Archive | September 2014

“Only If I Must Lead…”

Having read “level-5 leadership”, then observed and heard stories about some leaders/managers, I occasionally wonder if those who are tapped for (or in some cases, conscripted into) leadership roles are more methodical, reflective, and deliberate in their managerial/leadership style, compared to those who aspired to manager/leader roles. Since learning the concept of “reluctant” leadership (read here, here, and here), I do agree that reluctant leaders seem to take the time…to listen, to ponder, to consider nuances, to take a longer and a wider view, when making a decision. Not surprisingly, some followers and bystanders see such leaders, especially in the early stage of their roles, as “indecisive,” “slow,” “weak,” or maybe even “incompetent.”

Oversize objects always need help to maneuver.

Oversize objects always need help to maneuver.

“Reluctant leaders” possess these qualities: “adaptability, humility, a capacity to bring others along in their efforts, and a plain old willingness to listen.”  Studies on “reluctant leaders” have primarily taken place in the “service” industries where professionals are more willing to consider alternatives to the traditional “command and control” model of management/leadership. Most of these professionals, including potential “reluctant leaders,” prefer calling their own shots, or, designing their own projects. The sources of their motivation are mostly intrinsic. This fits in Dan Pink’s definition of motivation, in which “autonomy” is one of the three key elements for better performing organizations; the other two are “purpose” and “mastery.”  When we take power and control out of management – and I question that we ever really need them in certain sectors – how do managers proceed?

Reluctant or not, managers of today’s quick-paced and volatile economy need to dance to different tunes. In this fast moving economy, as well as in the social world, we all have to be a lot more flexible than we used to be. And since we don’t become flexible overnight, or as soon as a situation calls for flexibility, we have to develop this quality over time. So, a concomitant to “flexibility” is a willingness to listen to others and absorb multiple perspectives…regularly, frequently, constantly over the long term.

There are two leading vehicles, and a police car, to help "lead" that big object, part of a windmill.

There are two leading vehicles, and a police car, to help “lead” that big object, part of a windmill.

Perhaps we are still in a transitional phase in most organizations – switching from “command and control” to “listen and coordinate.” Transitional phase is inherently in flux, marked by uncertainty, and requiring skills in negotiation, political maneuvering, and knowledge of when to bend and when to insist. Maybe this is why many younger professionals are reluctant to step into leadership roles? Further, whether working to the new or old model of management, there is a great deal of “politics” involved in management, an aspect most professionals try to avoid. And, while there is no shortage of manipulation, maneuvering, or concealment among the reluctant leaders, I suspect that the tenor of “politics” as endured by this century’s flexible leaders is different from the old school of manipulation, power, and deception. I hypothesize that a reluctant manager is likely to manipulate situation rather than people. A manager once described to me – and he has a pretty high EQ, emotional quotient — “If a manager thinks he’s a ‘Manager,’ he’s likely to manipulate people. If he doesn’t see himself as a manager first, he’s likely to focus on the situation.” Imagine this: Upon seeing a fire, a traditional “Manager” might say, “YOU, go and put out the fire, and use the hose closest to you.” A “reluctant manager” might respond differently, “Fire, let’s put it out.”

Given the above definition and description, “reluctant leaders” may be cut from very different cloth than the traditional “command-and-control” type of leaders. For instance,

  1. A sense of humility may mean: “My colleagues know more than I do,” and therefore “I need as much input to help me as possible.”
  2. A sense of resolution may mean: “This is about the health of the whole organization,” and thereby “I need to build a majority, preferably a consensus on the bigger picture.” It follows then that reluctant leaders have little need to obfuscate; they tend to be more open about their thinking process.
  3. There is a built-in paradox in “reluctant leadership:” “I despise playing politics, so I will adjust my approach so as to minimize the politics in my decisional and operational environment.” However, paradoxically, “In order to minimize my political involvement, I need to be cognizant of how others are playing politics around me.”

As I have indicated before, we cannot, and should not, examine leadership without considering followership. What would the people “following” a reluctant leader be like? They need to see their leaders’ professional record as equal to, or superior to, their own. They are given plenty of room to develop their own skills; they accept being challenged even while they don’t want to be directed or managed. While they may not like playing politics (as if they could totally avoid it), they are sympathetic to the leaders’ occasional need to act politically.

"I don't need no stinky leader.  I just want a friend."

“I don’t need no stinky leader. I just want a friend.”

