"Lincoln," and the Politics of Organizations

The movie "Lincoln" is a two-and-a-half-hour master course in politics. Focusing on Lincoln's efforts to pass the 13th amendment to end slavery and featuring a spellbinding performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and a brilliant script by Tony Kushner, the movie should be mandatory viewing for leaders of all types. It makes crystal clear why "politics" and leadership are intricately and inseparably linked.

It's common for my coaching clients to sneer at the mere mention of the words "office politics." Most people are uncomfortable with the idea that simply working hard and doing what is right is not all that matters in our work life, that we sometimes have to "play the game" in order to see our goals come to fruition.

I have seen two major reasons for the disdain of organizational politics: 

First, we have all seen people who seem to use political skills untethered by ethics. That is, they use deception, cronyism, backstabbing, and intimidation to get their personal goals. They advance their agenda independent of the good of others, and they seem to lack substance. No one wants to be that person so we express disdain for office politics and avoid them. 

Second, organizational politics can be difficult and require skills that we don't learn in a classroom. Those who disdain organizational politics usually don't want to face this fact--that they don't have good political skills and it would take work to develop them--preferring to simply demonize the activity rather than try to learn how to do it effectively. 

The first objection is a straw-man argument, however--focusing on gross generalizations that are often not true of effective office politicians. Yes, some people are Machivellian, self-serving, substance-free incompetents who get ahead because of their ability to schmooze; but the number of these people is smaller than we might suspect. Some people are effective politicians and do so to further an agenda of substance and benefit for the group. "Lincoln" dismisses this objection when Lincoln says to Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a staunch anti-slavery advocate, "What good does it have true north if you get lost in the swamps on your way there?" 

Incompetent But Confident: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."
Charles Darwin

We've all heard of the Peter Principle, the idea that people tend to be promoted to the level of their incompetence. Few are aware of an even more dangerous phenomenon, however--the fact that the least competent among us are the least able to see their incompetence, otherwise known as the "Dunning-Kruger Effect."

Described by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) is the phenomenon where the people who are least competent in an area are the least able to judge their competence and the most likely to be overconfident in their expertise. They will also be least likely to be able to recognize competence in others, so they tend to ignore or dismiss experts because they don't actually recognize their expertise. 

One of the best examples of the DKE is the Stephen Colbert show, in which he plays an ignorant host with little knowledge but very confident opinions about everything. Other blatant examples include:

Motivated Reasoning

One of an ongoing series on traps of the mind.

I never watched the show “The X Files,” nor did I see either of the movies, but the tag line for the second movie caught my attention:

“I want to believe.”

It caught my attention because it so clearly sums up the way many people approach the extraordinary—they want to believe. They want to believe for a variety of reasons: it seems more “enlightened” to embrace the mystical and mysterious; there is great psychological satisfaction on being among those with inside knowledge of deep and hidden truths; real life can be disappointing and speculation more attractive than reality; they have fantasy-prone personalities; etc.

Thanks to the cognitive bias of motivated reasoning it is easy for such “want-to believers” to find evidence for their beliefs and overlook or simply dismiss evidence that contradicts it.

Motivated reasoning (sometimes called motivated cognition) is actually a phenomenon that incorporates a number of cognitive biases such as biased assimilation and identity-protective cognition in a way that helps people reason their way toward a(n often nonconsciously) predetermined conclusion. It is a modern and fancy way of restating Hume’s assertion that our feelings form our conclusions and our reason finds a way to support them.

Motivated reasoning is frequently on display whenever people are discussing issues to which they are either ideologically identified or in which they have a personal stake in the outcome. It is the true believers of every stripe who will take any piece of data and twist it to support their point of view and deny any confounding evidence, no matter how strong.

Just a few examples include:

"Understanding Michael Porter"

"Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy" 
by Joan Magretta

Michael Porter, of course, has been a leading theorist in all matters strategy and competition for a couple of decades. His books, in addition to being physically weighty are often intellectually weighty and not viewed as easy reads. Magretta, a former strategy editor for the "Harvard Business Review" and author of the excellent primer "What Management Is" has done a fine job at providing an accessible but informative overview of Porter's ideas in about 200 pages. 

