Owning It

July 9, 2009

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Wendy Kopp, co-founder of Teach for America, gave an insightful answer to the question: What are you looking for in teachers you recruit? (Emphasis added below):

We’ve done a lot of research on the characteristics of our teachers who are the most successful. The most predictive trait is still past demonstrated achievement, and all selection research basically points to that. But then there is a set of personal characteristics. And the No. 1 most predictive trait is perseverance, or what we would call internal locus of control. People who in the context of a challenge — you can’t see it unless you’re in the context of a challenge — have the instinct to figure out what they can control, and to own it, rather than to blame everyone else in the system.

In this case, there are so many people who could be blamed — kids, kids’ families, the system. And yet you’ll go into schools and you’ll see people teaching in the same hallway, and some have that mentality of, “It’s not possible to succeed here,” and others who are just prevailing against it all. And it’s so much about that mind-set and the instinct to remain optimistic in the face of a challenge.

Kopp’s insight applies to sourcing good leaders, as well.  A pattern of success is not predictive enough, since it reveals nothing about the difficulty of a person’s path.  Paraphrasing Governor Ann Richards, being born on third base and hitting a triple are very different things, although it may be hard to tell the difference from the outside.  If you really want to know how someone will perform with a leadership mandate, look for a pattern of perseverance. Ask them to describe moments when life struck them out, and listen closely to their explanation.  Their willingness to be accountable for a bad outcome, to resist blaming other people or circumstances — what Kopp calls “owning it” — may be the most important indicator of future impact.

The Redemption of Mark Sanford

June 25, 2009

The governor has been found.  Governor Sanford was not, it turns out, hiking the Appalachian Trail. He was in Buenos Aires with “Maria,” a woman who is not his wife or the mother of his four sons. It is a familiar, human ending to a grim story.  Except for the B.A. part.  Great town, as Sanford himself pointed out.

Is there any reason to dwell on the details? We’ve basically got it. Marriage over, career destroyed, family shaken by scandal and lies.  Soon enough the facts will retreat to the private sphere, where they mostly belong, and the cameras will be redeployed.  The 24-hour news beast will consume another public figure’s private pain.

I do find myself wanting to linger, if only briefly, on one part of this story. Sanford’s staff issued a series of clumsy, misleading statements (and Tweets) on the governor’s trip that culminated in an attempt to convince us that what we were observing wasn’t actually real. No, Sanford had not disappeared for six days under highly unusual, if not unprecedented circumstances for an acting governor. He was hiking.

What’s happening inside an organization that lies aggressively to its stakeholders?  State Senator John Land described the staff as “dishonest, secretive and bizarre,” and now we know why. They were taking one for the team, covering up for the boss man, and it wasn’t the first time. Manipulation was in the organization’s DNA, and they came by it honestly. They were taking signals from the top on how to divert people from the truth and its consequences. The press “strategy” was likely not even up for debate. Lie ourselves out of this one? Why stop now?

Here’s the issue.  The reason we care about the private lives of our public leaders is not that they might hurt themselves or the people who love them.  We regret these costs on a basic human level, but the players are strangers to us, all of them, and this is not the source of the outrage.

We care about “Maria” because the absence of integrity is a highly toxic human condition. It cannot be contained to one part of our lives. It infects everything we touch, including the organizations around us that react intuitively to our structural weakness.  At best, lying about who we are destroys our ability to lead. At worst, it puts institutions at risk of rotting from the inside out, as the behavior of Sanford’s staff so vividly illustrates.  These are the soldiers on the front lines of our democracy, and they internalized the governor’s arrogance and duplicity.

The good news is that the presence of integrity is even more powerful.  The governor may think that his career is over, but the world just gave him the gift of intolerance for the small, broken version of him that we’d been getting.  A bigger version may exist, someone with the ability to effect real change, and now we have a chance of someday meeting him. By my measure, Mark Sanford may just be getting started.

Leadership in Absentia

June 9, 2009


The decision to lead is not particularly complicated, at least not on the surface.  It’s a simple, often quiet commitment to create the conditions for other people’s success. The NYT had a great illustration of this philosophy in its article on Clarence Otis Jr., the CEO of Darden Restaurants.  In Otis’s words:

…leaders really think about others first. They think about the people who are on the team, trying to help them get the job done. They think about the people who they’re trying to do a job for. Your thoughts are always there first…you think last about “what does this mean for me?”

I was particularly moved by one of his reference points, his predecessor’s response to 9/11:

…we had an all-employee meeting…One of the first things he said was, ‘we are trying to understand where all our people are who are traveling.’ The second thing he said was: ‘We’ve got a lot of Muslim teammates, managers in our restaurants, employees in our restaurants, who are going to be under a lot of stress during this period. And so we need to make sure we’re attentive to that.’ And that was pretty powerful. Of all the things you could focus on that morning, he thought about the people who were on the road and then our Muslim colleagues.

Otis went on to describe a sometimes trickier part of the leadership task — giving people the room to learn and grow, and ultimately to succeed in your absence. Sometimes this means stepping down not up, being passive rather than active, being silent rather than vocal. These are not the leadership acts we tend to celebrate, but sometimes they’re the most crucial. This balance is Otis’s current focus:

It’s less and less about getting the work done and more and more about…getting the right people in place who have the talent and capability to get the work done and letting them do it… you’ve got to give other people the chance to speak, voice a point of view. Some people are passionate, but it manifests itself in a different way, and so they’re more reflective in conversation. And so, you’ve got to leave some space for them to fill.

