Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis for speaking out against them, summarized an important leadership duality this way in his book “Life Together”:
1) “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community”
2) “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
Being alone and being in community are a both-and reality.
Exceptional, high contribution leaders must engineer time alone. Let’s call that “Cave” time. Quiet reflection away from noise and bustle. Discernment about what is most important, most useful, and most helpful. Studying materials loaded with timeless principles, which transform our minds and hearts. Orient yourself to a trustworthy north star. Be reminded of both your smallness and your potential for greatness. Thinking through hard problems. Focused individual work (“deep work” as Cal Newport describes it). Self-leadership to “screw your courage to the sticking place” and act boldly.
Cave time is the antidote to “muchness, manyness, and noise” of contemporary life. Cave time anchors us in an environment awash with information, only a fraction of which is commendable.
Leaders must also be in community with people. There is no leadership apart from working with and through other people!
Many of us like the idea of people but don’t really like people. I think this partly why social media is so popular – you engage with a comforting idea of people yet can click away from real conversation and messy reality any time you like.
The danger for leaders today to think they’ve been interacting with people when it’s all email, LinkedIn, and teleconferences. If you are describing a group as the “distribution list,” or “audience,” or “they” then you are unlikely to be in genuine community with people. There’s a place for thoughts to be expressed or information to be shared digitally, but don’t confuse that with community.
Community is the antidote to getting lost in your own assumptions the inaccuracy of your internal PR which inflates your ego. Depression and discouragement are the hallmarks of people who deprive themselves of community. Community can be both the best and the worst of experiences; people throughout history have both longed for community and dreaded it.
You must engineer time to get out of the cave, even though the cave is crucial. You must be with genuine flesh-and-blood people, face to face, and revel in the messiness. You need friends and colleagues beyond your Facebook “friends” and LinkedIn “connections.” There are things you cannot learn in the cave, and things you cannot share in the cave. Community is not safe, but it’s good.
Most importantly, when you do come out of your cave, seek out the highest-quality people who will allow you to be in their presence. Don’t aim to be the smartest person in the room, or the person who is the most “together.” Seek people with whom you can be genuine and vulnerable. Be teachable even as you share what you know. Listen intently. Hang around this group until you stop hearing and learning new things.
Cave and community is a leadership rhythm, one supporting the other. Take note of your biases for spending time in one vs. the other, and consciously work to create a balance. I’m more comfortable in the cave, for example.
(Note: I’m indebted to Perry Marshall for some of the ideas discussed here. I highly encourage any leader or entrepreneur to engage with Perry.)
The Pareto distribution, also called the 80/20 Principle, is iterative–the 20% breaks down into its own 80/20 view, and so on. After just two iterations you see this distribution:
More than half of the total payoff comes from less than 1% of the effort!
In this age of digitization, the world often looks more 95/5 than 80/20, so everything I’m about to tell you is even more significant. A 95/5 distribution shows that less than 0.5% of the effort is producing more than 85% of the value:
Many leaders fail to appreciate the enormous leverage that comes from taking away resources from the bottom and feeding them into the top. It’s entirely possible to get 16-64X improvements by eliminating the low-payoff activities or products. Starve them. Phase them out. Scratch them off the to-do list. Intentionally reallocate that time and effort into your 1% list.
Let me address one objection that some smart people will surface. Yes, there is business leverage in the “long tail” of inventory and services that some companies can provide, most famously, Amazon.com. But the profitability payoff distribution is unchanged. Those organizations which successfully do “all things for all people” still have a design strategy to maximize their profitability in highly-focused areas. Amazon.com, for example, generates an enormous margin from AWS cloud computing services.
Suggested areas to explore:
Unprofitable products and services–A full and honest appraisal shows these cost more to produce, deliver, and service than the revenue they generate.
No-longer relevant reports–Courageously kill “monthly” reports which aren’t useful. Calculate the 80/20 of the data that decision-makers are truly using, then focus your efforts there.
Inefficient processes–Just as no project is on autopilot, no process should continue without periodic review. Some aren’t needed. Some have become counterproductive. Many can be simplified to reduce the effort for the same or better result.
The leadership angle here is to provide the vision for the leverage that comes by eliminating the bottom to feed the top, then making this process organizationally safe. The management angle is to courageously execute in the face of the criticism that will come. Some of the biggest resistance will come from people who are perfectly comfortable performing the low-value work. It’s easy, known, low-risk, and predictable.
Everything you can do to reallocate effort to the highest payoff work yields disproportionately large benefits to your organization.
People seem amazed at how much I read. “I could never do that,” is a common response. My favorite: “That is NOT normal.”
Please don’t compare yourself to me or anyone else. That’s unhelpful.
Instead, I encourage you to commit to X pages a day. That’s how you get through significant books that are worthwhile.
20 pages a day times 340 days (I assume you’re not perfect) is 6,800 pages in a year. That’s easily four longer books (few books top 1200 pages) and a batch of shorter books (200-350 pages).
Maybe it’s not pages but minutes. 20 minutes a day is 113 hours over 340 days. I have an acquaintance who burns through Audible books this way in his commute to and from the office.
Please strengthen this by being selective. Skim some material instead of pouring into super-concentrated effort. Use the tactics in Mortimer Adler’s fantastic “How to Read a Book.” Pre-decide that you’ll only work on the best material that’s meaningful for you and skip the trendy/popular “must-reads.”
We over-glamorize the people who can zip through 3 books in a week and underestimate the power of 20 pages a day over years.
