We are all Heroes

Dave Meslin gives a great talk about apathy at TED. This is what he says about heros [starts at 3:43]:

Look at these 10 movies [Matrix * Harry Potter * Golden Compass * Pokemon * Power Rangers * Sailor Moon * Lion, Witch & Wardrobe * Alice in Wonderland * The Neverending Story * The Golden Child]. What do they have in common? Anyone? They all have heroes who were chosen. Someone came up to them and said, “You’re the chosen one. There’s a prophesy. You have to save the world.” And then someone goes off and saves the world because they’ve been told to, with a few people tagging along. This helps me understand why a lot of people have trouble seeing themselves as leaders. Because it sends all the wrong messages about what leadership is about. A heroic effort is a collective effort, number one. Number two, it’s imperfect; it’s not very glamorous; and it doesn’t suddenly start and suddenly end. It’s an ongoing process your whole life. But most importantly, it’s voluntary. It’s voluntary. As long as we’re teaching our kids that heroism starts when someone scratches a mark on your forehead, or someone tells you that you’re part of a prophecy, they’re missing the most important characteristic of leadership, which is that it comes from within. It’s about following your own dreams — uninvited, uninvited — and then working with others to make those dreams come true.

This is what I wrote a few weeks ago:

We have a bias towards the need of a forceful – somehow holy and external – leader who will show us what needs to be done and take us to a better place… these myths about the importance of the single leader stand in contrast to the needs of many modern organizations. In contemporary knowledge-based, dynamic and complex team environments, both the cognitive and the behavioral capabilities of the wider workforce are needed to achieve optimal effectiveness and competitiveness. While some may be drawn to the idea of a larger-than-life, charismatic, all-knowing leader who can inspire and single-handedly positively transform work systems and the employees who work in them, the realities and challenges of contemporary organizational life require an alternative view of leadership.

Leadership is not about hierarchy. It is not about being told what to do. It is about making a change. It is about creating a different future. It is about not accepting the status quo.

Some perform leadership by relating with other people, creating environments where they can excel and be creative. I call that management. But that is not the only way to be a leader. A leader is somebody who speaks up and says “You’re hurting us, this is wrong”. A leader is somebody who creates Art – something new and wonderful that touches us, each in our own way. A leader is someone who changes the world by performing one small meaningful intervention at time.

Most importantly – leaders are not other people. Leaders are all of us. If we choose to be one. Like many things it would probably not be easy, but that why it’s worth it. I decided not to keep waiting for the hero or the prophecy. I decided I am already a Hero. How about you?


Controlled Anarchy

Photo by Fail Blog

I have been delving into two sources of great management success stories in the last few days, trying to wrap my head around what exactly they have in common. Suddenly, I encountered the picture above and it suddenly made sense. Controlled Anarchy.

The first story was featured in a great podcast from the HBR Ideacast series. In this podcast they interviewed Jonah Keri, sports and stock market writer. Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. This is the book description from Amazon:

In The Extra 2%, financial journalist and sportswriter Jonah Keri chronicles the remarkable story of one team’s Cinderella journey from divisional doormat to World Series contender. When former Goldman Sachs colleagues Stuart Sternberg and Matthew Silverman assumed control of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2005, it looked as if they were buying the baseball equivalent of a penny stock. But the incoming regime came armed with a master plan: to leverage their skill at trading, valuation, and management to build a model twenty-first-century franchise that could compete with their bigger, stronger, richer rivals—and prevail.

In the interview Keri talks about many things that helped this amazing turnaround to happen, but a few themes emerge – trust, attendance to disciplined process, focus on hiring and open-mindedness.

At the same time, I am reading A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All by Wendy Koop, founder and president of Teach for America. The stories of the schools that actually work, the schools that are able to take children from underprivileged neighborhoods and propel them all the way to college, show similar characteristics: trust, attendance to disciplined process, focus on hiring and open-mindedness.