The key to the relationship between the reluctant leader and his followers lies in one of the elements mentioned earlier, “autonomy.” It’s paradoxical, and that’s why it’s fascinating. It is precisely when a leader is willing to relax control of people, letting them determine their own courses of action, that people are willing to “follow” the leader’s vision. Conversely, in a professional organization, a controlling manager, hungry for more power and control, is likely to alienate his people. The committed professionals are still going to aim for excellence in their work, but they may not always have the controlling leader’s vision in mind. In such a scenario, the work done by the “reluctant” followers isn’t likely to cohere with the organization.

In abstract, “reluctant leadership” feels tiring. I wonder if reluctant leaders/managers stay in their positions for very long, especially compared to the command-and-control type. What do you think?

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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How Many Data Points, How Strong The Evidence, To Win You Over?

It’s one thing for managers, or anyone, to insist on evidence, it’s another thing how they use this evidence. You must have noticed that evidence in the face of skepticism only goes so far? How many of us, when being pointed out that we are wrong, even in the face of strong evidence, would immediately acknowledge our mistakes in front of others? And change our minds and behavior forever after? I am not referring to innocent little mistakes that we easily discharge with a light, “Sorry, sorry, my bad.” Admitting to faults, serious and significant faults, isn’t easy for most of us. It’s not always because the ego is getting in the way; often, what we need is time to reflect, perhaps do more research on our own, regroup and rethink.

Back to managers, though, how often do managers actually insist on evidence? Most managers are enamored with following procedures – exercising due process – rather than examining the data with truly informed care, i.e. understanding context. (see my previous post)

This is evidence of ignoring social some would actually "jump off" the bridge.

This is evidence of ignoring social psychology…now some would actually “jump off” the bridge.

I am not talking about public figures who have to address their wrongdoings. Nor am I addressing debates in the political arena. They are all interesting, but their dynamics are different than individuals’ exchanges or discussions in the small group setting in an organization. I have observed and heard stories about managers who go on a crusade based upon evidence favoring their position. But even though the evidence favors the manager’s position, he ignores social psychology at his own peril. A staff member using evidence to convince a manager is generally perceived very differently than a manager employing evidence to gain an upper-hand against other managers. When people in positions of power use evidence, they are likely to be perceived as self-righteous. And who likes that?! So, ultimately, it becomes how a manager uses the tool of evidence. Treating evidence like a stick to brandish the unbelievers isn’t going to get very far; using evidence in conversation and discussion has a better chance to win some minds and even hearts, but it does take time and requires patience. In modern organizations, we seem to be very short on both.

Physical scientists would argue that evidence speaks for itself. In some ways, they are right; their debate in the journals and conferences inspires more research and hopefully drives to a consensus. Still, that takes time, and the dynamics get much muddier when it comes to funding. Sometimes, scientists forget that they too are after all human beings. Further, one-shot evidence is seldom enough, especially in the “hard” sciences where reproducibility of experiments and multiplicity of observations are the standards of proof. Time and patience, and lots of observation and reflection, are the norms for “hard” science. It’s a lot messier in the social sciences, and even much more so in reality.

I cannot stress enough the importance of distinguishing between reliance on evidence and data vs. reliance on due process. Relying on due process, letting a superficial collection of data dictate procedures without understanding the context (see my previous post) is short-sighted and leads to decisions that, upon later reflection in better context, are stupid or even tragic. Here is a story that exemplifies such lack of distinction: “In D.C. a 13-year old prodigy is treated as a truant rather instead of a star student.

Avery’s piano competitions, recitals, performances, as well as her role as an “ambassador for an international music foundation” had taken her away from school more than 10 days during the semester and triggered “truancy” status. Even though her parents informed the school before every absence and presented a plan for Avery’s schoolwork while traveling – and she is a straight-A student – the school administration just couldn’t seem to comprehend the situation. In their collective “mind,” there is no difference between Avery’s absence (which they could have accepted legitimately if they had bothered to grasp the context) and another student’s playing hooky.

This is a quintessential example of mindlessly following due process. It’s simpler and easier, right? As I have said many times, why don’t we just let the computer system take care of data keeping, analysis, and issuing results.

Avery’s parents decided to pull her out of school and commit her to home schooling for the time being. In the meantime, the school principal’s lame excuses have not helped the school’s reputation.

