12 Jul 2006 apenwarr   » (Master)

A few loosely correlated comments this time.

Stubbornness is a Virtue - Sometimes

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes someone a good high-level leader. There are lots of things to consider, of course, but here's one of the things that has struck me most in the last little while: the best leaders are stubborn and also good listeners.

What, it's possible to be both?

Yes. People who are stubborn persist in a particular way of thinking despite encountering huge resistance. If you're trying to convince someone about a revolutionary new idea that will solve their problems, stubbornness is critical. Meanwhile, people who are good listeners adapt their thinking when someone convinces them that they've made a mistake or were missing some information. If you're wrong - which is frequently, if you have a lot of revolutionary ideas - you have to be a good listener in order to correct your mistakes fast.

The proper combination, though, is important. The best leader will persist in thinking something until someone properly convinces them otherwise. Once they've been convinced, then they change their mind and they're stubborn in the new way. That's not flip flopping; that's just a smart way to learn from your mistakes.

If you're missing one of those two traits, you'll fail in one of two very common ways: you'll persist in believing something stupid even it's been made totally clear and obvious to everyone else that it's wrong. Or else you'll never settle on a single direction, constantly changing your mind whenever anyone raises an objection.

Some people take it a step further and switch back and forth between being too stubborn and being not stubborn enough. One example I've seen a few times is a stubborn belief that "the investors are always right." So whatever it is that the investors want, you'll give them... even if they change their mind day after day. So you're left spinning in circles because of your persistent belief in someone else's idea. Other popular variations of this are "the customer is always right" and, most annoyingly for me at the moment, "the CEO is always right."

So my suggestion: believe in yourself. And then don't be afraid to let other people try to change your mind.

Trust and Respect

On another note, I was thinking about what would be the ideal company culture. This goes back to my earlier notes on membership control for working in a group.

I think a culture based on two primary concepts would be nice: trust and respect. It works like this:

First, you need to trust that people will be honest and upstanding (if you're paranoid, you can check their backgrounds before you admit them to the group). Since you trust them, you don't need annoying controls to make sure they're not trying to screw you, because you're not worried about that. If anyone ever gives evidence that they can't be trusted, remove them immediately; there's nothing more deadly to a social environment than a person who can't be trusted.

Second, you only admit people to the group whom you respect. That is, if you don't think they can do a good job or think clearly or impress customers or whatever, then you don't want them in your group. (In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell discusses a researcher who has discovered the #1 indicator of marriage breakups: a spouse who obviously looks down on the other.)

These two factors work together to produce interesting results. For example, if you respect someone, you will automatically become more trustworthy; would you screw over someone that you respect? Would you slack off at work, if it would let them down or hurt the project they're working on? Probably not. And that means they can trust you even more.

Meanwhile, because you respect them and so they trust you, you're actually working harder and producing more. That makes it easier for other people to respect you. And since they do, they won't want to screw you over, so they'll be more trustworthy and work harder. And so on.

This system covers most of the other factors in building a group as special cases. For example, if you're not a good listener, you obviously aren't giving the people the respect they deserve when they talk to you. And if you're not stubborn - if you just keep changing direction randomly - then eventually people will realize that you can't be trusted, because your opinion is based on whichever way the wind is blowing at the moment.

And about that Smart and Gets Things Done rule? Well, if you're not smart, that's going to show up pretty fast, nobody will respect you, and you're out. If you don't get things done, then you can't be trusted in an emergency, and you're out.

This system even deals with interpersonal compatibility in an interesting way: different people respect other people for different reasons. For example, a group of musicians might highly respect someone with a lot of musical talent, regardless of their table manners; a group of aristocrats probably wouldn't. (They can buy musicians for a dime a dozen, but it takes money to become an aristocrat!) This is interesting because the groups are probably fundamentally incompatible. If each group selects its members based on the trust/respect rule, things should rapidly work themselves out into two separate groups.

And so on. I like this rule because it makes the "membership control" system easy. I wouldn't feel the least bit guilty about kicking someone out of my company if I don't respect their abilities or if they can't be trusted. And yet those two things cover all the other important things.

Good to Great

I just finished reading the book Good to Great. It's interesting and makes many believable points, but it does scare me a bit with its selection bias. They tried really hard to avoid sampling errors, but didn't quite make it: the problem is that highly risky behaviours are correlated with both huge success and huge failure, while highly unrisky behaviours are correlated with mediocrity. So when you compare a set of "great" companies with a set of "merely good" companies, you will definitely find some statistically significant differences. Those differences might very well be absolutely critical to becoming great. However, they might also greatly increase your chances of killing yourself.

To name just a couple of examples, the "Level 5 leadership" concept makes perfect sense in terms of growing a company for the long term. But if you're "almost" a level 5 leader, then maybe you're just a quiet person with a vision and nobody really listens to you and so your company goes in random directions. Or the "hedgehog concept" - do one thing, and do it well. This is great, as long as it's the right thing. The book even gives some good advice on how to choose the right thing. But what if it's not quite the right thing? Then you're screwed. Massive diversification may prevent greatness, but at least you can hedge your bets.

Beware of advice that seems too good to be true.

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