A Nobel Laureate’s Advice to Leaders

By Guy Higgins

I recently read a short article on Richard Feynman. The article is titled Who Is Richard Feynman? The Curious Character Who Mastered Thinking and Physics. The article briefly discussed Feynman’s approach to learning and included a few quotes from him. This post is going to look at three of those quotes:

  • “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird… I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
  • “I think for lesson number one, to learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad.”
  • “The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.”

So what do these quotations have to do with leadership? Let’s look. Continue reading

Snap Out of It and Fly

By Guy Higgins

I recently came across an article of the same title as this post. The key point of that article was that airplane pilots are becoming increasingly vulnerable to a potentially fatal distraction – focusing on determining the problem with the onboard-computer system/automation and neglecting to fly the airplane. The author speculates that, in fact, airplane pilots may be slowly becoming less adept at actually flying the airplane as they become more adept at manipulating the computer system. Why is this important to organizational leaders? Good question, let’s explore that.

I recently posted on Communication and Power. In that post, I listed the responsibilities of a leader. For the convenience of the Noble Reader, here are those responsibilities (cut and pasted from that post):

  1. To establish an organizational strategy and the associated goals – a good leader will not do this unilaterally, but will enlist her direct reports as I’ve previously posted.
  2. To create an atmosphere within which all organizational employees can succeed and achieve their professional and personal goals.
  3. To allocate the resources needed to achieve implement the strategy and achieve the goals.
  4. To obtain and allocate resources necessary to solve problems.
  5. To solve problems that cannot be solved except by the leader (this can be difficult since the temptation is to solve problems that can be solved by the leader’s team).

The traditional jobs of an airplane pilot are to “aviate, navigate and communicate” in that order. Nowhere does that say or imply, “figure out why Iron Mike or Alexa or any other pseudo intelligent piece of technology is going (or has gone) off the proverbial rails.” Do the important stuff first and the trivial stuff last (or maybe not at all).

My list of the responsibilities of a leader ends with solving the wicked hard problems that no one else can solve. This is the basic aviating of leadership – focus on the crucial stuff and leave the other things to people who have the opportunity to solve them while you (the leader) are dealing with that wicked hard problem. Don’t get sucked into fixing some perceived systemic problem while your airplane (your organization) has “departed controlled flight.” For example (since it’s in the headlines now), if you get a report of sexual harassment, investigate that specific report and take appropriate action rather than starting to wonder about potential systemic HR failings. Leave HR failings to be cleaned up after you get your airplane back in controlled flight.



And in this corner, Improvisation…

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I posted about bureaucracies and both the necessity for what they do (permit large organizations to actually work) and the problems that they create (stasis, stagnation, inefficiency). This week, I want to post about improvisation. I referenced Professor Stephen Asma’s essay on improvisation. He did a far better job of describing improvisation than I could, and I recommend that you read his essay. But, for those of you who are interested in my take on improvisation or who don’t have the time/inclination to read the professor’s essay, here’s how I see it.

Improvisation isn’t just pure ad hoc reaction. There are, I think, two major factors in being able to improvise well – understanding the “rules” that govern improvisation in any specific domain and having lots of experience in that domain. (By “rules” I don’t mean a formal set of written rules such as those that govern bureaucracies, but rather the generally recognized ways in which people can collaborate in non-standard or unplanned ways to achieve their goals). Professor Asma uses jazz improvisation as his model, and I’ll use football. When an experienced quarterback takes the snap and drops back, he frequently sees the play unfolding differently than planned. He now has to improvise to some degree. If he has a lot of experience with his receivers (including his running backs who are in their “receiver mode”), he knows that they will; 1) try to space themselves away from defenders (e.g. get open), 2) move downfield, 3) stay away from their teammates so as not to confuse the situation, 4) move to the same side of the field that the quarterback is moving, and 5) come back to the ball if its thrown to them. None of those rules are in the official football rulebook, but they are the “rules” used by players to recover from a play that has been disrupted by the defense. Exactly what each receiver does isn’t covered by those “rules’” but they permit effective improvisation. Continue reading

In This Corner, Bureaucracy…

By Guy Higgins

I just read an essay in the Aeon e-zine, We could all do with learning how to improvise a little better. I think that, aside from a couple of snarky shots at non-politicians running for office, the article is excellent (and even those snarky shots have some degree of validity). I also expect you are now asking yourself what learning to improvise better has to do with bureaucracy, so I’ll elaborate.