Data, evidence, spreadsheet, records…these are important tools for organizations. But they are just tools. People and relationships are about stories. Even at work, at the end of the day, we come home with good and/or bad stories. We don’t engage our friends and families with animated conversation about data. Behind the memorable business transactions – good or bad – it’s the stories that accompany them that motivate us to either go back to the same site or not. Please, nurture those relationships that yield great stories, won’t you?

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Hourly Employees’ Plight…further complicated by high tech

First, an update: A few entries back, I wrote about the Market Basket case (here is an article offering more detailed account and other links) in which the CEO was forced out by the board of directors, agitated by a cranky cousin. Thereafter, the employees had gone on strike to demand the reinstatement of their beloved CEO, Arthur T. Mr. Arthur T. recently bought out the company, at $1.5 billion price tag, and was back on his old job. The buyout brought a huge sigh of relief from the employees, and now they are rebuilding the enterprise. I wish them luck.


Now on to today’s topic.

I am keenly aware that most of my writing deals with the professional class. My rationalization, and rationale, is that the fundamental principles informing my writing are applicable for all walks of life…most of the time. As the professional class has been working furiously on technological advancement, providing efficiency or sometimes surveillance, they leave behind hourly employees whose lives seem still largely dictated by low tech.

narrow passage 1

narrow passage 1

When we think “technologies,” we mostly see improvements they have brought to our lives. Even though we are also aware of some of the shortcomings, it isn’t easy to just act on our “knowing what’s good for us.” For instance, we know that texting while driving is downright senseless, yet many still do. Or, tweeting too quickly, or being too trusting with our private matters on the internet, or posting indiscriminately on Facebook, etc. At the workplace, many software programs have helped enterprises schedule their hourly employees to achieve “just-in-time” results. These programs may indeed increase efficiency for enterprises – like, who’d say, “I don’t want any more efficiency?” – and therefore higher profits. That is, if we only look at one side of this equation, the employer’s side.

It turns out that such software for scheduling can wreck employees’ lives. Finely-tuned graphs of business flow may indicate that, say, only two employees are needed for certain 2-3 hour periods. Inevitably what comes with such finesse, through constant updating, is the much smaller window of notification for the employees. Scheduling software couldn’t care less about whether these employees have reliable transportation, small kids or elderly parents needing care, employees’ own school schedule, or other life matters. Constructing such a list of “things” or concerns takes little time on my part; however, in reality, these life events, compounded by unpredictable schedules, create anxiety, stress, breaking points for relationships, maxing out one’s network of help, etc. In the New York Times’ article, the featured young single mother often has to wake up her 4-year old way before dawn to take the 3-hour commute with tight schedules on bus transfers, hoping the bus would be on time, and leaving her son at the day care with little room for discussion and interaction with caretakers. What’s more, these hourly employees, usually with little job security and therefore no power to complain, have almost no say over their own preferences for hours. In one weekend, this young single mom was scheduled to work till 11PM Friday night, do the closing, and come back to start at 4AM on Saturday, and 5AM the following Sunday.

It is becoming common practice nowadays for hourly employees to find out their schedule only hours beforehand, a very small window for notification indeed.

The young single mom in article is a barista at a Starbucks Café. There is actually a good ending (for now) to her story. Within 24 hours of the article, Starbucks issued a policy modification that the employees should have at least one week’s notice for their schedule. Further, managers should take into account individuals’ other demands outside of work. The Starbucks HQ even included a new policy to help employees whose commute may be more than an hour to find a closer Starbucks. Of course, many baristas aren’t confident that their managers would abide by the new changes. For now, though, they’ll take any improvement. And to think that Starbucks is one of the more progressive organizations that pay attention to employees’ issues.

narrow passage 2

narrow passage 2

A few days after all this brouhaha had simmered down, a customer mentioned the changes experienced by the featured barista, effected by the NYTimes’ article, and asked this barista if she had encountered any such problems with the café. The barista just graciously smiled without bringing the spotlight onto herself.

Story aside, what this article – and the subsequent update – indicate is that as our technologies become ever more sophisticated, they create even more distance between statistical data and human faces. Management likes to rely on “faithful” numbers and data, but numbers aren’t always the whole “evidence,” even as I still advocate evidence-based management. However solid numbers and evidence may appear, they do not always illuminate the context from which they are derived, nor the context to which they should be applied. What does illuminate that contextual layer is the basic element of organizations: relationship. Seriously, if managers only need to input data for the software to develop the schedule, why not eliminate that layer of managers and just go straight to the computers to bring about higher efficiency, if this is our only goal.

