Leadership ≠ All Knowing

Leaders frequently harbor the notion that they are expected to know more than they do.  In the extreme case, a leader feels that she is expected to know everything.  The real problem occurs when a leader is unable- or simply refuses- to recognize that this attitude has overcome her, therefore putting no measures in place to control it.  At one time I believed, anecdotally, that this pitfall more commonly befell young and inexperienced leaders.  After additional observation, I suggest that all leaders fall prey to the self-imposed expectation that we must be subject matter experts in all domains within the scope of our responsibility if we are to be effective leaders.

Think back to a time when you were leading a team and faced with a complex decision.  Did you feel a sense of internal dissonance when you subconsciously accepted that collecting and considering other evidence and viewpoints would strengthen the solution, but chose to resist the urge to explore the issue further out of fear that doing so would signal your incompetence?

Logically, we understand that no one can know it all.  The expectation is wildly unreasonable.

This mistake is especially toxic in the context of healthcare leadership because the body of clinical and functional knowledge is far too vast and specialized for any one person to command it all. Healthcare leaders intuitively understand this, yet social pressure prevails and discourages leaders from remaining honest with themselves and their teams about their limitations.

There are several troubling effects when leaders make this mistake:

  • Leaders are discouraged from examining ideas from informed people around him- peers, subordinates, and mentors alike.  When the problem demands robust collaboration, this mistake can be crippling.
  • We assume greater risk in every decision by refusing to evaluate the full range of available evidence.
  • Leaders fall prey to a variety of biases by resisting diverging points of view.
  • Our subordinates are not able to contribute to the limit of their potential, discouraging future contribution and blunting enthusiasm.

This mistake is so easy to make, and most of us frequently suffer from pretending to be all knowing.  Avoiding this pitfall requires an impressive degree of self-awareness.  Leaders must be in-tune with their personality attributes and problem solving preferences to recognize circumstances when she may be tempted to avoid seeking external information.  It’s powerful if a leader can detect the internal dissonance that occurs and use this feeling as the trigger to control against the pitfall.  However, few of us possess that level of awareness and self-control, so leaders should put process in place to manage their behavior.  I suggest that leaders create the habit of seeking input from 3 people before making significant decisions.  Since soliciting input simply is now part of a normal process, the leader can avoid the embarrassment that comes from signaling that he doesn’t have all the answers.

Morning Walk

I awoke early in the city in that in-between hour, after the night owl’s evening has ended and before the early birds have risen.  Strapping a 50 pound backpack to my body, I set off briskly into the morning’s darkness that surrounds the Rice University campus.  Although I do this activity, much, much less than I once did in my Special Forces or airborne infantry days, “ruck marching” has always been a favorite activity of mine.  It’s uncomfortable, tiring, and sometimes very painful.  Yet, it is uplifting.

Walking through the pitch dark is something I have always deeply enjoyed.  Darkness is isolating and liberating.  The lack of light and visibility creates a sense of safety, as if I have been swept away into another, less hostile world.  This sense is amplified when I am in the wilderness, truly separated from the routine hustle.  Yet the same feeling of peaceful isolation can be found on neighborhood sidewalks or local parks.  I found it this morning under the arching and foreboding oaks on campus.  Walking through the early morning mist is perfect for reflection, allowing me hours to profoundly consider my thoughts and their deeper meanings.

The Curse of High Performing Teams

Corporate American often speaks of the ideal team, usually framed as a high performance team, which is able to achieve grand objectives disproportionate it’s size or talent of the team’s members.  On these teams, the collective cause is more powerful than individual reward, leading members to willingly subordinate their egos to the team’s performance.  The team easily hits its stride and things just seem to click, as parts become perfectly synchronized.  The energy and passion is palpable.

Most of us itch to be a part of these types of teams- we want to be winners in the eyes of our superiors and peers.  I believe this hunger is kindled in our youth- most of us had childhood fantasies of being part of a legendary sports moment, exploding into celebration as the clock strikes 00:00 in the final period of the championship game.  Accomplishing out-sized objectives and being regarded as “high performing” is euphoric.

There is a downside to working on such a highly functioning team, however.  Once experienced, the high performing team becomes the baseline against which all future teams are measured.  An ideal is implanted in our mind that is very difficult to replicate.  The immensity of the relationships forged on a high performing team are difficult to match.

When subsequent teams fail to measure up, it leads to disappointment.  Expectations for the performance of new teams and teammates are unrealistically high, which course is not fair based on the context of the new team.  We form requirements for new members in our mind, based on our experience with the high performance team, and expect new team members to meet these requirements even though it is unlikely we shared these expectations with the group.  As a result, we unfairly expect the team and its members to measure up to performance ideals that are known only to us.  Even if we did communicate our expectations, it is unreasonable to expect every other team we work with to perform in the same way as our high performing memory.

