20 September, 2015

Leadership: You get what you're willing to follow

TED talks give me the willies.  Snarked Martin Robbins (back in 2012):
TED Talks are designed to make people feel good about themselves; to flatter them and make them feel clever and knowledgeable... People join for much the same reason they join societies like Mensa: it gives them a chance to label themselves part of an intellectual elite... TED’s slogan shouldn’t be ‘Ideas worth spreading’, it should be: ‘Ego worth paying for’.
One reason TED talks are so popular is that they activate people's tendencies to, as Jonathan Haidt says, "Follow the sacral"
People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.
Perhaps my response to inspiring speeches is unconsciously a bayesian inference similar to when women see a middle-aged guy driving a Porsche: he may a car buff, but all else equal it may be more likely to assume he's overcompensating.  (an unscientific UK polls suggests about 40% actually are overcompensating.  Possibly because it's sometimes an effective tactic)

(Note: I'm not a car guy, but driving a friend's 458 convertible on the Merritt parkway a few years ago helped me understand why he is.  His Porsche is for track use only)

If everything were really that awesome, the speaker shouldn't need to work so hard to convince me.

A shared sense of purpose drives organizations; "no sacred cows" is essential for long-term survival yet challenging to implement

In 1970, Albert Hirschman wrote "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty."  It explored the interrelationship of the three basic choices facing a stakeholder of an organization in decline.  And all organizations are, in a sense, in constant decline - like a garden or a field, even when growing they need tending.

In a workplace setting, power dynamics often blunt the option of voice: it can be challenging to be seen as loyal while voicing concerns about an organization's strategy or tactics.

Meanwhile, voice and exit are also often mutually exclusive for several reasons which include the social psychology of in-group favoritism.

Ultimately, voice is often not a realistic option for an internal dissenter: it threatens other loyal members' social identity and results in realistic conflict responses such as retaliation (if staying) and blackballing (if leaving).  People who stay go along to get along; people who leave do it quietly.

Responsible dissent is even harder to encourage and protect than outright whistleblowing.

Being inspiring may be an outcome of good leadership in some circumstances, but it's not an input - unless it's critical to gaining and maintaining power

In "The Dictator's Handbook" NYU game-theorist and political scientist Bruce de Mesquita discusses the reality that all successful leaders are driven by political survival - they cannot lead if they don't have power.  Paradoxically, dissenting voice often needs to be heard in a way that doesn't threaten power - sometimes a use case for an external consultant (or stalking horse).

Interestingly, leaders of a dual-class share company may enjoy more leeway to encourage open dissent - their power is structural, not temporary.  Regardless of any given discussion's outcome, Mark Zuckerberg will always control Facebook.  Larry Page and Sergei Brin will always control Google.  LinkedIn and Yelp are similar.  American Apparel was not.

Managing this tension between appropriate dissent, group cohesion, and task performance was a topic of last weekend's NPR interview of Stanford's resident expert on power and leadership, Jeff Pfeffer.  His new book is "Leadership BS: Fixing workplaces and careers one truth at a time."

Excerpted from Chapter 1: Why Inspiration and Fables Cause Problems and Fix Nothing:
If you want inspiration, go to a play, read an inspiring book, listen to great music, go to an art museum, or read some of the great treatises on religion or philosophy...
If you are a leader seeking to actually change a workplace’s conditions so as to improve employee engagement, satisfaction, or productivity, or if you are an individual seeking to chart a course to a more successful career, inspiration is not what you need. What you need are facts, evidence, and ideas...inspiration is not only a poor basis from which to attempt serious organizational change but also useless for figuring out how to have more personal success inside work organizations...
... My view about inspiration is clearly in the minority... Real life is difficult and depressing enough. Who wants to attend an executive program or hear a speech or read a blog post and not feel happier and more enthused as a result? So the leadership industry delivers what the customers want. Whether it is what they need is an entirely different matter...
In spite of these cognitive biases, we nevertheless accept and indeed embrace the fables about leaders and leadership because the stories are so consistent with what most people would like to believe about the world... We often engage in astonishingly little due diligence to assess the accuracy of what we hear.
The problem isn’t the storytelling per se. Indeed, as Chip and Dan Heath remind us, stories are often much more memorable and persuasive than cold statistics. The problem is that the leadership stories are often exaggerated or fabricated out of whole cloth, and their listeners don’t bother to do any fact-checking.

Narcicisstic leadership: Functioning as designed, because it's what many followers view as actual leadership.  In some circumstances, they're right.

Followers tend to perceive narcissistic leaders as more effective, even when exposed to concrete evidence that their group performed more poorly relative to others.  Narcissistic behavior - displays of authority, confidence, dominance, and high self-esteem - matches most people's "profile of a prototypical leader" so they reward it.  These traits aren't bad per se - unless their expression inhibits the exchange of critical information.

Followers in that experiment lacked either the skill to recognize or the will to penalize displays of authority and dominance which inhibited the exchange of needed information.  When this dynamic exists in organizations, leaders who are aware enough to recognize the need for more answers may also fear being penalized for admitting it.

