Different perspectives advance your thinking. I found a lecture that the journalist, William Deresiewicz, delivered at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2009. For people working in digital product management, this should be enough of a different point of view.
The lecture is about leadership and what it all means. I looked at it with my personal mental frameworks about leadership. There are three posts that express my thinking about management and leadership, namely:
A post about the three functions of a “Führungskraft” (the better German term for executive, leader, manager).
A post about the three levers of organizational performance a Führungskraft has. They correspond to the three functions.
A post about the personal traits that enable you to fulfill the function of a “Führungskraft”, thereby increasing the organizational performance.
These mental frameworks helped me to make better sense of Deresiewicz’s advice to the West Point students. In fact, he touched on many – although not all – points that I found important with regards to leadership.
Deresiewicz starts with how capable he finds the young people who start studying at Yale, the university where he lectured. Or any other Ivy League university. How much more they have to deliver in order to be successful. Give them any task, problem, or job and they will deliver. But leaders? No. Somebody called them excellent sheep, Deresiewicz calls them world-class hoop jumpers. Aptitude, achievement, or excellence are not enough to define leadership.
Deresiewicz argues that people look to leaders for direction. And so the most important function of a leader is to provide a (new) direction. He continues that in order to do this, leaders have to think things through for themselves. Concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Listening to the inner voice in solitude long enough to find your conviction. And then act upon it. This takes courages. The courage to stand against conventional wisdom. The courage to face dilemmas.
The main line of argument: leadership = solitude -> thinking -> direction -> courage – seems quite one dimensional. Yet Deresiewicz offers many side stories, that give more color and depth to the nature of leadership. In my words, based on the mental frameworks I mentioned above, I also see the following insights in his lecture:
- The first function of leadership is directing in order to increase clarity of intent in an organization.
This is an intellectual, conceptual task. To do that, you have to make sense of the situation at hand. Sense making happens on an individual level. That’s why Deresiewicz emphasizes own thinking and solitude. You cannot outsource insight. “Heureka” moments are deeply personal. Nevertheless, insight is fostered through dialogue. Deresiewicz mentions the power of intimate conversations. In order to make sense of a situation, you need to get immersed in it, experience it.
When all is said and done, you will face a dilemma in important strategic matters: there is no clear answer. It cannot be calculated. As Heinz von Foerster said: “Only undecidable questions can be decided”. As a leader, you now have to make a call. A strategic choice. By that, you give people direction.
- The second function of leadership, namely managing in order to create an alignment of commitment is devalued. Management is described as just getting the routine stuff done. Things only conformists would do. While it is true that management can and does become an energy sucking function, I disagree with the general negative view. We need the function of management. Production has to run smoothly, processes should work. We have constant trade-offs that have to be made in our daily practice. Resources (time, money, people, will) have to be allocated. This is what management has to do whenever those trade-off decisions have to be made across different team members, teams, units, or departments. Methods for doing this, however change. It is more important than ever to create a shared context and acceptance for trade-off decisions.
- The third function of leadership, namely the social activity of leading people in order to have autonomy of units, is mostly missing. It only shines through a little bit, because Deresiewicz says that leadership should give direction to people. In my mental framework, direction has two parts: one is to create direction (intellectual, conceptual). The second part is to let people feel this direction and put it into action with them. The latter is the social part of leading in a narrower sense. I guess Deresiewicz doesn’t talk so much about it because it is a standard topic at West Point how to lead people in your team or unit.
- In terms of personal traits, Deresiewicz alludes to all three I find necessary for leading oneself and others: compassion, courage, and creativity. Courage has been talked about above. The other two are more implicitly mentioned.
You have compassion when you really know what you care about. What really matters to you. Deresiewicz says that you must not run away from yourself, but you have to “answer the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way.”
Creativity means coming up with solutions. For this you need the ability to open the space of possibilities, find connections, have associations. And you need the intellectual rigor to identify what really matters, to prioritize and get closure. This is included when Deresiewicz asks you to think things through for yourself.
There are many more gems of wisdom in the lecture. In particular I love the observation that management done wrong inspires uneasiness. And Deresiewicz is a journalist, so the lecture is an artwork of language in its own right. Do take the time to read the whole piece.