WaPo: For Innovative Talent, It’s Both Art and Science

This from yesterday’s Washington Post:

We don’t need more STEM majors. We need more STEM majors with liberal arts training.

The debate about art vs. science in hiring is an interesting one.   This is one person’s take on why the artificial boundary between the two may hold us back when it comes to innovation.

Citing some of the world’s renown innovators as interdisciplinarians, the author takes on a real issue.

Namely, we lament the number of liberal arts degrees vs. the STEM degrees, but miss the point that for STEM trained leaders to be effective, they have to be liberal arts thinkers.

An operative passage:

Many in government and business publicly question the value of such an education [liberal arts]. Yet employers in every sector continue to scoop up my students because of their ability to apply cross-disciplinary thinking to an incredibly complex world. They like my chemistry grads because not only can they find their way around a laboratory, but they’re also nimble thinkers who know to consider chemistry’s impact on society and the environment.


Want a Better Team? Mix In Some of This…

This has been an interesting article making the rounds for some time now.

In January, the New York Times publicized research by several scholars that provides some new insight into what makes teams click…


The operative portion:

…the smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics.

First, their members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.

Second, their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.

Finally, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. Indeed, it appeared that it was not “diversity” (having equal numbers of men and women) that mattered for a team’s intelligence, but simply having more women. This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at “mindreading” than men.

So, while some of you read this as being a call to have more women in the mix, some others may read this as a call for a more inclusive and reflective team dynamic regardless of gender mix.

This study would probably say you are both right.

Stanford GSB: Mean Co-Workers Make Sense…

It turns out that modern corporate life is a justification in and of itself for people to be self-interested “jerks”…

While I’m not sure I fully agree (idealist that I am), some researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business have studied the phenomenon.


The operative passage from researcher Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford GSB:

“People need to take care of themselves,” Pfeffer says. “They need to stop looking for this mythical Santa Claus that’s going to be nice to them.” To the suggestion that this was a depressing assessment of cubicle life, Pfeffer responded, “what I find more depressing is instances when people misplace their faith and trust in organizations—when people who think their company will look after them meet horrible consequences.”

Amen to the concept of horrible consequences waiting in the wings for those who don’t align the values they espouse with the values that their organization upholds.  Amen to that indeed.

It’s an interesting and quick read, in any case.


Leadership That’s Always Winter, Never Christmas

Icy children’s stories from today and yesterday contain leadership lessons for us all.

I’m sitting here this morning in the aftermath of one of the nastier ice “storms” that we’ve had here in the upstate of South Carolina during my residence in this fantastic region. I use scare quotes around “storm” because I have to admit, I’ve never quite understood the term “ice storm” after living for years in Dallas, Texas and now Spartanburg, SC.

Ice doesn’t really “storm,” it just kind of builds up over time.

Which is actually a pretty cool real world analogy for the topic of this post, so…enjoy.

The benefit of being near joy and wonder…

One of the benefits of having 4 young children is that I get to relive childhood (constantly, some would say) with a grown-up eye on childish things. I get to experience joy, fear, and wonder through the eyes of four developing youngsters.

I also get to see, firsthand, the impact that storytelling has on our psyches, both good and bad.

I’m convinced that the power of storytelling never really goes away. A strong narrative delivered with integrity is just as powerful in helping adults understand and change behavior as it is for children.

it’s just an underused (and sometimes misused) tool.

Sometimes, referencing childish narratives with grown up eyes brings to light some pretty interesting and serious insights that apply to our adult lives.

If you’ve been with me for a while as I’ve dabbled in these posts, you’ve possibly seen my stab at a list of non-business books that business people should read. It’s here.

Number 2 on that rather eclectic and certainly incomplete list was the book Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Orwell was certainly onto something when he built his little allegory of a communist gangster takeover of an idyllic farm. It’s worth another look for anyone looking at social and hierarchical power dynamics in the organizations of today, particularly where there is extreme stress on words like “collaboration” and “teamwork.”

That digression aside, the reality is that narratives, even and perhaps especially those meant for children, have lessons.