The essay starts off recounting a story about bureaucracy and then goes into a brief comparison of a “bureaucratic mindset” vs. a more “improvisational mindset.” The author, Professor Stephen Asma, comes down firmly on the side of learning to be better improvisers while recognizing that improvisation can be both good and bad. This post and next week’s post will do that compare-and-contrast thing that Sister Mary Godzilla often required in class, which cast terror into all sixth-grade minds. Continue reading


By Guy Higgins

I came across an interesting reference recently – Goodhart’s Law. Charles Goodhart observed, “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” I think that’s a pretty good statement, but the phrasing that I saw elsewhere that started me thinking about it was, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Both phrasings mean the same thing – data can only tell you something important when the data are not managed or controlled. Continue reading

Leadership in the Spotlight

By Guy Higgins

It is extremely important for leaders to recognize that they possess real power. That power surrounds them like an aura and can have two very bad effects. It can adversely affect the leader and it can adversely affect the leader’s subordinates and even people outside the power structure. The news has been filled with stories about men harassing and abusing (and perhaps worse) women. While the women were the primary victims, these men were also abusing their power and the people who gave them, explicitly or implicitly, that power. I want to explore those two adverse effects of power. I want to start with a short look at a classic case of power abuse in history, as captured by Jean Anouilh in the play Becket. Henry II of England was in a struggle with the Roman Catholic Church regarding legal authority over clergy in civil law matters. In what Henry probably thought was a stroke of genius, he had his close friend Thomas Becket named Archbishop of Canterbury. When Becket was elevated to that position, instead of supporting Henry’s claim to authority over clergy, Becket took the Church’s position and opposed his former friend. In the play, Henry II wails, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Several of his knights, upon hearing this complaint, ride off to Canterbury and promptly “rid” the king of Becket by murdering him in the cathedral. So, was this abuse of power the result of Henry’s intentional, if indirect, command to kill the Archbishop or was it the result of his knights’ misunderstanding a frustrated (and powerful) king’s complaint? Continue reading

Developing Leaders

By Guy Higgins

In the US Navy, every sailor has a rating and a rate while every officer has a warfare specialty (Surface Warfare, Aviation, etc.) and a rank. (I’m much less familiar with the processes in the other armed services, so I will restrict my discussion to the Navy, although the other services have analogous approaches.) Ratings and warfare specialties categorize the person’s “technical expertise” – what they do, as an individual, to contribute to mission accomplishment. Rates and ranks reflect the leadership experience and capabilities of the individual. Every sailor and every officer is expected to continually develop both their individual expertise and their leadership skills throughout their careers – in fact, proficiency in both areas is essential for promotion. That development includes both “book learnin’” and hands-on experience.

My experience in industry is significantly different. As a “guest lecturer” presenting in a one-week course for first-time managers at a Fortune-50 leadership center (this company, like GE and some other corporations, believes in providing their managers with formal education in leadership and management), I was talking to a small group of the class members and one new manager said, “In twenty years with this company, this is the first time anyone has ever talked to me about management.” I suspect that the practice of not investing in educating “individual contributors” (employees who are not in a management or leadership position) is common in industry. Management and leadership development tends to be provided after a person is selected for a management position (sort of “Just a Bit Too Late” as opposed to “Just in Time”). There is a cost associated with developing management and leadership skills in every employee the way that the Navy does. Industry is driven by finances – companies must make a profit and the profit must be competitive in their industry if they want to draw investors. I get it. But there is a cost/benefit relationship to be considered, and I have not seen anything even remotely like a cost/benefit analysis for investing in management and leadership development for every employee.

Should industry invest in formal management/leadership development when only ten to twenty percent of employees will ever need it? I think that they should. In fact, I think that industry should make that investment even when an employee expresses no desire or intent to ever be a manager or leader. That takes me to benefits (and I’ll come back to costs later in this post). The benefits of investing in management/leadership development for all employees include:

  • The more each employee knows and understands about corporate leadership and leadership in general, the skills required, the responsibilities, and the pressures, the more likely it is that they will improve their “followership” skills. This isn’t easily measureable, but it could be a significant productivity enhancement.
  • As the industry moves more and more in the direction of a knowledge economy, management and leadership skills will be increasingly important as nearly every employee will, at least on occasion be called on to manage some resources and/or exercise some degree of leadership of temporary or even ad hoc teams.
  • As “gig-economy” behavior becomes more and more common and companies draw on niche expertise from outside the company for short-term contributions to a project or program, full-time employees who have developed management and leadership skills can and will provide the flexibility to lead niche providers.
  • Employees who have expressed no interest in becoming a leader or manager may change their perspective as they gain experience, and investing early in developing those skills will pay off as new managers/leaders can exercise them immediately on promotion.
  • Investing in developing leadership and management skills for all employees sends a significant signal that the company values their employees and the careers options available to those employees. This can also contribute to employee engagement.
  • In contrast to “Just-a-Bit-Late” education, company leadership will not be compelled to accept the risk that an employee, newly promoted to management, will make an expensive error from lack of knowledge or experience.