In both these stories, between the lines, you read about a delicate balance:

1. A high dedication to numbers balanced with a focus on the people who drive them.

2. Focus on outcomes balanced with discipline to keep on the right process when the outcomes don’t come.

3. High accountability for results balanced with amazing trust in people to find their own best way to do what needs to be done to succeed and open-mindedness to their new approaches.

The last balance of the three, which is the most important in my eyes, is why I thought about the idea of Controlled Anarchy. These two success stories (and more I encountered in the past) seem to revolve around leaders and managers creating a very wide-set of boundaries and trusting their people to succeed in these boundaries. Instead of spending time and effort on micro-managing how people do their work, they focus their efforts on hiring the best available people, giving them the support and resources they need, and trying to learn from them while holding them accountable for the outcomes they produce. In other words, these leaders allow Anarchy in Controlled boundaries.

This Anarchy has another upside. As Steven Johnson illustrates in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, mistakes, failures and noise are an important factor in innovation:

The history of being spectacularly right has a shadow history lurking behind it: a much longer history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again. And not just wrong, but messy. A shockingly large number of transformative ideas in the annals of science can be attributed to contaminated laboratory environments…

Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error.

Is there Anarchy in your organization?


Why are they afraid?

Photo by Gianmaria™

I read an interesting article about teleworking in the latest edition of the Knowledge@ASB. Here is a short part of that article:

With evidence mounting for teleworking benefits, the obvious question concerns why so many managers are refusing to offer the option. “It’s fear of the unknown,” says Bevis England, director of Telework New Zealand and facilitator of the Telework Australia initiative. “Some managers are simply reluctant to change. They think ‘if it ain’t broken don’t fix it’. But the system is effectively broken. In business, we have spent about 200 years learning how to cram people into concrete and glass mausoleums, justifying the rental expenses by claiming greater productivity. Now we are experiencing a new evolution in which we must unlearn those lessons.

Management style, for those who are not used to looking after teleworkers, must also shift from process-oriented to outcome-oriented management, Ward and England agree. Once the teleworker has the tools – the training, the information and the ability to do their job – the worker must then be trusted to get that job done and judged only by the outcomes of their efforts”.

What is it that managers fear so much? Why is it hard for them to let go?

I think in part, this is rooted in our own conceptions of management and leadership as top-down activities. The thinking goes something like this: “if I am the leader that means I need to tell everybody what to do. If they are not here, I can’t tell them how to do their work. If there are not visible, they might try to do things their own way. Because it is not my way, then it must be wrong”.

Sounds kind of dumb when it is put like that, right? Well, it is.

As the last sentence in the above quote implies, it is about trust, which is slowing becoming the glue that holds organizations (replacing fear and rules).

Lynda Gratton put it wonderfully while giving a eulogy to organizational loyalty:

But whilst loyalty is dead…long live trust. Loyalty is about the future – trust is about the present. Trust is core to the relationship between the employer and employee – without it relationships become simply transactions and work is mired and slowed through continuous checks and monitoring. CEO’s may not believe their executives to be loyal in the sense that they will be with them indefinitely – but they have to believe they are trustworthy. Trust is one of the most precious organisational assets – slow to build and quick to be destroyed. The precursor to trust is fairness, justice and dignity – demonstrated in how processes operate and how people are treated when the going gets tough

Until we come to the understanding that in many areas of business, top down just doesn’t work anymore and embrace the ideas of emergence, Equifinality and trust, we would probably keep fearing the unknown and making excuses. Are these activities you are comfortable with? I know I am not.


Norm maintenance cost

Photo by vagawi

I play basketball weekly with a number of groups. It is my favorite sport and I enjoy the physical activity very much. However, I see this activity as a hobby and while it is important for me to compete and win, it is more important to enjoy the process. A few years ago I found myself playing with a group that was too competitive, kept arguing and shouting at each other. I ended up leaving. It was not worth the effort.

About two weeks ago I was attending one of these weekly meetings and enjoying myself. Suddenly, two of the guys started arguing. One of them used profane language and the other person got so mad he attacked him and tried to kick him. The rest of the players stopped him and nothing happened. We continued playing and everything seemed fine. I forgot about it.