I’m struck recently by the leadership narratives brought on by three icebound stories that have permeated popular culture. That they all deal with ice is only the more convenient this morning as I write this…

Three Profiles in Icy Leadership

The three children’s stories that have leadership narratives with icy “teeth,” which I’ll place in ascending “destructive” order, are:

1. Disney’s Frozen

The “leadership” plot: Poor Elsa, afflicted with fantastic powers to create ice and snow at her whim, freezes her entire kingdom. Through the travails of many friends and the schemes of a few enemies, Elsa learns to control her powers and balance them for the good of the kingdom (and herself). The kicker: True love.

The leadership lesson: Frozen is a story of unconscious incompetence writ large. You’ve probably experienced a fantastically talented leader who inadvertently freezes everything around him or her. You may have been one!

This leader creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that drives out all action and vibrance. But, this leader is actually coachable in the end.

In my experience, this is the profile of many, many young, smart, driven leaders who step into leadership situations that are challenging. They take control, dictate, panic, and ultimately freeze all the people around them because it’s all they have known over time. Maybe you have personally been here…

How to solve it: The key to the “Elsa” leader is to turn unconscious leadership incompetence (essentially a lack of self awareness around others who don’t have his or her powers) into conscious competence through coaching, feedback, and repetition.

Most organizations have a few Elsas in their midst. They need to be nurtured and coached, or else they progress toward our next to profiles.

2. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen

The “leadership” plot: The Snow Queen, a story from 1845, was a very distant feed-in to the plot line for Frozen. “Very distant” meaning that the stories lack resemblance to one another.

Interestingly, the Snow Queen’ leadership foibles fall somewhere in the middle of the three vignettes here. The Snow Queen is a necessary and fantastically talented leader, being the leader of the hive of bees that bring snow to the world.

She, however, chooses to enslave a young boy who has been accidentally afflicted with splinters of glass from a magical mirror that freeze his heart and pollute his eyes–causing him to have affinity for the cold queen, to see the flaws in all that is beautiful, and to see all that is awful in an amplified way.

The Snow Queen takes the boy, whose heart is already cold, and freezes him further. The boy, blinded by his affliction, is pleased with her. The Snow Queen maintains her grip on the boy by telling him he can have his freedom once he completes a relatively simple task (spelling “Eternity” with shards of ice) that he just…can’t…figure…out.

Eventually the boy is freed by the love of his best friend, who warms his heart, washes away the splinters of glass, and lets him see the world, and the Snow Queen’s leadership, as it is.

The leadership lesson: The Snow Queen is a purposeful leader who has chosen to entrap a young soul for her amusement or benefit. You may have encountered this type in your experience.

The leadership lesson in this one is that individuals should be asked to serve to their highest ability, not to the whim of the leader. The Snow Queen leader doesn’t get this, and instead wants his or her followers to think they are in the best position they could possibly be in while he or she dictates their career.

How to solve it: Because these three vignettes are a progression from least bad to worst, this one is a bit tougher than the first. Most importantly, followers need to be willing to test whether their leaders are creating win-win career situations, or merely playing people into roles that are advantageous to the leader. On the leader side, having a few strong sounding boards outside of his or her organization can prevent the tunnel vision that results in pigeon holing people and getting less out of an organization than is possible.

All of this, of course, pales in comparison to the next profile…

3. C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The “leadership” plot: Because the book is a Christian allegory (and quite a good one), most of the leadership focus in analysis of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is on the Christ figure, Aslan the Lion. Since none of us is going to have the power that Aslan had, I’d propose the real leadership lesson comes from the reign of Jadis, the White Witch.

The White Witch presides over a Narnian kingdom where she has commanded it to be endlessly winter, while at the same time purposefully preventing Christmas from ever coming.

Thus, in the kingdom, it is “always winter, but never Christmas.” In the precise brilliance that is C.S. Lewis’ writing, this phrase sums up so many leadership regimes in so many companies and institutions.

