Joho the Blog » leadership

March 1, 2012

[2b2k] Moi

Leadereview has posted an interview (mp3) with me from a few nights ago. I thought they asked great questions.

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February 14, 2011

The “Twitter doesn’t topple dictators” cliche undone, but leaderless networks don’t stay that way

Jay Rosen has a great post, full of links (because Jay practices what he preaches about transparency) on the popular article that keeps getting written that argues that Twitter does not topple dictators. By the time Jay is done exposing the predictable pattern those bogus articles take, you will not be able to take them seriously ever again. For which we should thank Prof. Rosen.

One extremely fruitful place the conversation can move to is Zeynep Tufecki’s fabulous post on why leaderless networks tend to develop leaders. “Preferential attachment” just tends to have that outcome, as much for political leaders as for bloggers (as per Clay Shirky’s famous “power law” argument). Zeynep writes, for instance:

It is not enough for the network to start out as relatively flat and it is not enough for the current high-influence people to wish it to remain flat, and it is certainly not enough to assume that widespread use of social media will somehow automatically support and sustain flat and diffuse networks.

On the contrary, influence in the online world can actually spontaneously exhibit even sharper all-or-nothing dynamics compared to the offline world, with everything below a certain threshold becoming increasingly weaker while those who first manage to cross the threshold becoming widely popular.

Zeynep’s analysis and presentation are brilliant. I come out of it only wondering if the almost-inevitable clustering around particular nodes is an indicator of leadership, and, if so, how much that itself changes the nature of leadership. That is, the fact that Wael Ghonim and Mohamed El-Baradei are likely to gain many, many Twitter followers, and to loom large in Web link maps makes them important social media personalities. But Ashton Kutcher by that measure is also important. Kutcher (because there is a God who loves us) is not a leader. But Ghonim and El-Baradei are. This seems to me to be a very different sense of leadership, indicating a serious change in the mechanics and semantics of leadership.

 


[The next day:] Paul Hartzog responds, criticizing Zeynep’s assumptions for presenting “one side of the evolution of networks, i.e. the growth phenomena, without presenting the other side, which are the constraining phenomena, such as carrying capacity.”

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October 30, 2010

Taking the integrity out of leadership

Harvard Business Review yesterday posted my piece on why American business leaders (and those who write about them) so often claim integrity as the most important property of leadership. (Blog posts at HBR are free to access.)

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October 20, 2010

Taking the leader our of leadership

Harvard Business Review has published online a piece I wrote about a leadership program at West Point that (under on way of looking at it) is taking the leader out of leadership, i.e., using a distributed leadership model. (I also plan on using this idea in Chapter 8 of Too Big to Know.)

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October 9, 2010

[2b2k] Once again, my writing lacks integrity

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article I don’t know what to do with about why integrity has become the main characteristic of business leadership. Read just about any of the business memoirs or books about leadership, and they all put integrity at the top of the list of what makes a person a leader. And they don’t mean “integrity” in the “I don’t take bribes” sense. Rather, they’re talking about a type of humble authenticity: Know who you are, don’t put on airs, don’t believe the butt-kissers who work for you.

Obviously integrity is a desirable characteristic, but it’s weird to put it at the pinnacle of leadership. It used to be about courage, resolution, and worlds like that. “Integrity” is like saying that what made Richard the Lion-Hearted a great leader was that he felt good about himself, or Churchill was a great leader because he was a generous tipper. So, I wondered how that happened, and came up with an hypothesis:

You read a book like Jack Welch’s memoirs and you feel bad for the guy. He’s a chemical engineer who becomes CEO of General Electric, and feels completely out of his depth. (That’s not what he says. It’s how I’m reading him.) He has to make decisions about everything from nuclear reactors to whether Leno or Letterman should get the Tonight Show. He can’t possibly know enough — modern corporations are too big to know — so he sees in himself an uncanny ability to pierce through the old assumptions and the BS. Integrity lets him see the truth. It also lets him eat the Hegelian cake Americans require of their leaders: A leader has to be someone special, but has to be just like us. Integrity lets you be special by seeing just how limited and ordinary you are. Perfect!

