. One of things we’ve used to help us classify and understand the world is metaphors. Metaphors helps us take things we may not fully understand, but by comparing them to things we do understand, we can sort the unknown into useful categories and get on with our lives.

So what’s the problem?

It’s no secret that how we think about things influences what we do . Tony Robbins examines the stories we tell ourselves and whether they empower or disempower us.  This TED blog talks about  five  examples of how language can affect the way we think and here’s a journal article that shows how theories can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Bringing this back to leadership, I want to focus on the fact that many of us use the word “art” when describing leadership. I did in my first blog post because that’s how the Canadian Forces defined it back in the 90’s and that’s the way it has become ingrained in my head.

I want to look at this metaphor more closely and see if it’s really the metaphor I want to keep using.

Art is performed by artists–special people with skills most of us don’t have. Artists usually have to sacrifice everything and a fair number aren’t even recognized as great until they’re dead. That’s a rather depressing way to look at leadership. And to be realistic, we need leaders out there in the field and in industry doing things, not just looking pretty on a wall in some art gallery.

Also, an artist is selfish in the sense that they have a sentiment or feeling that they want to express and they want to express it a certain way. If people don’t understand the artist’s work, the artist usually doesn’t make any apologies and try to recreate the art a different way. The work of art is what it is.

Some leaders are like that. Steve Jobs made no apologies about what he envisioned and he drove Apple with his sheer force of will.  However, other leaders have tried the same strategy and failed miserably.

Like any skill, whether it’s painting, solving algebraic equations, or leadership, the more we practice, the better we get. If there’s one thing I like about the “art” metaphor is that art is about expressing or applying creative skill. There’s no doubt that creativity is useful, but I would like to argue that it’s a characteristic of creativity that’s actually one of the most valuable traits for a leader to have.

Flexibility. The ability to change in response to circumstances.

In this case, I think calling leadership an art is valuable. After all, science is not usually known for its flexible approaches to problem solving. Newton’s laws haven’t changed over time. But, not all science is linear. As my background is in science, the idea of looking at non-linear sciences as a metaphor for leadership intrigues me. But that’s a future post.

So what other metaphors can we use to describe leadership? Me and another instructor once asked a group of leaders this same question. We made them wander around the classroom and asked them to look at what leadership lessons they could learn. One group looked at the corner where four tiles met on the floor. They said that being a leader was like that corner, with all the lines going toward that point. Sometimes the edges between the tiles got dirty, but the corner still had a job to do.

Another metaphor I’ve used:

Leadership is like driving a car.

1. You need a destination (goal that you’re trying to accomplish) otherwise what’s the point?

2. You need to figure out the best route (technical problem solving).

3. You need to supply gas and steering to your car (team) in order to get to the destination.

Anyone who has ever been on a road trip knows that the travel is the toughest part. People suffer from travel fatigue (are we there yet?!). Cars break down. Maps aren’t always accurate.

In the end, some drivers will give up and go home. Some will ask for directions from the locals. Some will make necessary repairs en route while others push on with a rattling under the hood. I like to think most of us will get to our destination. The real question is whether or not we’re going to have a car left for the next trip when this one is over or whether we’ll have to thumb a ride home from the side of the road.

The great thing is we don’t always have to use the same metaphor. Sometimes we may want to be the artist, sometimes the driver, sometimes the chalk sitting on the edge of the chalkboard, waiting to be picked up. We can switch metaphors and the stories that define us, anytime we want, anytime we’re stuck, or anytime we just want to try something new.

So what’s your metaphor for leadership?