Do we use technologies? or, do technologies own us? An old debate that probably will never be resolved.


Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Sometimes It Seems Easier To Donate ($ or goods) Than To Be Gracious

When I first ran across this article, “The Lesson of Grace in Teaching,” I was moved by the story behind the title, but didn’t think it had direct bearing on business or management. Then, I remembered my own principle: Everything is connected in system perspective. Indeed, “grace” is useful in teaching, and there are many principles in the teaching profession from which management can learn.

After Francis Edward Su’s award speech for teaching mathematics, he received so many requests for the speech that he created a blog just to post that speech, which I linked above.

When Su was told by his first graduate advisor that he didn’t have “what it takes to be a successful mathematician,” he was on the verge of quitting the field. Like many before and after him, PhD students tend to entwine their identity with their degrees, or their impending degrees. However, after some painful soul searching, Su decided to switch to a different advisor instead of altogether dropping out of the PhD program. Su had in mind the professor from whom he had taken only one course prior to switching. It was from that course, or more precisely the interaction with Professor Diaconis outside of the course, that Su learned about “grace.”

Nature's grace.

Nature’s grace.

Su’s mother died during the semester of Diaconis’ course, and Su went to the professor asking for an extension. What Professor Diaconis immediately said was, “I am really sorry about your mother. Let me take you to coffee.” During that coffee break, the “obscure” student and the professor “pondered lives, personal journeys, struggles, and other weighty issues.”

The coffee time was Su’s epiphany: “By taking me to coffee, he [Professor Diaconis] had shown me he valued me as a human being, independent of my academic record. And having my worthiness separated from my performance gave me great freedom! I could truly enjoy learning again.  Whether I succeeded or failed would not affect my worthiness as a human being.  Because even if I failed, I knew: I am still worth having coffee with!”

Su’s definition of “grace” is: Good things you didn’t earn or deserve, but you are getting them anyway. A derivative from that coffee encounter is, “Your accomplishments are NOT what make you a worthy human being.”

Not that everyone has to go through “failure” in order to appreciate such depth of humanness, but those who are NOT afraid of failure grasp these ideas more readily. As Su points out in his talk/article, when we struggle or are confused, that’s when learning really takes place. Of course, “grace” isn’t just about learning, but also learning to be generous, to others and to oneself.

This isn’t about superficial “forgiving yourself,” or “treating yourself well” new-age thinking. In the context of Su’s presentation, I think his concept of “grace” is about: (1) When we are generous toward others, many doors open not just for others but also for ourselves. In the case of Professor Diaconis’ generous gesture, he eventually “won” a bright student who then became a highly valued teacher. (2) When we don’t try to infuse our achievements into our identity, we would be less concerned about what we get, and actually let wandering take us to wherever it may. In turn, we would be able to see more possibilities. So, Su didn’t let his first advisor’s discouraging (and, disparaging) words kill his interest. He loved math, with or without the PhD, and it was that love and Diaconis’ timely offer that gave Su the possibility of success that he might not have otherwise realized. The lesson “grace” stayed with him and lead to his teaching award, and not just award but affection and appreciation from many students.

Yet another "grace" from nature.

Yet another “grace” from nature.

In our workplaces, unfortunately, we see more evidence of the lack of “grace” than its presence. Competition tends to snuff out any possibility for “grace,” as does the desire to snatch others’ turf, envy of direct reports’ or colleagues’ achievements, being constantly on guard or on the defensive, or thinking and plotting one’s own promotion. Recently, I got one of those circulating emails (which sometimes bring smiles and laughter, and occasionally a word of wisdom), “You cannot hang out with negative people and expect to lead a positive life.” That’s in a nutshell what “grace” is about. Have you ever seen and received “grace” from negative people?

Just like meetings don’t change people’s minds easily (my previous post), neither would a speech or an article. In addition, I have learned from the knowing-doing gap  the principle of letting actions teach us. So, I know better than to expect that my writing – especially in the shadow of Su’s brilliant speech and writing – would excite people to practice “grace.” Heavens, do I?! However, why not envision a path of “grace” and practice on a colleague, an acquaintance, or even a stranger for a week and see? And please share your insight.

Postscript: Shortly after I finished my draft of this entry, I received a very gracious communication that lifted my spirits and allowed me to breathe more easily. Indeed, I need to find ways to pay forward.

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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