The White Witch is a terror. She is evil. She is enabled by an entourage of characters who have her back. She puts a bounty on any human who enters Narnia, effectively enlisting the entire population not against threats to the Kingdom, but threats to her own reign. Her most terrifying capability is that she can turn her enemies to stone…She has decorated her castle with statues formed of people who chose to dissent or disobey.

The leadership lesson: The White Witch is a leader with a conscious focus on self aggrandizement through a reign of terror. Leaders who fall into this category tend to be those who were not coached or apprenticed in their early years and who happened to be surrounded by and benefit from people that the leader was able to influence unduly as they rose to power. In short, I’m not sure there is a lesson, other than to intervene before the White Witch becomes the White Witch.

How to solve it: Leadership change tends to be the only way to overcome a charming but consciously vindictive and well protected leader. Usually, like in the story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it requires outside intervention (sometimes, ironically, resulting in the “demise” of the intervener). Bosses, boards, and peers have to identify the leader by virtue of his or her cultivation of a menagerie of henchmen and a garden of noble stone statues.

I hope you never encounter the corporate equivalent of the White Witch.

What’s the big deal?

So, why take an hour and a half of my day to write this? Well, first, the ice storm allowed it. That’s a picture of the deck outside my home office you see at the start of this article.

It turns out that having an open moment on the calendar is a fun thing when one of your hobbies is trying to push to a higher level of strategic and business leadership understanding and discourse (yes, I’d enjoy your comments).

Second, I think the lesson I’m writing on this morning is that the intersection of power and responsibility is real.

All of these leaders were fantastically powerful and talented in a raw sense.

The first type, the Elsa leader, has no idea that her power can freeze the world around her if she is not careful; and she has to learn.

The second kind, the Snow Queen leader, can only break out of icy habits by understanding that the people she leads should have an informed say in the matter.

The third kind, the White Witch leader, is in most cases a lost cause, polluted by power and ossified by suspicion and paranoia. She needs a re-set.

Though they are all powerful, these leaders’ senses of responsibility move steadily from outside themselves to inside themselves. There’s a point to reflect on in that reality.

Our children get to experience stories of wonder and consequence. Sometimes, it’s good that we revisit them as adults to understand that the authors of these stories–in most cases adults–were inspired by real, grown up problems.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post: Ice doesn’t really “storm,” it just builds up. Such is the case with leadership profiles outlined here…Hopefully, with a little foresight, we can get good at guiding the budding leaders in our midst away from these particular end points.

May your iciest experiences be preludes to the celebration of Christmas (or the holiday of your choice), and not the harbinger of an eternal blizzard…

Are You Well if Oil is Not Well?


Where to from here?


The jolly crew of optimists at ZeroHedge, quoting some of their stable of doomsayers, are predicting that the oil crisis is just beginning… And I find it worth reading.


To follow on to some of the earlier questions posed by this blog:

What does your business look like in the age of an extremely strong dollar, a Euro depreciating against all other global currencies due to EQE, and oil at $20 a barrel?

Tough question, eh?  Well, I’m not one to call the price of oil…If I were I’d be in a different line of business; but I am one to encourage clients and executives to look at the world through multiple lenses.

The lens that is most interesting right now is the one that includes a dramatic re-set of oil production both domestically and abroad, along with a healthy heaping helping of the knock-on effects that will impact consumer and B2B markets geared to this phenomenon.

Remember, you don’t have to sell into oil exploration and production to feel this wrath…you only need to be near people and companies who do.

Their risk is your risk.   Stay ahead of it.

Stay tuned.  Your comments are welcome.

Leadership and the Infinite Monkey

The vision-less leader is like the proverbial monkey on a typewriter…Or even worse.

Options are a good thing. We all want options.

Chocolate or vanilla?

White or wheat?

Paper or plastic?

Options, to a point, are the spice of life.

But, there’s a breed of leader out there whose approach to leadership amounts only to options.

Too many options.

Options without conviction.

Options without vision.

Options without time boundaries, rules, triggers, or values. Just options.

“Try them all” says he,

“One of them might work.”

Generally, this leader has limited concept of or care for the burden “trying them all” comes with; but revels in the knowledge that something might happen.