Reframing My Concept of Occupational Arc

I recently met with a Dean at Rice University’s Jones School of Business (where I am a student) to take advantage of his experience and position for professional mentorship.

Although our conversation spanned many topics, one point in particular resonated strongly with me.  I share it here in hopes that his message also inspires others to reconsider their perspective on a “correct” professional arc.

The dean suggested that it may be disadvantageous to set rigid (and likely arbitrary) long range goals and then adhere to that trajectory unrelentingly.  Although long range goals provide a sense of direction (and therefore comfort in predictability), they may also function as blinders which make us unable or unwilling to recognize opportunities that emerge around us.

One of the unfortunate aspects of my military service is that it conditioned me to expect this kind of linear growth in the private sector.  The career arc for military officers is uncompromisingly strait, rigid, and predictable.  Service members are also conditioned to pursue goals aggressively and succeed at all costs. I recognize that I have struggled to let go of this expectation and throw off the blinders so that I am open to recognizing chances to take an off ramp to a new career.  Yet, recognizing this blinder effect and becoming comfortable with this new career framework has not come easily.

Discussions with informed and experienced professionals, like the Rice Dean, are important opportunities to shock our world view and create conditions where we can begin to consider new ways to view the world around us.  But these conversations usually don’t happen by chance- they require us to have the courage to reach out to those who will challenge our way of thinking.

It’s another example that discomfort is a powerful catalyst to growth.

The Emotion Organ

Imagine, if you will, that the human body contains a single organ (external to the brain) that is responsible for our emotions. Imagine this organ as a vessel that is full of a finite amount of fluid that represents our emotions. The organ is never empty. Our emotions are manifested by the proportion of the fluid representing a particular emotion- the larger the proportion, the more frequently and intensely we feel that emotion. As that emotion’s fluid is displaced by another emotion, we feel it less.

Continuing with this analogy, imagine that your emotion organ is full of the fluid representing fear. Comprising by far the largest proportion of fluid in the organ, fear is dominant and impacts all other emotions. It is as if you experience all other emotions through the lens of fear. As a result, it feels as though everything that you sense is contaminated by fear. When you see an opportunity, you feel scared and self-doubt, over-emphasizing the risk. When faced with a challenge, it feels insurmountable- larger and more menacing than reality. When you see others being successful, you feel only resentment and jealousy. When you stumble or fail, your confidence plummets and your self worth crashes. The fear in your emotion organ has infected all other emotions that you feel and twisted your judgement and perspective.

Now imagine if your emotion organ was instead full of hope. Imagine what you would feel when faced with challenge, opportunity, success and failure. Imagine how you might see the world differently if every other emotion were tinged with hope, instead of fear.

What if we can choose which emotion’s fluid fills our emotion organ?

Wanted: Mentorship

How do you connect with a mentor?

I often receive advice about how powerful mentorship is when connecting to a new career or a new role. When I have coffee chats with people in careers I am targeting, they almost always tell me about mentors in their lives that have played such an impactful role in their development.

I get it. I can understand very clearly the utility of having a mentor. A mentor from whom I can seek guidance to illuminate opportunities or gain a totally new perspective that I haven’t yet considered. A mentor who will challenge my understanding and approach to provide the stretch necessary for intellectual growth. A person whose advice and counsel will provide the clarity and confidence to encourage me to take risks and pursue opportunities aggressively.

But how do you find a mentor?

Mentors are certainly not just growing on trees. I’ve encountered people who speak of mentorship, but then can’t or won’t be responsive enough to truly develop into the relationship I’ve described. I suppose this is a variety of mentor, but not the deep connection I am seeking. In my mind, these kinds of profound mentor relationships would develop naturally between 2 people who have strong respect for one another and share many of the same values and attributes.

I wonder if perhaps I simply define mentorship differently than most. Or maybe there is some front end work I am not doing to develop a relationship into the type of mentorship I am seeking. Maybe I am not being direct enough with potential mentors…is at acceptable to simply ask?

One of my all time favorite quotes- John Stuart Mill on defending a nation

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth a war, is much worse. […] A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

John Stuart Mill, “The Contest in America,” Fraser’s Magazine (Feb. 1862)

“Duty is the sublimest word in the English language.”

“Always do the right thing, even when you think no one is watching” seems to be the most widely accepted definition of integrity. We often speak about integrity’s relationship to leadership, so much so that I fear the sense of urgency to behave with integrity is diluted. It quickly becomes simply another management buzzword, as if by saying it enough times we can somehow replace with spoken word the necessity to exhibit integrity in every second.

