I don’t remember if I mentioned that I’m alternating a book I want to read with a book I think I should read to help develop my management skills. This was one of the latter, and one I did not enjoy very much. Its premise is that leadership is not always holding firm to principles in the face of opposition like it is so often portrayed in the movies and in fiction. More often, leadership is working quietly and ceaselessly to turnover the apple cart without upsetting it. It’s eight simple lessons are:
1. Don’t kid yourself. The world is a complex place and most problems don’t have simple solutions.
2. Trust mixed motives. Everyone has them—even you—and they are in part what gives you the ability to tackle multiple sides of the same issue.
3. Buy a little time. Stalling can work in your favor, especially if you use the time you buy to investigate the problem a little more closely and/or wait for other opportunities to present themselves.
4. Invest wisely. Don’t spend your political capital foolishly, but spend as much as you need to when it will do you the most good.
5. Drill down. Really examine the problem you’re facing. Just don’t think about it, obsess over it until you understand it from every side.
6. Bend the rules. Look for creative ways to eliminate the problem by redefining its parameters or by pulling in previously unrelated matters or people.
7. Nudge, test and escalate gradually. Never overcommit to any one path. Take baby steps, and be ready to retreat, but always keep pushing.
8. Craft a compromise. Cut a deal. Get half of what you want for half of what the other side wants, as long as your half is the most important one.
If you ask me, this stuff is pretty unremarkable. Uh, yeah. Like, that’s what I do every freakin' day, Dudley. Despite the core message being lost on me, there were a few interesting tidbits.
The rest of us have basic instincts that are less noble and more complex. Like Rebecca Olson, many people care, sometimes very strongly, what happens to other people and to their organizations. But, like her, they also care about themselves. Self-interest and altruism run together in their veins. Hillel the Elder, the great Jewish scholar and teacher, suggested the complexity of their motives when he asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?”
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An old story describes two snakes that live in a barn. One has ten heads, the other just one. If a fire breaks out in the barn, which snake is more likely to survive? The conventional answer is the one-headed snake. It will make a quick decision and follow through on it, while the ten-headed snake will have a hard time making up its minds and will move too slowly.
The thinking behind this story is common and plausible. A house divided against itself, we are told, cannot stand. Napoleon said that one bad general does better than two good ones. And, when we think about great leaders, the standard picture is that their hearts and minds are one, unified by a single purpose.
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Look at Your Fish
This odd-sounding guideline is perhaps the most important thing that quiet leaders do when they face complicated problems. But what does looking at fish have to do with addressing these problems responsibly?
The answer lies in a story told about Louis Agassiz, one of the most important American scientists of the nineteenth century. He was an expert on glaciers, fossil fish, and living fish. He became famous because his work influenced many other fields, as well as debates about the origin and purpose of life. Agassiz was also known as an unorthodox but powerful teacher, and the phrase “look at your fish” became the hallmark of his method.
When graduate students first joined Agassiz’s lab, they were given a tray containing a small, ordinary fish. Agassiz would tell them to study the specimen—without damaging it, reading about it, or discussing it with anyone. In other words, all they could do was look at the fish. Initially, graduate students thought this was merely a peculiar but minor assignment. After an hour or two, they would search out Agassiz to report what they had learned, but he showed no interest in listening and sent them back to their task. They eventually realized that Agassiz expected them to look at their fish for several weeks.
In the end, one student recalled, “I had results which astonished me and satisfied him.” Each student ended up learning a great deal about the fish—the patterns of its scales, the precise arrangement of its teeth, the coloring of the eyes—and they had learned even more about learning. In particular, they grasped the importance of exacting attention to detail and what one called “hard, continuous work.”