Tuesday, December 28, 2010

From the Dogs: Just Jump In!

Note: this is a chapter from my upcoming book Get the Cookie Paco! Lessons in Everyday Leadership from my Dogs.  From time to time I'll be posting chapters- let me know what you think!

When we lived in California we used to take the dogs swimming in the lakes a little inland.  We’d back up for a day trip, drive through the wine country, and find a little spot to park the car and cool off in the water.  As with most lakes in the area, there wasn’t really a beach, but more of a grassy area that led to a drop about a foot high into the water.
Lake Berryessa was our favorite

 As my wife and I would wade in, Zeke would just jump right in and start swimming to nowhere in particular.  As we’d make it out into the deeper area past where we could touch the ground, Zeke would be happily swimming around us looking for a stick or some toy to retrieve.  
no worries

 Paco, on the other hand, would stay right at the edge of the shore, clearly annoyed that he was left behind, and just start barking at us.  Being a herding dog, he is happiest when everyone is in a group- cattle, sheep, people, it doesn’t matter- as long as everything is in a group.  Having waded out, we clearly had broken up the group, and he let us know.  “Well come on out then!” we’d call to him, which only made him yip more desperately.  I’d head back to shore and try to coax him in the water, but he would not have any of it.  I led him a little into the water, where he could still stand, but once he got out to the point where his belly hit the water, he’d try to climb on top of the water.  Since he could see there was a surface, he thought well, I should just be able to climb up on that surface.  The result was futile, if hilarious.  He would go completely vertical, smack his front paws on the water to try to catch hold of it to pull himself up, and at the same time point his nose straight up in the air to avoid splashing himself in the face.  It never worked- he never could figure out the water.
better on land, thank you very much

 The problem, it appeared to me, was that he was thinking about it too much.  Zeke, being a little less of a cerebral dog, just jumped in and figured it out.  He may have splashed around a bit the first few minutes the first time he tried it, but he quickly learned on the fly and was swimming in no time.  In fact, with his short hair, muscular body, and big round head he looked just like one of those seals you see on the docks at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.   
Zeke, is that you?

To be fair, Paco is an Australian Cattle dog and probably doesn’t have the swimming gene in his blood.  But he over-thought how to approach the water, and therefore never learned how to swim and could not join us.  

We have all experienced times when something seems impossible to tackle because we just can’t figure out how to go about it.  The clearest memory of it for me was book reports back in grade school.  I remember having read the book, or most of it, and sitting down at the computer looking at the blank page.  How do I begin this thing?  Although there were guidelines I was supposed to follow, there was no one right way to start it.  The older we get, the fewer guidelines there tend to be.  The places that have the strictest rules on how to accomplish a task tend to be the ones that stifle us, bore us, or make us feel like we are suffocating.

I worked for a while after college for a large cell phone company doing collections work.  I was the guy that called you when you didn’t pay your cell phone bill for several months.  The way we were supposed to make a call, what we were supposed to say, and how we were supposed to say it were all strictly regulated.  We even were given scripts of exactly, word for word, what to say to a customer that had not paid his bill.  I didn’t last too long there as I felt too stifled.  I also felt that this “one size fits all” approach did not allow me to work with each person as an individual for the best outcome.  The more interesting work I got into, though, the more freedom I had to accomplish the tasks in the way I saw fit.  I was held accountable for the results of the work I did, not the path I took to get there.

These are the times that leadership comes into play.  Leaders, by definition, push past what is already established and known and chart a new path.  If they are lucky they may have some rough idea of how to move forward but often they do not.  The key here, the lesson from the dogs, is to not over-think or over-strategize how to begin.  At some point you have to jump in with the imperfect knowledge you have and just figure out the rest as you go along.  There is a quote (I think it was Jack Welsh) about leaders being the ones acting on 75% complete information.  If they wait until the information is 95% complete, they would be a follower.  Sometimes you just have to make a move with the information you have.