When I was in college at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, I associated integrity very closely with our honor code, which was a highly revered component of our institution. “A cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.” It was a sacred promise that, if violated, almost certainly meant expulsion. Looking back, I recognize that I defined integrity too narrowly. Integrity is so much more than a basic code of conduct. The honor code was just the minimum standard by which we were expected to live our lives.

Bolted to the wall in the passageway of each barracks building, placed opposite from the honor code, is a brass plaque with a profound quote from Robert E. Lee: “Duty is the sublimest word in the English language.” I believe General Lee’s words get much closer to what integrity truly is. As leaders, we are obligated to commit ourselves fully to our team and our work. It is our duty. We must enter into our leadership responsibility with zeal and conviction, day after day, hour after hour. In the rain and the heat, through both challenges and fair weather, our teams demand our complete commitment and dedication. Leadership with integrity is to lead with balanced reason and emotion, rigid fairness, and an unwavering desire to do what is right and necessary to advance the mission and care for every member of the team.

Rationalizing Performance- Putting the Blinders On

The professor’s voice faded as I sunk deeper into my own thoughts. Internal distraction, I’ve heard this called. I was struggling to rationalize my academic performance last semester, which dipped slightly below the acceptable standard. This is new territory for me that brings with it unfamiliar emotions. I’ve always been a high performer, at or near the peak of any group or endeavor of which I was a part. It’s important for me to be at the top. Yet, although I did not expect to be at the top of my MBA class, I also did not expect to be at the bottom. My peer group is chock full of exceptionally bright engineers, bankers, policy analysts, even a geologist! They are, without exception, hard chargers and successful in their companies. Of course, their quantitative analysis skills far, far exceed what my qualitative mind can offer (which is a significant advantage in business school). I was still reeling from my position at the rear of the pack.

As the professor evaluated the operations strategy of a major athletic shoe company in a voice that seemed muffled and far away, I was deep inside my own mind trying to rationalize my academic performance. I even crafted a visual model to help me understand the dynamics of the MBA curriculum.

Now I was getting somewhere! I was beginning to understand that academic performance is measured by Grade Point Average in individual classes, but our ability to forge these disparate skills together in the form of effective management was not being evaluated and measured. So, with that logic, the system was against me! My strength was my ability to forge all of these functions together and provide the leadership necessary to make use of them! The game favored everyone else, bright young individual contributors who could skillfully succeed in each core class but may not be prepared to put all of the pieces together to perform actual management.

I took my rough sketch and showed it to my classmate, friend, and fellow Green Beret, John. I was looking for validation, someone else to agree with this incredible model I had dreamed up to justify my academic shortcoming and allow me to feel better. After walking him through my logic, John took several uncomfortable seconds to silently inspect my sketch. Without removing his eyes from the crackled white printer paper, John said “You know Joe, there may be some truth here, but I am focused on what John wants out of this MBA experience.” Then shifting his gaze up to meet my eyes, “I’m focused on what John wants.”

Insight bomb.

John wasn’t using GPA as a measure of success. Sure, there are standards to meet and that is non-negotiable. But being at the top of the class in terms of GPA was not what John needed to feel successful. Alternatively, simply having the highest GPA would not provide John with the experience he desired. John was looking beyond grades to the deeper intangible benefits of an education…such as actually learning shit and being able to apply it. More importantly, John wasn’t attempting to rationalize his performance relative to the rest of the class. He recognized that it doesn’t matter. Education is an individual endeavor that impacts us in different ways.

Wow. My ego was driving my thoughts. I was so consumed by my perceived performance relative to everyone else, measured in a way that was not important to me. In the reflection that followed, it was easy to see that my MBA experience was actually far exceeding my expectations and absolutely providing me with the knowledge, awareness, and relationships to fuel professional success. My GPA, although certainly a factor worth paying attention to because it still measures some aspect of my experience, was far from the most important thing. It clearly wasn’t the end goal that I should be fixated on. In doing so (as my shitty model demonstrates), I was grossly over simplifying the situation and marginalizing my classmate’s abilities. The risk of carrying this narrow view was compromising these relationships and resisting the greatest gifts that the education experience can provide.

Lessons Learned:

  • What is my true goal? How do I know if I’ve achieved it? Stay focused on THAT goal.
  • Don’t blindly apply everyone else’s measure of success. If it doesn’t apply to my goal, find a measurement that does.
  • Competition isn’t always “me vs. them.” Competition is frequently inward. Don’t marginalize everyone else and pit them against me just to make myself feel better emotionally.
  • Consult others often. They view the problem differently and can quickly identify flaws or twists in my logic and unlock new ways of thinking.
  • Ego is the enemy. Beware of its ability and propensity to cloud my judgement.