He doesn’t know what.

But, perhaps when it happens he’ll know.

This leader’s style is a manifestation of the so-called “infinite monkey theorem.”

And a tortuous style it is.

What’s an infinite monkey leader?

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey on a typewriter, banging away, will eventually bang out the complete works of Shakespeare…If only given enough time.

He won’t know he has done it, and he will certainly have wasted a lot of time and energy in the process; but still, with enough time, he believes he will find success.

An infinite monkey leader works the same way: Bang away on enough keys and something good is bound to happen.

Call on enough random phone numbers and you are bound to make a sale.

Invest in enough projects and one is bound to “pop.”

Keep plugging away at a given project providing no financial returns and producing only noise because, you know, it is bound to straighten out.

Churn through enough people and you are bound to find a good subordinate.

The defining characteristic of an infinite monkey leader is the lack of conviction to narrow down and attack.

Instead, the leader only arrays resources against broad fronts, never narrow; and only attacks in rolling waves, never in thrusts.

In short, the leader never commits. He just bangs away.

The scary part?

Get this: A leader with Infinite Monkey affliction can often persist and even prevail.

Savvy ones refer to neat sounding investment terms like “portfolio effects” and “diversification.” These are worthy, useful terms in the real world of strategic management, to be sure. However, the infinite monkey leader takes them to the limit… Wasting time on things that should be stopped, never driving hard against things that should be over-invested, and ultimately missing the boat.

But, these leaders are out there, they are in senior positions, and in some cases they lead successful organizations.

It’s remarkable, but true.

In those cases, a few things are common. Most of the time, the strength of the organization overcomes the leader’s weakness. Some of the time, the leader has a strong “second” who corrals the mercurial or passive tendencies (yes, you read that right) of the infinite monkey leader.

In any case, there will be consequences. One only need look for them.

What are the consequences?

The consequences of infinite monkey leadership are substantial, but take time to manifest themselves, especially for the ones who find success through their organizations as noted above. They include

  • Frustration – particularly as every part of the organization realizes that any part of the organization might or might not be on the leader’s agenda–who can tell?
  • Wasted time and money – it goes without saying…keep banging away.
  • Lost opportunities – too often, the infinite monkey leader has a focus on meeting a budget versus building value; and that can lead to lost opportunities.
  • Lost people – particularly those who know better, so it’s a double whammy.

This is an article about opportunity costs and leaders who ignore them.

Opportunity costs are often very hard to prove in an organization. What if we hadn’t spent that extra year working on that project that everybody knew was a dud? What could we have done?

Tough to say.

Can this affliction be overcome?

I believe this affliction can be fixed…to a point.

In larger organizations, the fix comes from constraints and processes. Other people put constraints on the infinite monkey leader, and processes provide structure and required inputs for testing whether the options are real.

It’s bureaucracy, and it contributes to the longevity of the infinite monkey leadership style (it’s just a manifestation of a “strong organization” as I noted above), but it can work.

Over time the leader learns what constraint and conviction are, and starts to understand what truly constitutes a portfolio versus just a grab bag.

In smaller organizations, or organizational cultures where the top of the organization rules (and that doesn’t mean the CEO, it means the top of every function, work team, cell, and unit); leaders have to be good at asking a few questions in a structured…perhaps in a very structured way.

  • Do we know what we are doing?
  • Do we know why we are doing it?
  • Do we know the burden imposed in terms of time, money, and energy?
  • Are we spending our time, money, and energy on the right things?

As with most activities, sorting and scrutinizing works.

The real challenge for the infinite monkey leader is the last question…the “right things” question.

Usually, the infinite monkey leader can’t make that call.

That’s why he’s an infinite monkey leader!

He needs help. But, he has to admit that he doesn’t necessarily know what “right” is; and in some organizations that can be political suicide.

Perhaps he needs someone who can provide an interpretive framework for what “right” is. Perhaps he only needs to stop and think about what he believes.

It’s tough to tell.

