Saturday, December 31, 2016

Leading Truth or Denying Reality?

How we talk about a fact shapes its meaning. Was that new product a failure, or did we just come down the learning curve? Did your career just take a hit, or are you pivoting into a promising new future? Facts are ambiguous, and so how we describe facts helps make sense out of them. One person's rebel is another's traitor, and a well-told story (think Hamilton) will tip the balance.

Of course we all know that effective leaders know how to use narratives - stories that give meaning to facts. But the use of narratives can be either very good - or very bad - for the future. It all depends on whether a narrative leads, or denies, the truth.

In some cases, narratives are used to lead the truth. While the major carmakers were spinning narratives against California's zero-emission vehicle mandate back in 2003, Elon Musk and his colleagues created Tesla, a counter-narrative that has changed the truth about electric cars. Because multiple futures are possible, those who shape what we regard to be possible change our efforts to make those possibilities real. So it is that a narrative can lead the truth.

Leading the truth is not just "spin." Spin is about putting a good face on bad facts. In contrast, leading the truth creates reality by helping us see what is possible. The greatest leaders in history are important not for what they created, but for what they helped others to see as possible, and so create. Once created, what was once considered impossible is then seen, rightly, as the truth. In this way, great leaders lead the truth.

Alternatively, other leaders use narratives to deny realities that we wish were not true. How convenient it would be if man-made climate change were not real. Psychologists tell us that we are prone to believe what we wish were true, even if this requires denying reality - as we see with science deniers confronted by the looming reality of climate change.

Time corrects such wishful thinking, of course, as the facts come to be undeniable at some point. But in the meantime, nefarious leaders take advantage of our desire to deny reality by spinning narratives that play to our weaknesses. When I was young, I recall hearing leaders spin narratives to deny reality: cigarettes are not really bad for you; the US was winning in Vietnam; climate change is a hoax.

Time will tell, of course. In time, we'll look back and know that some leaders were visionary - they used narratives to lead the truth. Others will be shown to have been reality deniers, and history will judge them severely. The problem, of course, is the damage they do in the meantime.


To dive into the large academic literature on narratives and counter-narratives, you might start with the work of Michael Bamberg and his colleagues.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Leading by Design

  In 1993 the software startup FITS moved from Toulouse France to Scotts Valley California (a town at the edge of Silicon Valley). Their founder, Bruno Delean, had invented a radically new approach to editing photographic images – an important breakthrough given the hardware limitations of the time. Delean’s team worked tirelessly, aiming to get the software in shape for a big demo at Silicon Graphics, at that time a powerhouse in computer-aided design. The team worked day and night, stopping now and then just to eat. They were not paid that well, nor were they working for a noble cause; it was just software. They worked because they wanted to do a good job for Delean, who was a legend among French software developers. Delean himself had done most of the coding, and was there working side-by-side with the team, always available when a tough call had to be made. He led in the most compelling, direct, and personal way possible: by example.


Just up the street on the other side of town, Steve Luczo was re-creating what was to become one of the most innovative companies on earth: Seagate Technologies. Steve had taken over the helm at Seagate, and began to turn the perennially late-to-market disk drive company into the industry’s unrivaled leader. He changed the organization’s structures, routines, and culture dramatically, creating within Seagate a global development platform that brought improved technologies to customers sooner and more profitably than any firm in the industry’s history. His people worked tirelessly, and mastered the science of rapid product development. Innovation at Seagate became routine, and the company transformed storage technology as we know it. Steve Luczo led this company, but not like Bruno Delean. Steve Luczo led by design.










                                                        
Leading by example shows the way, but leading by design creates a system that discovers the way. Those who lead by example are authentic, because they put their words into action – like Delean. But they are limited to what they know, and what they can do. Delean’s firm ultimately was limited to what he could imagine, and so no longer exists today. Those who lead by design do not invent, nor are they involved in the specific decisions to get the job done. Like Luczo, their names are not on patents. Instead, they build the culture, routines, and structures within which others can flourish. Done well, such leadership creates an organization that takes us places we never imagined. Seagate’s innovations were not foretold by Luczo, but they were created by the organization that he put in place. When you lead by design your job is not to know the future, but to create an organization that discovers the future.

Leading by design is especially effective in changing times, because when times are changing it is difficult for any one person to know what is next. In fact, our successful leaders typically do not have a very good track record when it comes to predicting the future. For starters, their very own success likely came about in ways that they, themselves, did not expect when they were starting out. (That is true for Google, Facebook, and Apple, for instance.) And if you look back on the predictions made (and not made) by our luminaries at any point in time, the track record is unimpressive.  In 1992, for instance, virtually no leaders in the technology world were predicting that the worldwide web would soon explode onto the scene. Like a clairvoyant caught in an avalanche, somehow our technology leaders failed to see the worldwide web coming. Look back at what the experts were saying before many of our most profound innovations, from the microcomputer to wireless telecommunications, and you’ll find they were typically off the mark. But when we lead by design, we do not pretend to know what is next. Instead, we create an organization designed to discover possibilities that we never dreamed of.


The classic academic treatment of these ideas is in Selznick's book on leadership.