I keep trying to find places to put this idea. It comes with an entertaining reading of the Welch book. So, I opened Chapter 8, on decisions, with it. And then came back to it toward the end. Chapter 8 is supposed to be a second proof-of-the-pudding chapter (the first is on science) that asks if all the previous blather about ambiguous knowledge falls away when you have to make a hard yes-or-no decision. Or, is decision-making taking on network properties? After three weeks of writing, I thought maybe it worked. Its joints were wrapped in rhetorical duct tape, but maybe no one would notice.

I put the chapter aside for a week after finishing it, and then re-read it. Nope. It sucks.

I’ve spent the past 48 hours compulsively re-writing it, over and over, each time thinking that I see how I can make it work. I’ve outlined what I think it should say and I’ve outlined what it does say, and none of them are right.

So, I just went through it and tore out all of the integrity stuff. I’m left with a clearer argument with fewer problem areas. But I still don’t know if it works.

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May 21, 2010

[2b2k] YouTube leadership

I had dinner last night with a couple of people writing a report on the future of leadership for a Very Large Company. I argued once again against the importance of leadership, at least in its traditional sense. I believe less and less that there is some masterable set of skills that constitute leadership, especially as the organization gets larger. Further, I think it’s almost always useful to replace the question “What skills does a leader need?” with “How should the group be organized to best achieve its goals?” Sometimes the answer to that latter question will be, “It needs as strong leader,” but more often the traditional tasks of leadership will be distributed among members of the group, or will become a property of the group itself. (For example, in a collaborative or emergent group, decision-making is a property of the group.) (Tony Burgess of Company Command mentions this line of thought in an article at the Harvard Business Review site. In a hallway of mirrors, he mentions my interviewing him for an article of mine that HBR is considering running.)

Last night, I gave the usual examples of Web leadership: Linux, Wikipedia, and Open Source more generally. These projects would not have been possible in a traditional leader-led organization. But, in addition to looking at large-scale collaborative projects as case studies of Web leadership, suppose we look at what we’re replacing traditional institutions with. YouTube is replacing traditional broadcast TV — not removing broadcast, but eating into its TV-watching share — and file sharing is doing the same to the recording industry. Yet these epochal changes were accomplished without traditional leaders. And these are not merely illustrative examples. Most Web users don’t have any experience of contributing to Linux, Wikipedia, or Open Source projects, but we do routinely encounter YouTube and music sharing. Most Web users therefore have direct experience of the power, success, and utility of leaderless change and leaderless institutions. In fact, anyone using the Web has that experience, because the Web only succeeded because it is leaderless. That experience of organizing without organizations (a la Shirky), leaderlessly, is defining the upcoming workforce (as the young love to be referred to as).

There are still domains and circumstances in which leadership matters. But we are losing — have lost — the assumption that groups require leaders to accomplish their mission. Increasingly, the need for a strong leader is a sign of a defect in the group structure.

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September 10, 2009

Fear of leadership, fear of government

This morning on NPR, Mara Liasson wrapped up her coverage of President Obama’s health care speech by saying something like: It’s unsure whether the speech will have the effect Obama wants, but if it does, it won’t be because of its soaring rhetoric but because of the details he gave.

Are you sure, Mora? Are you sure that being inspired has no effect on political decisions? Is that why you dismissed the importance of public speech, of words, of vision? Was that a fact-based observation? Or was it perhaps because you feel you have to deny that you personally were so excited by President Obama’s speech that you felt that old thrill going up your leg, and that when he read from Ted Kennedy’s letter you teared up? Just like so many of us? Just like me? In any case, I thought it was a shame to end coverage of a beautiful, inspiring, moving speech with an explicit denial of the importance of what made it not just important, but great.

Next up on NPR’s coverage was a report on the Supreme Court deliberations about exactly how obscenely corporations can pollute our democracy — merely pornographically or the full auto-erotic asphyxiation stranglehold — in which we heard the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court casually say “Are we being asked to allow the government — Big Brother — to…” The quote is approximate, but not the apposite reference to government as Big Brother. Does Justice Roberts really think the government when it regulates behavior is necessarily totalitarian? Yikes.

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April 20, 2009

Obama’s common language

Adrienne Redd uses her research into the expectations of nation-states since WWII to analyze the language in Obama’s town hall talk in Strasbourg a couple of weeks ago. She finds evidence of an understanding that the fate of sovereign nations are nonetheless intertwined…

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April 18, 2009

Jonathan Zittrain on Facebook’s open-ish governance

JZ has a terrific post on the new participatory governance announced by Facebook. I found myself nodding as I read it, and sometimes even rubbing my chin thoughtfully. It is a fascinating experiment.

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January 17, 2009

Leadership and the Interregnum

I hope someday an historian writes a book called The Interregnum that looks at the period between the election and inauguration of Barack Obama. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis had us huddled waiting for events to resolve have I had such a palpable sense of history. But now, instead of parsing every car horn as the start of a nuclear siren, I am ready for hope.

The stew of emotions is rich.

Hope itself is encompassing. It isn’t even an emotion. It’s a full-body experience, including cognition, anticipation, dedication, and spirit. In this case, hope is social. It’s not me trusting looking into the eyes of my Maker. It’s us relying on us.

Then there’s patriotism. I’ve always been more interested in the reasons that justify patriotism than in patriotism itself. But now I’m proud of how we are responding to this person we improbably elected.

There’s fear. I want my children to have the same opportunities I’ve been privileged to have. That is far from guaranteed. It isn’t even likely.

But The Interregnum will make for compelling reading most of all because it is the story of two people who could not be more different as people and as leaders.

Although I’ve been furious at President Bush for years, I had no idea I’ve actually been holding some back. I didn’t think I had any more to give. But then George Bush began his round of farewells.

Whatever someone says s/he is is exactly what that person is not. If your boss says, “I’m all about honesty,” then your boss is a liar. “For me, accountability is the main thing” means your boss is a swindler.

Bush told us he is all about compassion.

As Bush has put forward his self-explanation and justification in this past week, it’s become clear how incapable he is of seeing things from someone else’s point of view. With millions of refugees created in Iraq, he says his mistake was in posing in front of that “Mission Accomplished” sign. In the face of Katrina’s refugees, Bush thinks his mistake was not arriving on scene for his photo opp earlier. As Jon Stewart said, “You have no idea why people are angry at you, do you?”

I don’t think this is due to narcissism on Bush’s part. I think it’s part and parcel of his lack of intellectual curiosity. He’s a tiny man on a vast stage who simply can’t think past himself and what he sees at the moment. It doesn’t matter how large the stage becomes, his tiny circle of light never expands.

Bush provides us with the final and perfect exemplar of how our American idea of leadership, in politics and business, has gone wrong. We’ve taken leadership as a personality trait. Bush thinks he’s a leader because he made unpopular decisions and stuck by them. Leadership to him is a matter of character. If that’s all leadership is, then we’re better off without leaders — people empty of anything except a random resolve to do something and then keep doing it.

What’s missing is the idea that leaders need to be responsive to the reality of the world, the reality of the conflicting needs of the led, and the reality of suffering. Leaders may sometimes need to draw a clear line, but they must always recognize that the simplicity some decisions require masks an awful complexity.

In the interregnum, Bush has revealed himself as a buffoon blind to the tragedy he has hosted, while Obama has been showing us what leadership is about by bringing us to what is best in ourselves — as individuals, and, most of all, together.

I am ready for release from the shame and anger of the Bush years. I am so ready for the interregnum to end. [Tags: ]

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