Hidden Lessons in Leadership

Since examples can illustrate successful action, many aspiring leaders often search for them to direct (their) action. And just as often those copying these examples fail.  Why?  Because they really don’t know what to copy!  There is rarely ever any critical thinking about the examples, so there is nothing learned from them.  In other words, applying examples absent of an understanding of the underlying theory teaches nothing!  Let’s illustrate as we critically think about a recent example.

In a New York Times Corner Office interview with Mark Pincus, founder and CEO of Zynga, interviewer Adam Bryant asked about leadership lessons learned.  Mark brought to light the importance of reliability, working as a team and getting everyone going in a productive direction especially when you are not physically present.

Being reliable involves recognizing the importance of attending to your responsibility. The phrase that Mark offered which captures what he meant is, your’ “head is really in the game”—you can be counted on. In other words it is critical for people to have trust in you; that you won’t let them (the team) down. This point is really about not having a self-serving focus on Me, but rather having a focus on We (the very point made in Leadership Involves We, Not Me).

Mark also spoke of the importance of trusting others by giving them the opportunity to develop a sense of importance in what they do—he called this turning people into C.E.O.’s.  He did this by giving them really big jobs to do, which translates into allowing them to engage in their work.  That is, enable them to do their whole job by affording them the opportunity to make the big decisions in their work. As an example, Mark told of how he gave the receptionist at Zynga the responsibility of deciding which phone system the company will use.  This person became so engaged that she eventually was given the responsibility of managing the entire office.

So what is the not so obvious lesson?  People really do enjoy learning, when given the opportunity.  More fundamentally, people actually need to learn–that’s why it is so enjoyable.  Yet, so many of those who are in-charge of our organizations design and manage/lead in a fashion that minimizes the likelihood of this happening. No wonder that so many abhor working—their job is not a joy!

One other thing that Mark uses is O.K.R.’s, which stands for objectives and key results.  In this practice—which was developed at Intel and is used at Google—the company and everyone have just one objective and three measurable results.  Clearly having one objective for everyone gets everyone going in the same direction, which minimizes if not eliminates the likelihood of people working at cross purposes—this surely helps the sense of all one team.  

The hidden lesson in this is the importance of ensuring one system.  One aim means one system, which affords optimal organizational performance. Unfortunately, this lesson is often overlooked as evidenced by the prevalence of silos and inter-departmental competition.  Because reductionism and its partner individualism are so prevalent most organizations are designed and managed to encourage sub-optimal performance.

Another lesson in Mark’s practice is reflected in the weekly process where everyone identifies their three priorities at the beginning of each week—the week’s roadmap—and reflectively assesses their progress relative to each at the end of each week.  This is not a judgment process but more of a focusing process.  Mark pays attention to everyone’s weekly roadmap as a way of keeping in touch.  Mark said “I’ve been surprised how much they can achieve without me being involved.”

But Mark is involved! I think that’s the point of the lesson to be learned, just how to be involved.  Critically thinking further about this process it becomes clear how much it aligns with the Hawthorne Effect.  In that experiment it wasn’t the lighting but the attention of those in authority that gave employees a sense that their job was important and meaningful and that they were valued.  It is not O.K.R.’s, in and of themselves that produces greatness—we know managing by results is a route to failure—but rather the interplay of trust, teamwork, a single aim (one system), the opportunity to learn, and just plain humane attention. 

Using this example—and the associated lessons learned—what common practice should be eliminated and what would replace them?  How might these lessons change and/or inform how to design and lead an organization?

One thought on “Hidden Lessons in Leadership

  1. Pingback: Hidden Lessons in Leadership #3 « For Progress, Not Growth

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