Good, structured thinking and follow through is the requirement; because the leader lacks an intuitive feel for priorities and burden.

A parting thought…

I have framed this article around the concept of the leader being the monkey on typewriter.

For most of us, that’s a fun an engaging way of thinking about a significant leadership failure mode.

Sometimes we are the monkey leader, banging away on a keyboard, thinking we are making progress…

But, those of us who try to practice disciplined followership know the uglier side of this leadership affliction: Most of the time, the leader isn’t the one banging away at the keys…It’s his followers. He’s only ordering them to keep banging away.

Don’t be a monkey, in either case.

Know what you believe.

(And, yes, the chimp in the picture above is not a monkey…it’s an ape…But, still.)

Let’s Face It, I’m Smarter Than You

thierry ehrmann

Some mindsets are toxic. If you propagate them, stop it. If your leader does it, weigh your options.

I write often on the light side of leadership. A few examples are here, here, and here. This one’s a bit dark. But, it’s real. Ask around.

“Let’s face it, I’m smarter than you.”

If any leader were to drop that phrase on you, you’d possibly recoil in horror and anger while looking for your hat and coat to depart. It is the sort of phrase that would be almost as hilarious to anyone hearing it uttered as it is spiteful and selfish in its utterance.

The issue is that a lot of leaders say this every day. They convey this and a whole host of other toxic thoughts through their actions. Sometimes, they don’t even know they do it.

The continuum of toxic leadership mindsets

I’ll list some of the host of toxic mindsets below (and I HOPE you will consider adding to them) because as a whole, they constitute quite possibly the single most distracting productivity sap of modern corporate life.

These mindsets are not individually toxic. Let’s be honest, all good leaders have these fleeting thoughts as a part of balancing the line between good, solid confidence and outright egotism. The issue is when these mindsets become the rule instead of the exception.

When they become endemic, they are destructive.

I’ve segmented them into six types, and given a few examples of the unspoken speech that comes with them. Ranging from mildly annoying (kinda jerky) to absolutely toxic (as in pure deal breakers–the kind of leader you walk away from at first possibility) the six types are:

Type 1: “My brain is bigger than yours.”

  • Let’s face it, I’m smarter than you
  • I could do this better than you.
  • I can interrupt you, but don’t you dare interrupt me.
  • My experience/knowledge/background is superior to yours.

Type 2: “I don’t want you to think.”

  • You will do what you are told.
  • This is not a team/democracy/collaboration.
  • That’s a stupid idea!
  • I’ve already given you the answer, don’t question it.

Type 3: “You don’t matter”

  • My freedom is more important than yours
  • My work is more important than you.
  • My family is more important than yours.
  • My stories are more interesting than yours.
  • I don’t believe in or sponsor people.

Type 4: “I don’t make mistakes.”

  • If it weren’t for you, we would have done better.
  • Because I have never failed, it must be you.
  • I have paid my dues and earned it (and you haven’t).
  • It was generous of me to do what I did for you.
  • I refuse to acknowledge that I might be wrong.

Type 5: “If it’s unethical, you did it.”

  • I’m happy for you to act unethically, as long as I don’t have to and can’t be blamed for it.
  • I would like for you to deceive other people and keep me safe.

Type 6: “I’m afraid.”

  • You do it.
  • You tell them (not me).
  • It’s not me, it’s you.

Notice how the progression goes from deep arrogance in Type 1 to deep insecurity in Type 6.

We all can deal with the jerkiness of ego from time to time. If we don’t, then we probably aren’t competing very hard. But, it gets excruciatingly hard to deal with an insecure or cowardly leader. That’s why type 6 is on the deal breaking end of the spectrum.

What to do…

The first point of this article is one of self reflection. We, especially those of us who lead others, have to ensure we’re not the ones representing these mindsets.

The second point is to provide some markers to look out for among the people you work for and with.

Generally, those markers are unspoken. But, if any of these mindsets ever turn into spoken word, then you’ve been given a gift–the gift of clarity. With your gift in hand, feel good about walking away.