Some of us, especially those of us who push ourselves and aspire to improve ourselves, tend to rely heavily on strategy before action.  Of course it is wise to learn what you can and devise an approach to tackle an issue or chart a course of action, but at some point you have to put the map down and start driving down the actual road.  Often the time we have to prepare is less than what we’d like.  There’s the presentation to give next week at work, or the family dilemma that arises at the last minute and has to be resolved.

My wife read that blue heelers, Paco’s breed, when they are herding often will run across the top of the backs of a group of animals just to get to the straying animal on the other side of the pack fastest.  This dog was built to over-think, and to strategize each move for most beneficial results.  It’s funny to think that water, one of the simplest and most ubiquitous aspects of living, has confounded him.  These people even taught their heeler to play UNO with them:
There is one situation, however, where the roles are reversed: Zeke is the hesitant one and Paco just goes for it.  Here the situation is treats.  From when he was a puppy Zeke had sensitive skin and was prone to periodic rashes.  Some even got infected and required rounds of antibiotics, for which I had the undesirable task of trying to get him to take a pill twice a day for a week or more.   
After a while there are only so many ways that you can hide a pill in food before the dog finds out what you are doing.  After a few successes hiding the pill in bread, he figured out what I was doing and refused to eat the bread.  Next I tried peanut butter, again with limited success.  He would chew up the peanut butter and spit out the pill.  All of these tricks and deception to get him to eat his medicine made him very suspicious of any food that isn’t delivered in a bowl.  Now, years later, if I call the dogs over and tell them I have a cookie for them, Zeke treats all offerings as potential poison.  I’ll toss a cookie to Paco, who will rise up on his back legs to snatch it out of the air, but if I toss one to Zeke, he will let it bounce off of his nose and then eye it suspiciously once it hits the ground.  Of course, it only lasts a second on the ground before Paco snaps it up as well.  

It’s not that Paco hasn’t had pills hidden in food too.  He just doesn’t care.  The payoff of getting the treat is worth the slim risk of any hidden pill.  But for Zeke, who lets a few negative experiences color his current perception of treats, he misses out on getting most treats by being too suspicious and taking too long to act.  

There are times when over-thinking not only keeps us from advancing, but it can also lead us into worse situations than the one we started out in.  A few years back, for my birthday, we went camping north of San Francisco by the Russian River.  We rented inflatable canoes that would hold two people and two dogs, and planned on spending the day lazily floating down the river.  Getting the dogs in the canoe was challenging enough, but once we had pushed off and started paddling to the middle of the river, Paco flipped out.  

 He somehow decided that since he was around water (but not in it), the water posed a threat and he jumped out of the canoe and started splashing his way towards the shore, about 20 feet away.  My wife jumped out after him, and was able to walk on the riverbed as the water was only about 4 feet deep.  Paco, of course, was splashing around in circles with his head straight up in the air but somehow drifting closer to his intended destination, the shore.  Lining this section of the shore was about three feet of reeds that started in the water and reached about two feet into the air.  Paco headed right for them as Michaele tried to catch up to him.  He got there first.  His thrashing twisted him around in the reeds and it looked like he was being devoured by some thousand-tentacled creature.  While he was never in any real danger, tangling all four of his feet while he was still technically over his head in the water was not his idea of a good time.  After Michaele extracted him (for which she was thanked with a patchwork of scratches from his flailing claws), he bounded on to the shore wide-eyed and spent the rest of the day running alongside us safely from the shore.  
you go ahead and float- I'll run

Zeke, meanwhile, was contentedly sitting in the canoe, watching the drama unfold.  If he could have popped open a beer and munched on some cheetos, he would have.  In his stress and over-thinking the danger he was in, Paco had created three undesirable outcomes for himself.  First, he made his fears come true by choosing to get in the water by jumping out of the canoe.  Second, he immediately got himself into a worse situation by getting tangled in the reeds.  And third, he ended up spending the day separated from the group and having to run alongside us rather than enjoying a leisurely float down the river.  