About a week later we got an email from the attacker. He said our team leader (the one who organizes the game, collects the money, etc.) asked him to leave the group. He wrote that he accepts the decision and that he wished all of us luck. For a split second I asked myself – “why? Nothing happened”. But it did not take me long to recover. I hit reply and send an email to the team leader. “Well done” I wrote. “That was a brave, unconventional decision”.

It was the easy path to ignore the incident. Everybody gets angry. Nothing really happened. We stopped the person in time. This is the commonplace line of thinking. However, if you are trying to set the culture of an organization or create the norms of a group, these moments are a remarkable test of management and leadership. Sociologist Diane Vaughan calls this the normalization of deviance. When small, seemingly insignificant deviations from the norm, slowly but surely pile up until they change the organization’s culture. These deviations start in the smallest tiniest infractions of the norm and build their way up. It is a slippery slope.

Let’s say you espouse a culture of openness to ideas in your team. The next meeting somebody tells his new crazy idea and another teammate immediately reacts by making a face and saying: “this wouldn’t work”. What do you do? What is your decision at that moment? Do you stop the meeting and talk about the infraction of the norm or do you politely lead the discussion to the possibilities represented by the radical idea? I believe norm creation starts with small (and difficult) things. And it demands constant maintenance. Ignoring the remark might not lead to a disaster right away, but it sets the tone. If you maintaining the norms is not costing you something, it is a sure sign you are probably not doing it.

Are you making the tough decisions and putting your foot down in places that don’t seem to matter? What are the norms you are espousing with your team? What kind of deviance from them do you see every day? What are you doing about it? What is your norm maintenance cost?


Book review: Poke the Box by Seth Godin

I am an avid reader of Seth Godin’s work. Just looking at the size of his tag on this blog you understand that he has been a great inspiration for my writing. Thus, it wouldn’t be hard to conclude that I am very excited with his new project to re-define and re-shape how book publishing is done (the domino project).

One of the first titles is called: Poke the Box. In it, Godin continues his assault on the resistance that is holding us back, which he started in his wonderful book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? The main point of the book is: what would happen if we all took more initiative and just started things? More importantly: what the hell is stopping us? The book praises practical initiative taking, not just for the sake of initiating but for the sake of shipping – delivering a product or idea to the market.

I found three interesting concepts going all through the book:

1. We got the attitude toward failure all wrong. Failure has a bad rep. it is misunderstood and misused. It represents opportunity, learning and improvement. Instead we fear it and try everything in our powers to prevent it. However, not failing means not doing. Or as Godin puts it: “The more you do, the more you fail”. Our aim should be to do, so it should be to also fail. A lot.

If you fail once, and big, you don’t fail the most. The game is over, you’re a failure, you’re busted, you’re in jail. But you don’t fail the most. If you never fail, either you’re really lucky or you haven’t shipped anything. But if you succeed often enough to be given the privilege of failing next time, then you’re on the road to a series of failures. Fail, succeed, fail, fail, fail, succeed—you get the idea. Talk to any successful person. He’ll be happy to fill you in on his long string of failures.

2. Leaders are map makers. People need maps to show them where to go. Literally, in experiments done on lost people, they just walked around in circles. However, you can wait for the map to come or you can create your own map. Are as Godin says: “Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them”. When I say “leaders are map makers” I am not necessarily talking about leaders in the traditional way. I am talking about people who make things happen; who try something new; who take us to a better future by not obeying the rules, because the rule book of the future has not been written yet. They understand that they need to write it as they go along.

If there’s no clear right answer, perhaps the thing you ought to do is something new. Something new is often the right path when the world is complicated.

3. Initiative is also about voice. Godin writes: “Sure, ideas that spread, win, but ideas that don’t get spoken always fail”. Many of most obvious inventions we have today were at some point heresy. When those who thought about them voiced them all hell broke loose (just listen to this podcast to see how it still is happening today in places you wouldn’t even imagine). But if we don’t voice ideas what is the alternative? Nothing. Can we honestly say that is a better thing?