Control is Not Leadership

June 3, 2009

I stumbled across this quote from Dee Hock, founder and former CEO of Visa, when I was first starting to think about the transformative power of leadership in the organizations around me.  I was in my first real managerial role at the time, and the truth embedded in these words struck me with the force of revelation.  The quote influenced my thinking and behavior at the time, and triggered a series of events that profoundly shaped my life.  I’m now passing it along in case it’s helpful to someone else:

Control is not leadership; management is not leadership; leadership is leadership. If you seek to lead, invest at least 50% of your time leading yourself — your own purpose, ethics, principles, motivation, conduct. Invest at least 20% leading those with authority over you and 15% leading your peers. If you don’t understand that you work for your mislabeled “subordinates,” then you know nothing of leadership. You know only tyranny.

In (True) Praise of Dullness

May 23, 2009

David Brooks left his comfort zone this week for a column on CEOs he titled, “In Praise of Dullness.”  At one point he offered a defense of his thinly-veiled distaste for the subject–

…people in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business…the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence.

He’s right about corporate excellence.  Healthy organizations aren’t designed for self-expression and self-exploration, or for people who are primarily motivated by those pursuits.  They’re designed for self-suppression and other-exploration.  Done right, they’re designed to get you out of your own head and into the heads of your colleagues and customers.  It rarely translates into sexy copy, which may explain Portfolio’s spectacular descent.

Brooks uses most of his energy to summarize the recent literature on patterns among successful corporate leaders, observing an emphasis on persistence, focus and analytic ability.  These aren’t traits he particularly values, and he doesn’t hesitate to make the jump to caricature.  The corporate drones he imagines at the top of competitive companies are “anal-retentive and slightly boring.”  They lack empathy and warmth.  And since their underdeveloped people skills keep them from living a more fantastic life of the mind, they tend to congregate in “such unlikely places as Bentonville, Omaha and Redmond.” 

Dull is in the eye of the beholder, of course.  The most interesting people I know are moved deeply by trying to make organizations work, by the creativity and human potential they find lingering around the water cooler.  But here’s another frame on Brooks’s anal-retentive types: unlike the rest of us, they don’t need to make the story about them.  They don’t need to be adored to sleep comfortably at night.  They don’t need our affirmation or approval, which frees them up to focus on the thing that matters most in organizations: creating an environment where other people thrive.

Suze Smackdowns: High Standards, High Empathy

May 20, 2009

The NYT Magazine recently did a terrific story on Suze Orman, increasingly known for the tongue-lashing she’s willing to give viewers who aren’t taking full responsibility for their financial lives. Or as Oprah calls these very public rebukes, “Suze smackdowns.”  Suze — she’s achieved first-name-only status — is a worldwide phenomenon, and I think it has as much to do with how she communicates as what she communicates.

I also think there’s a leadership lesson in her success.  Suze doesn’t let empathy get in the way of enforcing high standards.  Nor does she let high standards get in the way of empathy.  If there’s any secret sauce to leadership, I think it’s this.  I think it’s learning how to deliver both simultaneously. A default assumption for most of us is that these positions tradeoff on each other, that you can be supportive or hold people accountable, but not both. The exceptional leaders I know are defying this tradeoff everyday.  They are demanding excellence from the people around them, while helping them achieve it with relentless support.

Richard Anderson’s Guide to Tactical Leadership

May 2, 2009

We spend a lot of time here defining and illustrating leadership – less on the very tangible application of it. One thing I liked about the Anderson interview is that he offers some tactical advice. As a public service, I will summarize it here:

1. Never lose your temper.

2. Thank employees and customers in writing. He suggests hand-written notes, writes half a dozen a day.

3. Use interviews to surface the intangibles like ability to adapt to change. I found this one less persuasive, at least his operational advice:

I learned that from a C.E.O. I worked for. The C.E.O. wouldn’t really spend that much time on the résumé, but spent most of the time wanting to know everything about the person’s life, family, what they liked, where they liked to go on vacation, what their kids were like. And it gave you a really good perspective about who they were as people.

The social scientists have revealed our relatively strong bias for people who are like us. For example, it would take superhuman discipline for me not to hire someone on the spot who told me that his ideal vacation was hiding in a dark, climate-controlled hotel room with no sounds of children or pets. If someone who’d be a good poolside companion for you is also the best person for the job, bonus. In my experience, it rarely works out that way. “Cultural fit” can be an insidious way to ensure homogeneity of thinking and action, an increasingly reliable path to mediocrity.

4. Just say no to powerpoint. Make people communicate with subjects, verbs and objects.

5. And, finally, my favorite advice, quoted in full. If nothing else, this man can run a meeting:

Q. How do you run meetings?

A. One, get the materials out ahead of time and make sure they are succinct and to the point. Second, start the meeting on time. Third, I tend to be a stoic going into the meeting. I want the debate. I want to hear everybody’s perspective, so you want to try to ask more questions than make statements. I don’t think it’s appropriate to use BlackBerrys in meetings. You might as well have the newspaper and open the newspaper up in the middle of the meeting. So let’s stay focused on what we’re doing. Let’s have a really good debate, but it can’t get uncollegial. If it gets uncollegial, we actually have a bell you can ring, in the conference room.

Q. Tell me more about this.

A. If you are in a really hard debate and somebody veers off the subject and goes after you in a way that isn’t fair, you get to ring the bell. It’s a violation of the rules of the road. So you ring the bell if something wasn’t a fair shot, and we all laugh.