What about costs? Good question. Let’s look at costs that will include, but not necessarily be limited to:

  • Developing the curricula for both blue-collar and white-collar jobs
    • The “book learnin’” portion of the curricula
    • The practical experience
  • Monitoring individuals’ actual progress through the curricula
  • Establishing policies regarding professional advancement/promotion
  • Enforcing advancement/promotion policies
  • Developing policies and procedures for blending “outside hires” smoothly into the organization (something that the Navy has not done since WW II but which it is now considering for certain highly technical specialties)
  • Providing overhead funding to pay for the “book learnin’” portion of the curricula (the hands-on experience should, as in the Navy, be reaped as part of the direct-cost work done by each employee)
  • The time spent by organizational managers/leaders to mentor their subordinate managers/leaders/employees and provide them with routine and timely feedback (something they should be doing in any event)

Those costs are not trivial and could be as much as 40 hours per employee per year for the formal education component of the curricula (although each individual company can establish what that annual allocation would be – the lower the annual allocation, the longer it takes for an employee to develop useful knowledge and skills).

Do these benefits offset the costs? I can cite some anecdotes, but I have no actual data, so I want to consider this from a probability perspective – I’m not going to go into the messy specifics of the probability calculations – and I’ll look at two scenarios in which a new manager or leader can, through lack of management/leadership skills or knowledge, make errors that cost the company money.

  • A new manager can make leadership errors that make an employee dissatisfied with the company or increase an employee’s dissatisfaction, leading to that employee’s leaving the company. According to Chron.com, the cost to replace an employee can run from 150% of salary to 250% of salary (that’s the admin costs in addition to whatever the new employee will be paid). This is likely to be a relatively common problem and could easily see six figure errors occur more than once a year – even in comparatively small companies.
  • A new manager or leader can make a serious mistake that leads to a crisis. Examples might include any of the following (and many others):
    • Authorizing a direct report’s use of a company social media account which could allow the direct report to make highly embarrassing and costly posts (this occurred in the case of a major appliance manufacturer)
    • A failure to emphasize safety procedures leading to an accident involving multiple failures (the chemical disaster in Bhopal India)
    • A failure to accurately report the inadequacy of allocated resources (this can, obviously apply to any leader or manager, but a new manager or leader is more likely to feel pressure to perform – particularly if they’ve had zero prior experiences or formal education in the ethics of leadership) resulting in the waste of significant company resources.
    • A failure to recognize the importance of strict enforcement of company policies regarding sexual harassment (since that’s a topic in the news now) leading to the new manager minimizing an incident involving one of his subordinates and then finding it on the nightly news the next day.
    • A new manager could authorize his team to access the Internet through a non-corporate ISP (say from home) and open the company up to loss of IP worth a significant fraction of company earnings. For folks who think that no one would do that, it’s important to understand that two thirds of all hacker penetrations into organizational networks are the result of employee errors (appallingly, over half of all people who get phishing emails at work open them and two thirds of those click on the attached link).

Will any of these happen if all employees aren’t provided with leadership/management development education and training? Perhaps not, but the cost of any one of these major incidents could easily dwarf the cost of the development training for several years. While lesser incidents have lower costs, they are more likely. A crippling incident may rarely occur, but the costs could be devastating while the lesser incidents have lower individual costs, but occur more frequently.

Is it reasonable to train all employees in management/leadership? That question is identical to, “Is it reasonable to carry insurance for the company?” It’s a leadership decision to purchase insurance and it’s a leadership decision to invest or not invest in developing management and leadership skills in company employees. I think that companies would benefit from educating all employees in management and leadership.


Obstacles or Challenges?

By Guy Higgins

I recently read an article, Psychology’s Power Tools. The article addresses the use of cognitive behavioral therapy to help people deal with very difficult personal situations. The author of the article made the point that part of achieving success in helping people in those situations is “reframing” the situation (“reframing” is a way of viewing events, ideas or concepts to find a more positive alternatives or perspectives) and that, I think, applies to leadership. Continue reading

Leadership or Management

By Guy Higgins

My last post (about Elon Musk’s communication memo/email to Tesla employees) included a short comment about Mr. Musk’s use of “manager” and my preference for “leader.” I want to explore that more this week.

To provide some clarity in “communicating,” I want to start with my definitions of leadership and management:

  • Leadership is people-focused. The goal of leadership is to create and maintain an organization/team/company/whatever that can and does perform optimally (and I use that word intentionally) along numerous “dimensions” (such as employee morale, resource allocation, efficiency). Leadership is a skill. There are natural and learned components to it – just as there are to any skill. Some people have personalities and temperaments that contribute more to successful leadership while other peoples’ personalities and temperaments contribute less. People at both extremes can improve their leadership through education, coaching/mentoring and practice.
  • Management is resource-focused. Those resources can include people, but (I will boldly assert) people are only one resource among others. The goal of management is the efficient (and effective) allocation of resources in achieving goals. Metrics and monitoring are crucial to management.

Continue reading

Communication and Power

By Guy Higgins

I recently read an article about an email with the subject, “Communication within Tesla” from Elon Musk to the entire workforce at Tesla. I found the email interesting, but also dangerous – dangerous for Tesla. Mr. Musk’s email is, apparently, aimed at eliminating communication bottlenecks (a good thing) by specifically authorizing, “Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager’s manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else’s permission.” Continue reading