Capturing the essence of the book in an epilogue, Magretta lists "Ten Practical Implications" of Porter's work. Those implications are:

1. Vying to be the best is an intuitive but self-destructive approach to competition.
2. Thee is no honor in size or growth if those are profitless. Competition is about profits, not market share.
3. Competitive advantage is not about beating rivals; it's about creating unique value for customers. If you have a competitive advantage, it will show up on your P&L.
4. A distinctive value proposition is essential for strategy. But strategy is more than marketing. If your value proposition doesn't require a specifically tailored value chain to deliver it, it will have no strategic relevance.
5. Don't feel you have to "delight" every possible customer out there. The sign of a good strategy is that it deliberately makes some customers unhappy.
6. No strategy is meaningful unless it makes clear what the organization will not do. Making trade-offs is the linchpin that makes competitive advantage possible and sustainable.
7. Don't overestimate or underestimate the importance of good execution. It's unlikely to be a source of sustainable advantage, but without it even the most brilliant strategy will fail to produce superior performance.
8. Good strategies depend on many choices, not one, and on the connections among them. A core competence alone will rarely produce a sustainable competitive advantage.
9. Flexibility in the face of uncertainty may sound like a good idea, but it means that your organization will never stand of anything or become good at anything. Too much change can be just as disastrous for strategy as too little.
10. Committing to a strategy does not require heroic predictions about the future. Making that commitment actually improves your ability to innovate and to adapt to turbulence. 

I highly recommend this book.

Awareness to Action Leadership

By Mario Sikora
(for a pdf version of this article, please send an email to me at mario@awarenesstoaction.com)

Working with leaders, you can’t help but think a lot about leadership. Over the years I’ve developed a lot of opinions on the topic, and perhaps gained a few insights. In this post, I’d like to introduce the approach to leadership that I take with my clients, something I call “Awareness to Action Leadership.”
It’s important to define terms, so let me define what I mean by leadership. There are as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders and people writing about leaders, but this one works for me: successful leadership is the act of influencing others to effectively achieve a desired result consistently and over time. There are a couple of assumptions implicit in this definition, namely that leadership involves the engagement of others, that good leadership improves circumstances, and that in order to get results over time one must lead in a way that makes others want to follow. Thus, treating people well is inherently more effective than treating them poorly.

I’d like to start with some opinions I’ve formed:

There is no secret formula.
Leadership is very context specific; what works in one situation for one person may not work in another situation, or even for a different person in the same situation. Effective leadership requires adaptability to the variables of individuals, contexts, and goals. Circumstances may require a leader to call upon any of a very long list of skills, competencies, attitudes, or behaviors. The challenge is that we can never know in advance what those variables may be at any given time. Thus, a leader must be a student of leadership, continually improving his or her abilities, and constantly monitoring the environment for cues as to what abilities need to be developed. As Charles Darwin wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Nowhere is this more true than in leadership.

Videos on Critical Thinking

Check out this great set of videos on critical-thinking skills. They are designed to be useful to children, but they make a great introduction for adults as well.

Traps of the Mind (Part 2)

In the last article, I talked about how the brain has evolved for survival rather than accuracy. Now we'll look at some specific biases or shortcomings of the way the mind interprets our inner and outer experience.

Cognitive Dissonance
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald

If we are to believe Fitzgerald, it is probably safe to say that there are few truly first-rate intelligences amongst us. Holding two opposed views in mind at the same time is very difficult to do because the brain experiences cognitive dissonance and wants to resolve mental conflicts, and it often does so without our awareness.

In their book, "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): How We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts," Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson define cognitive dissonance as:

     "... a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as 'Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me' and 'I smoke two packs a day.' Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don't rest easy until they find a way to reduce it." (p. 13, italics added)

Traps of the Mind (Part 1)

by Mario Sikora

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard Feynman (American theoretical physicist, 1918-1988)

We like to think we see the world clearly, that our perceptions are reliable, that our thinking is logical.

When we take a moment to step back and look at ourselves, however, we realize that this is not always the case. In fact, we often see the world through a variety of filters, our perceptions can be unreliable, and our thinking can be logically flawed.

This is not a new observation, of course; many ancient wisdom traditions are rooted in the idea that we are hindered by illusions and must learn to see clearly in order to become enlightened. The modern scientific literature on the inaccuracy and dysfunction of the brain is vast, and a list of useful books on the topic appears at the end of this post.

In the last post, “Thinking Like a Leader,” I wrote about why effective thinking was important. In this and future posts, I’ll discuss how some of the structures and processes of the brain can work to fool us. Then subsequent blogs will discuss tools for improving rigor, as well has how to cultivate the curiosity and creativity I wrote about previously.

In order to understand how our brains fools us, we have to understand one fundamental fact about the evolution of the brain: the brain evolved to help us survive, not to help us accurately comprehend the world around us. For the latter, we need help and future articles will focus on the tools that help us see the world clearly.

Those familiar with the science of biological evolution may have heard statements such as “evolution only cares about survival and reproduction.” This statement is only partially correct, but its implications usually do not fully register on people. This is a shame, because the implications are profound. (If anyone really wants to understand the nuances of the human psyche, they have to understand the science of evolution, and a short list of good introductory books is listed at the end.)

Before I talk about the implications, however, let me clarify what is meant by the statement.

Evolution by random mutation and natural selection is a blind, unintelligent, and indifferent process. It doesn’t “care” about anything because there is no intelligence or consciousness involved in the process to care. Evolution is also purposeless and without intention. Anthropomorphized evolution is a convenient shorthand, however, and almost impossible to avoid but it is important to understand that evolution is not deliberately working toward an end result. It progresses through a simple, blind algorithm.

Thinking Like a Leader

Like many symbols, the Enneagram makes convenient scaffolding for intellectual constructs. Attempts to create memorable and useful maps and models are often enhanced by a visual pattern. They help the learning process because easily remembered logical patterns help the concepts to which they are attached take root in the brain.

One of the reasons that the Enneagram is so compelling is because of its striking visual pattern, which comprises simple interlocking patterns that create a robust system. Yes, the descriptions of the Ennea-types is useful and valid, but I believe that one of the reason the Enneagram sticks with people is because of the impact of the logic of the visual patterns.

Over the years of working with leaders I have taken advantage of this scaffolding to create a leadership model that describes a set of attributes related to a leader's self mastery, relationships with others, and habits of thinking. Mapping these attributes to the Enneagram not only creates memorability, it also helps to highlight the dynamic interrelationships of these attributes. That is, rather than just seeing the qualities as discreet and independent competencies, mapping them to the diagram helps people better understand how they can support (or impede) each other.

It is important to recognize that there is nothing magical about the scaffolding, and that no model placed on top of the scaffolding is complete or perfect. Leadership is a complex endeavor, and no list of leadership qualities or traits will be complete in and of itself. That said, I have found this model to be a useful foundation upon which to build.

As stated above, the model covers three broad areas: self-mastery (which can essentially be understood as self-motivated behavioral change), relationships with others (particularly subordinates), and leadership thinking (habits of mind that improve judgment and decision-making).

This series of blog posts will address the three attributes related to leadership thinking: rigorcuriosity, and creativity, which, in this model, correlate to points 1, 7, and 4 of the Enneagram, respectively. Again, I want to emphasize that there is nothing inherent in these points of the Enneagram diagram that correlate to these attributes, it is simply a useful and sensible heuristic that fits nicely with some general concepts about the Enneagram of personality. It is not to imply that Ones are necessarily more rigorous, Sevens more curious, or Fours more creative that people of other types.

Effective leadership thinking is a big topic, so we’ll break it down into parts. We’ll start off with why it’s important, and then discuss some of the obstacles to effective thinking. In future blog posts I’ll talk about these three attributes in more depth, along with some resources and exercises for developing each of them.

Before I explain why I chose these three attributes to focus on, it would help to explain why effective thinking is so important for leaders.