When faced with a leader who possesses these sentiments at his or her heart; and who lacks the self awareness required to avoid expressing them; you really have two options:

1. Look past the leader to the other opportunities you will have in the organization. Many great people deal with ineffective or toxic leaders every day because they like their teams, like their organizations, and–most importantly–see the opportunity set that they have on the horizon past their current leader. In other words, they can look to the horizon and see past the stumbling block in their immediate path.


2. If you can’t see the opportunity for growth, and can get comfortable with the risk inherent to change…Go!!! Vote with your feet. Be confident that there are better leaders out there. Get away from them. Walk away, don’t look back, just leave.

A Parting Thought: Remember the Scorpion and the Frog

If you take pride in your ability to corral toxic leaders; or if you think that you are safe from a leader who professes the thoughts outlined above because you believe you have a special relationship with them…

or they sponsor you…

or you are somehow indispensable…

or they have told you that you are different…

…then I ask you this: Did the last few people this leader blamed for his or her own inadequacies think they were any less sponsored or safe?

Remember: In the fable of the scorpion and the frog

…they both drown.

#Likeagirl, Evidence, and Leadership

Always asks us what it means to do things like a girl, and in the process illustrates a fascinating leadership concept.

If you watched the NFL’s Super Bowl tonight, you may have caught a glimpse of a commercial advertisement that doubtless cost millions of dollars to produce and present during the time of the world’s most expensive ad buy.

The ad is by Always, the maker of feminine products and a member of Procter & Gamble’s stable of brands. I learned within the last few minutes that the video is not new; but I just saw it.

If you’ve seen it, forgive my late-to-the-game reaction and thoughts; but I hope you’ll read on.

I can’t do the commercial justice, so I’m just going to link it here and hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch it.

The operative phrase in this spot is

A girl’s confidence plummets during puberty.

It is a call to action to support girls’ confidence and fight the “like a girl” stereotype.

The ad challenges us to understand that girls, prior to 10 years of age, have no idea that to be told they throw, run, or fight “like a girl” is an insult of the most dangerous kind–a socially acceptable one.

No, I don’t fit the mold of someone who opines on commercials by makers of feminine products. Nor do I represent the most likely demographic to jot down a post related to important women’s issues.

But I have a young daughter.

And this spot got me thinking.

If girls the world over–like my daughter–can go from thinking that they run, throw, and fight strong at age 10 to partaking in the general ethos that their actions are not only inferior, but comedic by age 12…

…what is happening to people’s confidence in so many other arenas due to similar social pressures?

It’s probable that we chase a significant proportion of young women out of arenas they may excel within because they “don’t fit the mold.” This has been studied repeatedly.

It’s a real failure of leadership.

And that’s not just a failure when it comes to leading young women…It’s a failure when it comes to people of all types.

I’ve written plenty on the need for evidence-based leadership.

This one is no different.

Show me how you throw. Show me how fast you run. Show me how you lead. Show me your ideas. Don’t succumb to stereotypes and prejudice.

Speak up.

Show up.

How many professionals, men and women, live with the lack of confidence that comes from these types of dismissals and this type of derision?

As someone in the “degreed” class who has been around a few organizations over time, I’ve witnessed countless dismissals of highly valid points of view due to educational background, national background, or lack of facility with a second language. I’ve seen it because of the way someone looks or dresses. I’ve even seen it because a person grew up in the wrong corporate function or attended the wrong college.

And, sadly, yes, I’ve seen it because of gender.

Such prejudice shuts people up…quickly. It stifles sharing of talents and in its worst guise amputates aspirations that could benefit most any enterprise.

What I’m saying is that in the professional arena, #likeagirl could also be #likeahighschoolgrad or #likeamanufacturingmanager or #likeanonenglishspeaker or #liketheydidntattendharvard.

In other words, they are insults that really shouldn’t be–choices and mindsets that divide and dismiss vs. listen and consider.

Always, with a very interesting ad, is just saying “watch it, because its insulting to imply that girls can’t accomplish these things.”

I’m saying the same thing.

As leaders, we could learn a lot from this video.

Look for evidence.