Authentic leadership can be a real asset - if your organization's success depends more on its performance and less on its power structure.  Either way, the org's own leaders and followers must be equipped to recognize and reward the kind of leadership best suited to the organization's success.

There's an old joke that you don't have to run faster than the bear, just faster than the guy next to you.  In some workplaces, aligning with power structures rather than performance may be rational - particularly when performance in the near term is hard to measure.

And performance can be quite hard to measure.  The original citation may be buried somewhere in his Principles; Ray Dalio has said "There are 8,000 planes in the air and about 100 good pilots."  Can a passenger know, ex ante, if his pilot is Chesley Sullenberger?  Most flights don't even need that level of expertise 99.9% of the time - right up until the moment they do.

Two methods for finding a "good enough" expert: filter by another expert, or understanding temperament "tells"

One way to find an expert is to know enough about a subject to filter candidates yourself.  This is often hard and time-consuming; you could hire a proxy instead, but that just abstracts the problem.  How do you pick from among competing proxies unless you're expert enough to be the proxy?

A second and more general way to find an expert is to know how experts behave.  In my experience, world-class people have a tendency to (a) explain things from first principles rather than appeals to authority or use of other rhetorical fallacies, and (b) have a humble, preternatural ego calmness that stems from knowing exactly where the limits of their knowledge and capabilities lie and not feeling threatened by it.

Be wary of origin stories - for companies, and for leaders as heroes

When money and power is at stake, any social signal discovered as valuable will have people rushing to replicate it.  Origin myths serve the same purpose for companies as they do society - elevate the mission to something sacral, something inevitable.

Which isn't a problem per se, but it does encourage things to be framed in that manner.  If a topic is wrapped in the blanket of sacral myth it can become inarguable taboo; to question the myth is to question the very foundation of the ingroup.

When people demand heroes, the market will deliver.  Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling gave us Enron.  Lance Armstrong ironically gave the Tour de France a raison d'etre after EPO doping scandals of the late 90's and sparked inspirational documentaries.  Tania Head founded the WTC Survivor Association, despite not even being in the U.S. at the time of the attacks.

Greg Mortenson gave us Three Cups of Tea - and despite the ensuing scandal and fraud,
Mortenson’s success at dodging accountability can be explained in part by the humble, shambling, Gandhi-like persona he’s manufactured for public consumption. But it also demonstrates how difficult it is to correct a false belief after people have made an emotional investment in that belief being true. When our heroes turn out to be sleazebags, self-deception is easier than facing the facts...
...when hagiographic fables about Potemkin heroes like Mortenson and Somaly Mam become lodged in the popular imagination, they acquire a sheen of legitimacy that makes them tough to debunk. 

Myths can help with sensemaking of a complex world.  When pushed for details, legitimate leaders can quickly move beyond the shorthand - explain concepts from first principle and back up the numbers when required.  Our leaders are not all-good or all-bad, but nuance gets lost quickly.

It can be hard to tell which are which.  For example, Jack Ma (Alibaba founder) has a bio that reads like a creation myth: humble beginnings, rode his bike to a hotel every day for 9 years to act as a free tour guide to practice his English, failed China's national university entrance exam twice, later rejected ten times from Harvard.

Here's a video of him talking at Stanford in 2013.  In it, Ma spends the opening minutes talking about his own goodness and unlikely path to success.  He pushes an image of a regular, honest guy who just keeps trying, saying at 4m42s "As long as I was the last person to die, I would have a chance."  He strikes me as a politician more than an innovative business leader.

Noted short-selling blogger John Hempton took a look at Alibaba recently, comparing its claimed numbers against known entities such as Amazon.com and FedEx/UPS.  While it's possible to substitute labor for capital in a general sense, the pictures of Alibaba pick/pack/ship operations shown by various media links in John's post show a lack of automation that seem inconsistent with Alibaba's reported sales volume and employment levels.  [9/21 Barron's article on this topic here, and Fortune here]

Like John says - extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  There's also little sense in spending the time/money to pull on those strings unless you can also think of a way to profit from your time.  Which is one of the market failures in scams and fraud - costs are widely distributed at small levels, benefits are concentrated at high levels.  So the incentive system encourages persistence of information asymmetry.

Somewhere I once read that it's a helpful starting point to listen to what companies say about their position in an industry and consider the opposite may be true.  A monopolist will do everything in his power to stay under the radar, speaking only to tell consumers and regulators that they compete in a market where competitive forces might eat them alive tomorrow.

And a company experiencing commoditization will try to fight the perception, loudly telling investors and customers of some "secret ingredient" that ensures they will dominate the future.  If I find the original link, I'll update this post here.

TL;DR Leaders will give what followers demand.  If you demand a hero, or want to follow a myth - be prepared for the consequences.  Some myths are based in reality.  Others are not.

Thanks for reading,

No comments:

Post a Comment

Focused, topical critiques are welcome though my responses may be limited. Off-topic comments, trolling, spam, or anything not pulling its weight will be deleted.