We’re trained to fit in, not to stand out, and the easiest way in the world to fit in is to never initiate. Don’t speak up. If you see something, don’t say anything. In fact, we spend most of our days waiting for permission to start”

Poke the Box is a quick fun read. While it is not ground breaking like some of Godin’s other books (Linchpin for example) it does make you think and doubt some of your previous choices. After reading Linchpin and reading Godin’s blog everyday for the last three years, I did not find a lot of new ideas in the book. That does not mean, that some of the old ideas are not important. If you don’t frequent Godin’s blog you should. And you should also buy the book. Hopefully, it will drive you to poke the box, try and ship.


Capitalism, unions, equality, the fallacy of the average and mediocrity

Photo by finsec

A short caveat: while this post is not totally unrelated to my regular line of writing, it does somewhat detaches from my usual subject matter and is focused more on personal doubts, questions and thoughts and less on practical implications.


I see myself a capitalist. I believe in its basic premises. And while my views have become less extreme in the last few years and I do think there is a need to rethink and change some of the basic practical behaviors we derive from the concept, it is still a part of how I define my world views.

Within this framework I have always wondered about the idea of work unions. On a very shallow level it seems incompatible with the some of the ideas I used to think capitalism represented, so in my younger years I immediately thought of unions as something wrong. However, over the years I understood the importance of mechanisms that will put some balance into the capitalist system so it will not undo itself. Having said that, maybe because of my biased viewpoint, wherever I looked I saw unions resisting change and progress, upholding stupid rules (see this Gates talk on TED for some examples) and keeping the interests of the top quartile of employees instead of those who actually need protection. This has always bothered me.

Lately, because of current political and economic issues in Israel, I have been thinking about this issue quite a bit. This week, while listening to a freakeconomics podcast about the negotiations between the NFL league and the players union (negotiations, many of the players themselves are not privy to) I came to a realization that what troubles me about unions is something that has been troubling me about other fields as well. The misuse of the idea of equality. I have written before (see also here):

Equality is an important concept in many aspects of life, especially in the legal field, I know so well, as a former lawyer. But in real life, because equality is intertwined into our thinking DNA it is used in ways that many times hinders excellence. All men are not born equal. Whoever tells you that is lying. All man should deserve an equal opportunity to excel, to be happy and to use their comparative advantage. That is the truth. And there is a big difference between the two.

In western societies, equality is part of the ethos. People fought for the right of equality for ages and it is so commonplace and understood (even if not completely practiced) we regard it as a given right. The quotation “All men are created equal” is arguably the best-known phrase in any of America’s political documents. And if all men are created equal, they should be treated as equal in the workplace as well. And they think as themselves as equal. And this creates problems. Because we are not equal. We are unique. Special. With different talents, skills, perspectives, life experiences, likes and dislikes. And that means that treating us as if we are the same is wrong.

In the case of unions, the idea of equality means that unions can act like all workers are equal. If they are equal, they can talk about the average worker. It is a classic case of the fallacy of the average. Because of everybody is equal and we are taking care of the average worker we are losing the individuality. And that is the fastest way to mediocrity.

In Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe write:

That’s what Aristotle meant when he said that practical wisdom as opposed to a universal rule was necessary because of the priority of the particular. A wise person knows how to do the right thing, in the right way, with this person, in this situation. To be wise, we need cognitive and perceptual machinery that picks up on similarities without being blind to differences.

I am not an expert on the issue of unions, their history and their contribution to society. I am also not against the idea that workers should be protected to some degree and have a right to be represented. I do resent the fact that some unions focus their attention on keeping the status quo and base their thinking on a misconception of equality that leads to a discussion of averages. In general, the work of any leader, political, business, union or other, is to balance similarities and differences. I am not sure that many of the union leaders or those that sit with them to the table of negotiations are actively thinking of this balance. What will happen if both sides of a labor dispute (or even better, prior to the dispute) will start doing just that? Isn’t it worth a try?


