Saturday, January 18, 2014

The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.

 The noted English architect Sir Christopher Wren once built a structure in London.  His employers claimed that a certain span Wren planned was too wide, that he would need another row of columns for support.  Sir Christopher, after some discussion, acquiesced.  He added the row of columns, but he left a space between the unnecessary columns and the beams above.  The worthies of London could not see this space from the ground.  To this day, the beam has not sagged.  The columns still stand firm, supporting nothing but Wren’s conviction.  Leadership is much more than an art, a belief, a condition of heart, than a set of things to do.  The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.


De Pree M O (1989)  Leadership is an Art.   Melbourne: Australian Business Library, Information Australia pp. 135-136

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

A leader must break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.

In 2002 Steve Sample, Tenth President of the University of Southern California penned the book, “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership”   I was reminded of this great little read during a discussion with a business colleague today. Not surprising, when I found my copy it was full of many long-forgotten marginal notes and post-it stickers (also covered with my characteristically unreadable scrawl).

The key take-away of the book is that most people are incapable of truly original or independent thought, but a leader must have that ability.  Sample draws heavily on classical works from Shakespeare to Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln to support this proposition.  As an aside, his recommendations for a reading list are fun, and…well, contrarian.

A leader’s vision is important, but just as critical is this ability to “think free” and consider a range of ideas.  I’m digging deeper into the book as I’m finding it fascinating to revisit after 12 years during which my experiences give me a richer reference point (and will probably post some further comments.

My dictionary defines contrarian as “one who opposes or rejects popular opinion”.  That certainly sounds like free thinking.  Sample pulls together a few contrarian principles “which will help a leader break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.”

1.    Think gray: try not to form firm opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to.

2.    Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches.

3.    Listen first, talk later.  And when you listen, do so artfully.

4.    Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.

5.    Beware of pseudoscience masquerading as incontrovertible fact or unassailable wisdom; it typically will do nothing to serve your interests or those of the organization you are leading.

6.    Dig for gold in the subtext while your competition stays mired down in trade publications and other ephemera.  You can depend on your lieutenants to give you any current news that really matters.

7.    Never make a decision yourself that can be reasonably delegated to a lieutenant and never make a decision today that can reasonably put off till tomorrow.

8.    Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes.  The decisions you make as a leader can only affect the future not the past.

9.    Don't unnecessarily humiliate a defeated opponent.

10.   Know which hill you’re willing to die on, and realize that your choice may at some point require you to retreat from all the surrounding hills.

11.   Work for those who work for you; recruit the best lieutenants available, and then spend most of your time and energy helping them to succeed.

12.   Many people want to be leader, but few want to do leader.  If you are not in the latter group you should stay away from the leadership business altogether.

13.   You as a leader can't really run your organization; rather you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization of which you are the head.

14.   Don't delude yourself into thinking that people are intrinsically better or worse than they really are; instead work to bring the best in your followers (and yourself) while minimizing the worst.

15.   You can't copy your way to excellence; rather true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches.

Sample records that these principles are based in a belief that leadership is highly situational and contingent.  He rightly states that “every leader is locked in a moment-to-moment struggle with the context and circumstances of his own place and time”.   The leader must work hard to master the struggle.

Reference: S B Sample (2002) The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.  Jossey-Bass.  ISBN 0 7879 5587 6


Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Voice and Touch: Leadership wisdom of Max De Pree

Leadership is a serious meddling in the lives of others, states Max de Pree in Leadership Jazz (my edition was published in 1991.  ISBN 1 86350 101 0)

Reflecting on some of the more recent literature on leadership, and the many contributions on social media to the discussion, I find myself continually drawn back to de Pree and his engaging narrative.

In his final chapter, he tells a story of arriving at his tennis club after a group of high school student had vacated the change rooms, and without thinking he started to collect up the towels abandoned by the students and putting them in a hamper.  A friend observing this asked: “Do you pick up the towels because you’re the president of a company, or are you the president because you pick up the towels?

The following are reflections by de Pree on what traits and qualities, besides picking up the towels, that “qualify us to accept the job of leadership?   He contends that:  Leadership is a position of servanthood. Leadership is also a posture of debt; it is a forfeiture of rights. You see! One quality of leadership implies another, where does one stop.  Here is his list (paraphrased in several places).

INTEGRITY:  The leader works publicly. Behaviour is the only score that is kept. Lose integrity and a leader will find herself in a directionless organisation going nowhere.

VULNERABILITY: The opposite of self-expression. Vulnerable leaders trust in the abilities of other people; vulnerable leaders allow the people who follow them to do their best. Otherwise you are only as good as your own performance. One caveat: there is no safe vulnerability.

Discernment:  Lies somewhere between wisdom and judgement. Leaders are required to see many things – pain, beauty, anxiety, loneliness and heartbreak. Two elements to keep your eye on: the detection of nuance and the perception of changing reality. What kind of antennae do you have?

Awareness of the human spirit:   You need to understand the cares, yearnings and struggles of the human spirit. In organisation speak – person skills always precede professional skills.

Courage in relationships:  Followers expect a leader to face up to tough decisions. When conflict must be resolved, when justice must be defined and carried out, when promises need to be kept, when the organisation needs to hear who counts – these are the times when leaders act with ruthless honesty and live up to their covenant with the people they lead.

Sense of humour:  Sometimes the best humour is deadly serious. A compassionate sense of humour requires a broad perspective on the human condition – and accountability from many viewpoints it is essential to living with ambiguity.

INTELLECTUAL ENERGY AND CURIOSITY: If you lead you have opportunities to consistly learn from your people. Leadership is learning frantically. And learning from them allows them to achieve. When followers are allowed to do their best, they make leadership infinitely easier, and you’re free to learn even more. A wonderful cycle, don’t you think?

Respect for the future, regard for the present, understanding of the past: Leaders move constantly back and forth between the present and future. Our perspective of each becomes clear and valid if we understand the past. The future requires our humility in the face of all we cannot control. The present requires attention to all the people to whom we are accountable. The past gives us the opportunity to build on the work of our elders.

Predictability:  To their followers, leaders owe predictability as a human being. This differs from predictability in strategic planning or decision-making, something leaders also should pursue. Leaders must be calculable forces in organisations; they are not free to follow a whim. Attending a vision/purpose is as difficult as conceiving one.

Breadth:  A vision of what an organisation can become as room for all contributions from all quarters. Leaders are people large enough to contain of multitudes.

Comfort with ambiguity:  “Leader” is not always a position. Whatever one’s position, the amount of ambiguity is directly proportional to the amount of leadership required. Healthy organisations exhibit a degree of chaos. A leader must make sense of some of it. The more comfortable you can make yourself with ambiguity, the better you will be. Organisations always delegate the job of dealing consistently with ambiguity to their leaders.

Presence:  The ability to stop is an important trait of leaders. Leaders stop – to ask and answer questions to be patient to listen to problems, to seek the nuance, to follow up a lead. Leaders quietly and openly wait for information, good and bad, that enables them to lead.

“Leaders stand-alone, take the heat, bear the pain, tell the truth.”


A leader must break free of the wisdom of the herd, and strike out in bold new directions.

In 2002 Steve Sample, Tenth President of the University of Southern California penned the book, “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadershi...