Some reflections on leadership

Yesterday I read Clay Shirky’s essay “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy” from Joel Spolsky’s book “The Best Software Writing I.” Clay makes some great observations on group dynamics, but that’s not my point.

What struck me is how utterly useless the leadership training seminars I’ve attended were. I learned more from a single essay than a lifetime of worthless and sometimes counter-productive seminars. From the Boy Scouts to assorted honor societies, to leadership training events in college, nowhere did I learn the basics of conflict resolution, group psychology, rule-making heuristics, and project management. Typical leadership training usually consists of variations of “trust” exercises – as if trusting people actually makes them trustworthy. (Teaching people to trust others blindly actually results in leaders too jaded by failure to trust others or to train them to rise to the occasion.)

I think the problem may be that that leadership is treated as an intuitive/emotional process that must be learned by repetition and inspiration rather than a scientific analysis of the principles of group dynamics. The worst school is the one that views talent as genetic, as it conspires to actively prevent improvement through study and hard work.

I’ve never thought of myself as a great leader, but I’ve learned some basic principles of leadership and group dynamics through trial and error:

  • Don’t expect order to arise naturally or try to organize roles anew for each effort: effective groups have commonly understood and accepted roles (officers) and procedures (Robert’s Rules of Order, etc)
  • Delegate responsibility whenever possible, but monitor progress and reassign as necessary (“trust, but verify”)
  • Besides carrying out the group’s goals, training a replacement should be a leader’s #1 job.
  • Never make enemies by accident. Attempt to resolve disputes privately first, and failing that, diplomatically. Beware of interpersonal conflicts and sexual (“macho”) dynamics masquerading as ideological differences.
  • Avoid making enemies, or dwelling on the competition. Burning effigies will build group identity, but will destroy objectivity and shift resources and the agenda away from the group’s original purpose. (An especially common mistake is to make enemies of ex-members, as they are often the most capable of inflicting harm.)
  • Standards for membership should be strict and explicit enough to exclude anyone who does not share the group’s goals or values. Any stricter or vaguer, and they will be hijacked to exclude people due to interpersonal conflicts.
  • Make yourself available for private feedback (initiating it yourself if necessary) and take suggestions seriously.
  • Lead by example. This one they do teach, but rarely do they explain the implication: A leader must work harder and with more dedication than than anyone else, because members judge their contribution by the most visible member. If you ask someone to scrub the toilets, you better show how to clean one spotless first.


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3 Responses to Some reflections on leadership

  1. Daniel W

    One of the worst pieces of leadership advice I’ve been given is that a leader should always credit his followers when things go well, but take the blame when things go wrong. I was reminded of the advice when McCain told his supporters that it was his fault he lost the election. Only someone who holds self-sacrifice as a moral ideal would automatically take the blame.

  2. Randroid NOT

    If you want to lead by example, why do you allow censorship on your website? Why do you practice, promote, and defend cultism, religiosity, and Randroidism? Is it your goal to DEFEAT Objectivism and Ayn Rand? If so, you’re doing a marvelous job.

    Allow people to discuss and debate, you stupid, evil, fucking scumbag!

  3. I too have heard–in business–that a proper leader takes responsibility when his group fails, but gives his group members credit when they succeed.

    There is a complex ambiguity–actually a package deal–in that admonition, as I have heard it.

    If I, as a leader, am being evaluated for _my_ job performance, then I should take responsibility for everything my group does as a group, both successes and failures.

    If I, as a leader, am evaluating individual group members then I should assign responsibility individually for both successes and failures (always keeping in mind that I might have failed to set the stage for a follower to do his best, e.g., by my failing to issue clear instructions).

    Unfortunately all this gets tangled up into a package of double-barreled altruism: always give credit to others and always take the blame on oneself.

    In real-life situations many effective leaders, though giving lip-service to the admonition, practice the pieces of the package rather than the whole package. An effective leader of leaders, e.g., knows to ask the right questions to find out _why_ a group failed or succeeded and not just look at the lower leader as if he _were_ the group.

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