Why do we need leaders?

Photo By dbking

About ten days ago editors of the HBR.org blog made an interesting comment about the media coverage of what was happening in Egypt in a post called: “Do we need leaders”. The media was thoroughly discussing the fact that there seemed to be no leader to the movement attempting to overthrow the government in Egypt and the editors commented:

We’ve been fascinated by how assiduously various forces, for various reasons, have been trying to anoint a leader on a movement that has been aggressive about not having one. Whether it’s Mohamed ElBaradei, someone from the Muslim Brotherhood, Google’s Wael Ghonim, or someone else, it seems hard for many in the media to grasp the idea of a movement without a recognizable, charismatic figure … in front of it.

But it’s not just the media (and let’s not forget that “media” is a plural word) scouring Tahrir Square for someone to take charge. We want someone to be in charge. There is, after all, plenty of evidence that leaderless organizations can dissolve into chaos just as easily as those run by dictators…

Organizations as diverse as Ushahidi and file-sharing sites show how plenty can be accomplished without an explicitly hierarchical structure.

This comment made me think about a concept called “the myth of leadership”. This concept is described in an 2005 Organizational Dynamics Journal article by Craig Pearce and Charles Manz called: “The New Silver Bullets of Leadership: The Importance of Self- and Shared Leadership in Knowledge Work”.

The myth of heroic leadership – Pearce and Manz claim – is that the source of all wisdom is to be found in the designated leader. The obvious type of leader fitting this description is the ‘‘Strong Man’’ leader or the ‘‘Directive’’ leader. In this type of leadership direction, command and control are used to obtain compliance, often based on fear and intimidation from followers.

Pearce and Manz also claim that most other forms of leadership, such as transactional leadership – founded on the leader offering rewards and incentives in exchange for follower compliance – emphasize a one-way influence process of leaders over followers. The ideas of strong top-down control emanated according to Pearce and Manz from the industrial revolution, through the needs of railroads industry in the 19th century and continued with the rise of the “scientific management” in the beginning of the 20th century. They claim that these ideas continued throughout the 20th century and largely remain to this day.

As HBR.org editors comment, even though many organizations to date have shown how plenty can be accomplished without an explicitly hierarchical structure, still “We want someone to be in charge”. Why is that? Why do we have this bias for leadership?

Think about how ingrained this myth is in our culture. If I take part of my culture, Judaism, the idea of some external force that will come and save us all is an important part of the faith. The twelfth principle in the 13 Principles of Faith formulated by Maimonides says: “I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, with all that, I await his arrival with every day”. The Messiah, in Jewish eschatology, is a term that came to refer to a future Jewish King from the Davidic line, who will be “anointed” with holy anointing oil and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age – a future time of universal peace and brotherhood on the earth, without crime, war and poverty. We are waiting for him to come. To come and save us.

These kinds of ideas are ingrained in other faiths and cultures as well. And I think it is embedded in our own thinking – we have a bias towards the need of a forceful – somehow holy and external – leader who will show us what needs to be done and take us to a better place.

Pearce and Manz argue that these myths about the importance of the single leader stand in contrast to the needs of many modern organizations. In contemporary knowledge-based, dynamic and complex team environments, both the cognitive and the behavioral capabilities of the wider workforce are needed to achieve optimal effectiveness and competitiveness. While some may be drawn to the idea of a larger-than-life, charismatic, all-knowing leader who can inspire and single-handedly positively transform work systems and the employees who work in them, the realities and challenges of contemporary organizational life require an alternative view of leadership.

This myth is relevant to as both as leaders and as followers. Are we waiting to be led or do we stand out and take the initiative? More importantly, when we are put in the position of a leader – do we act like we are The Messiah holding all the answers and put here on earth to show to dumb followers how it should be done? Or do we treat the power given to us as an opportunity to connect, share, enable, amplify and collaborate with the people around us because the true power lies in diversity?

Are you biased towards leadership? What are you going to do about it?