This “out of the frying pan, into the fire” theme is common in entertainment too.  How many times have we seen a character on a sitcom take a situation, over-think it and stress about possible negative consequences, and then work themselves into an even worse situation than the original one?  This theme is so often used, and so obviously used, that we may not see that it actually happens to us as well.  Next time you are confronted with a difficult situation or some task that seems insurmountable, know when to stop thinking about it and strategizing and when to jump in with the knowledge you have and just give it your best effort, learning as you go.  

Leaders gather information, but know that at some point you have to take what you have, whether you like it or not, and just act on it.  Being a leader often means being in situations that are not clearly defined.  These are the situations where most people are afraid to act.  Leaders take what they know and just jump in when the situation demands it.

Lesson:  Sometimes the solution is not as complex as you think, and the solution is best found by just jumping in and giving it your best shot.  It helps to have a strategy, but it is important to know when to move from thinking about the strategy to implementing it, even if you feel like you have incomplete information.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Is Leadership Born or Acquired?

This is one of the classic "chicken and egg" type questions.  Is one born a leader?  Can one train to become a leader?  Each side usually has plenty of ammunition.  There are plenty of tremendous young people who show leadership skills at a very young age, including the well-known examples of Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page.  Across history we see examples from political, religious, and business life.  Joan of Arc was very  young when she made a name for herself.  The 14th Dalai Llama was recognized as a leader at age two. Alexander the Great took the throne from his father at 20 and by his death at 32 had conquered countless territories, spreading Hellenistic culture which stayed for the next 1500 years.
not a bad 32 year run
Those who argue that leadership can be learned point out that leadership skills can be trained and improved.  No matter what skills you have as a base, they say, you can learn to be a better leader.  You don't have to look much further than the military or the endless executive improvement programs to see that people think that leadership skills can be learned.  Even Alexander the Great was tutored by Socrates, which couldn't have hurt.
when Socrates spoke- shirtless or not- people listened

In my opinion, leadership is neither exclusively born nor acquired; it is a combination of both.  This is for a few reasons.  First, given that it has not yet been established (been able to be scientifically measured) what proclivities and abilities we bring with us from the moment of conception or birth, and second, everything that we do in our lives has been preceded with the condition of us having been born, then it is impossible to say for certainty how much of one’s leadership abilities come from nature and how much come from nurture.   
some babies do seem smarter than others

That being said, one can point to certain aspects of leadership that can be improved with learning, thus arguing that leadership (at least some components of it) can be acquired.  But one can also point to certain aspects of leadership that are very difficult, if not impossible to learn, thus arguing that certain qualities of leadership tend to be inherent in a person and not acquired through learning.  We’ll look at both of these situations.

Leadership Can be Learned
First, there are a number of aspects of leadership that seem to be able to be learned or acquired given the right amount of effort.  To see what these are, first we turn to the personal traits theory of leadership, which has its roots in the historic “Great man” theory of leadership.  The evolution of leadership theory is one where first it was thought that great leaders were born that way, with a desirable combination of personal traits that accounted for their prowess.  Next this theory gave way to the idea that it was a certain combination of traits that mattered most (this was from a guy named Stodgill).  Now leadership theory contends that it is certain traits in a certain context that is what contributes to the effectiveness of a leader.  

Stodgill identified the important traits for leaders to have as capacity, achievement, responsibility, participation, and status.  Of these, achievement and participation are the two that most easily lend themselves to being learned.   

defined as scholarship, knowledge and athletic accomplishments can be acquired through effort.   

defined as activity, sociability, cooperation, and adaptability, can also be acquired through effort.   

There are some aspects of the others that can be acquired or improved as well, such as verbal facility and judgment (under the category of capacity) and self-confidence (under the category of responsibility).  In addition, emotional intelligence, now widely perceived as a strong component of effective leadership, can also be improved upon to a certain extent.

One is born a Leader
However, there are as many, if not more, aspects of an effective leader that appear to be inherent in one’s emotional and psychological makeup from birth.  Among these are intelligence, alertness, and originality (under “capacity”), dependability, initiative, persistence, aggressiveness, self-confidence, and desire to excel (under “responsibility”), and humor (under “participation”).   

