20 August, 2015
Blaugust, day 20
I find the concept of leadership to be fascinating. It’s a lot like the concept of “game design”, where it’s incredibly important but it can be hard to really pin down and describe. A lot of how you learn either skill is through a series of best practices and direct observation.
We usually focus on the single leader, but there are obviously other structures of leadership. For example, it’s often more common to have a group of leaders who lead a larger group. A group can be self-organizing and share leadership duties just like any other duties. The guiding force could even be a thought or philosophy instead of a single person. But, our culture tends to focus a lot on the individual leader.
Today, let me share some of my observations.
Leadership is emotional
I’m typical of an introverted, nerdy computer geek in that I rarely wear my emotions on my sleeve. I’m quick to laugh and share a joke, but otherwise I’m pretty reserved. One thing that Storybricks allowed me to do was to dive a lot more into the concept of emotions in an academic sense. I’m hardly an expert, but I learned more about the source of emotions and how they shape the personality.
When I saw the online course Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence, the name alone had me hooked. I signed up for the course, and while I didn’t get a chance to do all the exercises, I did watch the videos. The core of the class is about understanding emotions, both your own and the emotions of others. I think one of the fundamental lessons boiled down to the over-simplified essence was, “Other people are emotional beings. Understand them and treat them as such.”
One thing I did notice was that the video lessons assumed that you have had a particularly good leader in your past you could consider for some of the exercises. As I said, observation seems to play a big role in how you learn leadership.
Leadership is cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time. From a logical point of view this sounds horrifying, but it’s actually pretty common; it’s a big reason why logic can’t always predict emotions.
I’ve worked with a few leaders in the past that typified this. I think just about every startup leader keeps two contradictory thoughts in their head at all times:
“Everything is going great and we’re doing the best we possibly can.” This is the “don’t give up hope” and “what I really want to tell my investors” thought. It lets you make hard decisions without being in a state of panic. Essentially, it’s the carrot that allows you to keep going on.
“Everything is terrible and we’re so close to failure.” This is the “don’t rest on your laurels” and “the investors will flay me alive if I screw up” thought. It stops you from just floating when you could be striving for more, stretching yourself a little more to reach that next level. In contrast, it’s the stick that keeps you from getting too complacent.
The reality, as usual, is probably somewhere between the extremes. And, focusing too much on one or the other leads you to make a decisions that are not optimal.
Even the very nature of leadership can be seen as a contradiction. A leader is the driving force for a group that keeps it going; “I am the group.” But, the leader is not a leader without that group; “We can only accomplish this together.”
My personal bit of cognitive dissonance? I’m the extroverting introvert.
The best leadership is also service
There are certainly leaders who boldly accept all the credit. Our culture seems to want to ascribe behaviors to a single person because sometimes it’s really hard to understand group dynamics. Take Steve Jobs, as an example. The press liked to paint him as a hard leader who made the tough choices to take Apple to the dizzying heights it has accomplished. But, the reality is that Apple has tens of thousands of employees, and leadership came from many sources. Even if those leaders were informed by Job’s decisions, they still needed a measure of leadership themselves. And, while the single leader in the limelight can work, I think the best leaders are also those that serve.
Perhaps the clearest example would be the leader that helps the people he or she leads. When you’re in a visible leadership position, it’s possible to reflect a bit of that limelight to others. Some leaders are jealous about this, thinking that sharing credit diminishes their own worth. But the best leaders highlight how awesome the team is, and how they worked to contribute to some amazing thing. Even away from the limelight, taking the time to nurture and let people grow is incredibly important as a leader. Particularly when it comes to leading others, the best experience is actual leadership opportunities.
I believe that if you’re not helping others to grow, then you are actively harming others.
Leadership is a lot of work
Going back to the comparison between leadership and game design, I think both are also easy to underestimate when it comes to how hard the work can be. People see a game designer as a person who spits out game ideas for others to make. People see leaders as someone who barks orders for others to follow. People observe how “easy” things look and believe they could easily do either role.
Yes, this simplified view can be true for the worst examples of each, particularly for people who have “paid their dues” and gotten to an established position, but a good game designer or leader does a lot of work beyond that. And, a lot of times that isn’t always immediately visible to people on the outside.