Leaders like you can apply this same steady pace approach to many areas in your self-development and organization leadership:
A few pushups and situps a day, every day
Take three five-minute breaks in your day to step back and assess the situation, to improve your decision-making
One networking lunch a week to improve your set of connections and gain insights
Twenty minutes daily to think about development opportunities for your direct reports
One hour a week to “put yourself in your customer’s shoes” to gain insights about how to serve them better
Thirty minutes a week to report on milestones and convey the value your team is delivering to key stakeholders
One deep discussion a month with a mentor
Ten minutes a day to plan the most important activities for tomorrow
Write 500 words a day on your next article or book
Use the steady pace approach, and look forward to being amazed at how much progress you make. This is a sustainable way to get better every day, week, month, and year.
You may have heard this apocryphal but useful story:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Challenge for the day: What mindset are you feeding? Open/opportunity/growth, or Constrained/enslaved/shrinkage?
Yes, others have made decisions which affect you and the people you’re working with on projects and initiatives.
Yes, you are not working in a pure democracy. As the song says, “Everybody’s gotta serve somebody.”
Yes, there are practical limits on time, energy, and funding.
Yes, it’s possible that the universe might work better if you were in charge. But the people who have the power to make decisions are always the people who make the decisions.
Still true: you have the power of choice about your mindset.
It’s not just you, but the people you’re leading, too. How you think, speak, and act is broadcasting at 50,000 watts to them.
Feed the mindset and behavior which fuels your best contributions, and truly help your organization. Starve the rest.
“If you can draw it, then you know you understand it.” That’s what my Virology prof in grad school would tell us. “Scientists must be able to sketch out complex subjects to communicate and share ideas – especially things which cannot be seen or experienced in everyday life.”
I encourage you to practice visual thinking and using visualizations in group conversations. The best leaders use words well, and great leaders use words and visualizations.
The first reason visualizations are effective is because complex things are broken down into parts with connections and relationships. The second reason is that you’re working with the best capabilities of the human brain. A significant fraction of our neurons are committed to visual processing. You might as well leverage that for your leadership work!
One of the big wins for visual thinking is getting to clarity quickly. Here’s a critical leadership insight from Dan Roam: “We’re not going to make complicated things simple, but we can make complicated things clear. And when they’re clear, we can solve them.”
What visualizations should leaders use?
Metaphor and analogy are visualizations. The words paint pictures in the minds of your listeners and partners. People will remember these because our brains are wired to work this way.
Mind maps and structured outlines of content are visualizations which work better than dense text and simple lists.
Graphs are more powerful than tables of numbers. There is a good body of practice about the best ways to present quantitative information to convey the key ideas but not be manipulative.
Process diagrams and qualitative system diagrams convey much more than the words in the boxes, showing order, relationships, and interconnections.
The person who can go to the whiteboard and sketch out the situation is often the most powerful leader in the room. You want to be that person.
In this episode, I talk with Anthony Metivier about his Magnetic Memory Method, the power of self-talk, and we even do a memory exercise. This could be a game changer if you feel you have a poor memory. I learned a lot, and I hope you do too. You can take a listen to our conversation below:
In this episode, I talk with Terry Weaver about what makes Disney great, his experiences with coaching and consulting, and his new book, Making Elephants Fly. I appreciate my friendship with Terry, and enjoyed where our conversation took us. In fact, it’s my longest interview for the show so far.
An aspiring author reached out to me to discuss his book in progress, which he called “Scientific Management.” He believed every business problem could be solved using mathematic and scientific principles. You can build an operation like a machine and make it run with perfect predictability.
It didn’t take me long to poke holes in his engineering perfection theory. Our conversation (which he has given me permission to share) went something like this:
“Have you heard of the 3-body problem?” I asked. He said no, so I summarized it for him.
“The challenge is to find a mathematical solution to perfectly predict the future positions of three bodies in the same gravitational field – say an asteroid, the moon, and the Earth – if you know their starting position, mass, and velocity. They really wanted the answer for N bodies, but knew that if they could solve it for three bodies they could solve it for N bodies. Smart people tried for over 300 years to find the solution, but it turns out to be mathematically impossible. It’s a chaotic system.”
For the math geeks, here are three differential equations required that cannot be solved simultaneously:
“NASA uses iterative approximations to do the calculations. They can get really close, good enough for practical uses, but never precise. There is no closed solution.”
My aspiring author friend seemed to know where this was going. I continued.
“Let me ask, if three non-living objects in the same gravitational field, interacting with one another, are not perfectly predictable, what do you think happens when you have three human beings interacting in the same environment, each with free will to make decisions? Are you going to be able to control or perfectly predict the outcomes? How many non-solvable differential equations will describe that situation?”
We talked about the useful ways that you can reduce decision-impacts and variation (e.g., checklists, procedure documentation, automation). But none of these are pure science and math solutions.
I admire the guy’s moxie and ambition. It reminded me of Bertrand Russell’s effort to create a complete system of mathematics to explain everything before the crushing weight of Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems demonstrated it was logically impossible.
We could have scientific management if we were not humbled by the reality of the 3-body problem, quantum mechanics, and especially the fact that people are extremely unpredictable.
Leadership is required when people and humbling circumstances abound. There are good management principles – how to run projects, how to manage processes – and there are proven practices in supervising people (delegation, feedback, communication, training). You should study and master them all, but never think they are a complete substitute for leadership.
You can manage things but need to lead people. This truth is built into the fabric of the universe.
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