I would add to these drive, emotional awareness and ability to self-monitor and read others, and cognitive ability.  All these traits that have been associated with effective leadership tend to be harder to learn or acquire, and those blessed with a greater natural ability in these areas tend to make better leaders. 
Welsh embodies many of the most desirable
natural leadership traits

Traits: Necessary, but not Sufficient
The conclusion that can be drawn in this debate is that while certain traits that are necessary for good leadership can be learned, acquired, or improved upon through effort, those traits are not sufficient to make the best leader.  In other words, you may need to have certain traits to be a good leader, but just because you have those traits doesn't mean you are a good leader.  

To make the best (most effective) leader requires the presence of traits that tend to be difficult to acquire through effort alone, and as such favor those who naturally exhibit these traits.  If you are born with leadership traits, you are much farther ahead than those who aren't.  Even though everyone can improve their natural talents, if you started out ahead you are more likely to remain that way. 

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why Dancing Hippos?

I'm a big fan of Radiolab. If you haven't heard of it, it's the NPR show where for one hour each week the hosts take complex and esoteric scientific concepts and turn them into approachable, digestible, and above all fascinating ideas.  I'll let them speak for themselves:

"Radiolab believes your ears are a portal to another world. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience. Big questions are investigated, tinkered with, and encouraged to grow. Bring your curiosity, and we'll feed it with possibility."

On one of their recent podcasts, they spoke about what it is that they were trying to do, and how they were trying to do it.  Jad, one of the two hosts, compared the heavy, ponderous ideas they tackled- such as conscious technology or  gravitational anarchy- to a hippo.  They are large, hard to manage, and impossible to get your hands around.  And then he explained that what he and Robert try to do is to make these "hippo ideas" dance.
how dainty.

They break these difficult ideas down, set them to music and sound effects, and make them light, manageable and beautiful.  Most of all, they turn the big ugly hippo concepts into graceful and simple ideas that are compelling to us.  Often these ideas continue dancing in our heads long after the hour-long show is ended.

Ok, so what does this have to do with this blog?  And why did I borrow their wonderful phrase "making the hippo dance"?  It is because what they are attempting with science I want to achieve with advanced leadership concepts and ideas.  In all the years I have been a management consultant and business and leadership scholar, both in the boardroom and in the classroom, I have seen that there is a problem with taking complex and valuable leadership ideas and applying them to real life, in real business settings, for real results.

In my opinion, much that is written about leadership falls under three categories: (1) vague and meaningless, (2) new-agey and inspirational, or (3) technical, dry, and academic.

The vague and meaningless stuff usually uses catchwords and never gives any concrete recommendations, and it takes little time for the intelligent person to realize it provides no real value:
I can think of lots of types of trails that first penguin could be leaving

The new-agey and inspirational type usually turns people off because it is all warm and fuzzy feeling with no substance, and you get the feeling that maybe the person creating it doesn't know what leadership means either:
"To Do Today: 3pm- Reach for a Star"
The third category, academic, has the most potentially to offer, but usually obscures its valuable findings in layers of technical jargon and in-group special language, making it unpalatable and difficult to the general public:
simple, right?

and then there are those approaches to leadership that defy easy analysis:
I mean, who DOESN'T think of pickles when they think of leadership?

My point is that most of the current approaches to this meaningful and valuable topic just turn people off.  As a result, no matter how intelligent or curious they are, most people get a far-away and bored look in their eyes when anyone talks about leadership.
oh, we're talking about leadership?  great.

It is a word and concept much used and little understood.  But the reality is that there is so much real benefit that anyone can take- easily- from the study and application of leadership, if there was just a way to make the ideas approachable and interesting, to make that hippo dance.

So that's what I'll be doing in this blog- trying to make that hippo dance.  This is a place where the boundaries will blur not between science, philosophy, and the human experience, but between academia, the results-driven business world, and the experience of the person grappling with the significant constraints of the 21st century world:

 Oh, and one more thing- I will make every attempt to make sure this blog has substance and value to you, because my time is valuable and I assume yours is too.  In short, there will be none of this: