Leaders seem to be in the business of making promises

Parents continuously make promises to their children… “Follow my instructions and things will be better for you.”

CEOs make promises to their employees… “If we operate this way, we will all make money.” Salespeople to customers… Nonprofit directors to donors…

Leaders seem to be in the business of making promises.

Interestingly, if you’re not making any promises (or if nobody is interested in your promises), you’re not a leader.

It would appear, then, that leaders must concern themselves primarily with the promises they will make, to whom, how the promises will be fulfilled, and how to structure the promise statements with precision where possible and ambiguity as needed to accommodate changing information and circumstances.

In this model, exemplar leaders promise enticing things and consistently deliver on their promises — as stated, and as interpreted.

To Machiavelli’s point, it would appear that the majority of emphasis is on the ends (i.e. fulfilled promise). And that the ends will tend to justify the means. Under conditions of information saturation, exposition of the means (lengthy) must compete with revelation of the ends (immediate). Exposition will not beat revelation without significant effort.

All very interesting…

The leader continuously invents compelling domain language for the organization

More and more I find the role of the leader is to discover or synthesize simple, descriptive — immediately understandable — terms and phrases to weave critical concepts into the fabric of the organization’s speech.

A couple of today’s syntheses:
1. Encode encyclopedic knowledge, big ideas, and essential questions for later rediscovery — via contextualized concept images.
2. Avoid provinciality of thinking, in space & time, large & small scale.

The phrases should be concise, precise, and descriptive. They are initially explained within a rich context, and then they serve as bookmarks in that context for later reference. The above are imperatives. They may also be declarative or rhetorically interrogative.

As time goes on, the phrases will be continuously recontextualized to serve ever-new purposes. Some phrases may die in place (perhaps mounted to the wall) — either because they could not be recontextualized (probably because they’re ambiguous) or no effort was made to do so. Others will be misinterpreted by those who were not present for the original instantiation and have not yet been initiated. Or the phrases may ultimately be deliberately reinterpreted based on new knowledge or ulterior motives.

Some phrases can be recontextualized indefinitely, despite changes in weather, mood, fashion, politics, or technology. They represent enduring understandings well-stated.

A systematic approach to joining new employees into existing teams

The below is about 4 different essays, joined loosely together into 1. I will have to come back and clean this up later…

Abstract: This essay discusses a systematic approach to joining new employees into existing teams.

New ideas are routinely joined with existing systems on the basis of theory. Example: A new idea for an airframe can be joined to existing aircraft design infrastructure (control surfaces, envelope of safety, avionics, etc), by way of fundamental theories in aerodynamics, thermodynamics, electricity & magnetism, etc.

Opinions about the new idea are formed as inferences from theory. I.e. “The forces on the airframe under normal flying conditions will exceed the structural strength of XYZ members.” And when evidence conflicts with theory, the theory can be contested. This is particularly true at the boundary conditions of the theory. Newtonian vs Quantum physics is a clear example. In our airframe example, perhaps we’re dealing with a new kind of material. It’s possible that in the low-pressure environment at 10,000′, the material will respond to compressive forces differently than at sea level. Based on these observations, we can then study the underlying properties of the material and seek the “Why” behind the “What”.

Right now, however, I’m focused on this joining of “new” and “existing” when hiring new employees — who naturally bring their own ideas into the company with them. The question is how to build a bridge between the new team member, the company, and then all the other individuals in the company.

In this company context, joining new and old is often referred to as “cultural fit”. I.e. If the company is populated by nerdy people and the applicant is a nerdy person, then it’s a good “cultural fit”. The result, inevitably, is a group which is homogeneous in some ways (typically the more obvious ways) and heterogeneous in a lot of unseen ways, which go unaddressed until they become “problems”.

As an aside, when Alisa Nelson and I welcomed Freyda and Arthur into our family, neither was a great “cultural fit”. Ultimately, we needed to shape them (and ourselves) to create a new culture, designed to facilitate best performance, growth, and happiness of each individual within the new group. And the same thing has to happen with a company. The question is how to reliably navigate the transition.

Perhaps a better way to think of a person’s “culture”, and its implications on your group, is as a set of abilities, mental models, conditioning, habits, skills, and the “long tail” effects of history. Brief description of each below, with a dummy example (not related to me, just supposed to be universally understandable).

Abilities are the boundary constraints on your performance. “I can’t see so well out of my periphery anymore, so I have to turn my whole head to see my car’s side mirrors.”

Mental models are how you think the world works. e.g. “When I push the pedal on the right, the car will move faster — and it will go forward or backward, depending on where I put this knob over here. And I know how fast and how much my car will respond when I push that pedal after the engine has been running a while and with present road conditions.”

Conditioning is basically your reflexive response to different stimuli. e.g. “After the accident, I always start to get nervous when merging onto the freeway. Since then, I’ve successfully done it many times, so the effect is lessened — but it’s still there.”

Habits are the unconscious tendencies that have been formed over time and now make some things easier or harder for you than others. e.g. “When merging onto the freeway, I turn off my radio and focus on regular breathing, so I can stay calm and focused, even though I feel my heart rate rising and a flush of perspiration.”

Skills might be considered the integration of mental models, conditioning, habits, and abilities. In this examples above, the skill of merging into freeway traffic from the on-ramp.

The “Long tail” effects are the long-standing traditions and norms of your social group. Celebration of holidays, Food, Art, Recreation, inter-group behaviors, etc. In the above subject, there may be long history of appreciation for cars or travel. Or perhaps this is a person whose family never owned a car, so it’s all very new.

Naturally, a schema like this first serves as a basis for communication and new understanding between people who are interested in “getting to know each other”. If we know “our story” and “their story”, that can inform our future interactions.

This schema really goes to work, however, when we want to actually change things. I.e. Joining people together into a team, Training people into new skills, etc.

Like an x-ray helps a doctor make sense of physical symptoms, this serves as a kind of x-ray for relational symptoms.

More later…