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Meta leadership


The word leadership has a rather large spread and reach. It can mean a diverse set of behaviors. It can explain a wide variety of positive outcomes. It can effect a wide scope of results - from moving individuals within one's sphere of direct interaction, to moving an entire world far beyond one's direct influence. 

At its core, leadership is an attitude for influencing and executing transformation. It is a skill that results in exponential outcomes with a linear quantum of resource: Oneself. In this process, you leverage many sources both within, and outside, clear lines of control - resources, people,  organizations, domains of expanding knowledge, mental models, systems for doing things.

In today's world, leadership is probably the most important skill at every level of activity one wants to be successful at. This is simply because we are now connected to potentially billions of people within the palm of our hands, or within the reach of a keyboard.

Countless guides exist that promise to help us improve our leadership abilities. For every such blueprint to improve leadership, there are contrary blueprints that also promise identical behavioral/result transformations. 

If leadership is "exponential outcomes from linear growth of inputs and resources from within oneself",  the goal of leadership is "minimize friction, maximize traction, and transform from a state of existence to a place of success against all odds".

Upon thinking it through, I believe there are some high level principles, either in isolation or in combination, that can enable those outcomes.

The following are culled from personal experience through trial and error, with an assumption of common vocabulary, so we don't have to define everything.


Keeping management flat

Leaders promise outcomes. Management is about delivering what is promised. In our world, this is purely driven by information and communication. By keeping the management network to be as flat as possible,  you optimize the amount of communication of deliverables up or down your hierarchy. Every level's work should contribute meaningfully to the goals of every level up or down. This is a hard problem when abstraction of details multiply as you travel up or down the stack. Keeping things as flat as possible makes for less loss and noise as messages travel within the network.

This strategy answers the question: does leadership help you reduce the amount of communication required to get the job done? 

Dial your Delegation to "High"

Delegation is simply allocating the right kind of detailed action to the resource that is most capable of executing it. If done right, a high level of delegation will lead to minimal errors in translation of results up/down the management stack. Delegation reduces the need for translation of the effectiveness of promises delivered as they are communicated across management levels. But, if done wrongly, it can simply be a way of outsourcing one's own duties to someone else. The litmus test is always all about results: does the delegated action get performed more consistently, with less issues, and with more bandwidth freed up for management conversations across the levels? Does it, in short, improve the efficiency of execution?

Keep Cross talk low

Cross talk happens when teams discover redundancy in workload, resourcing, outputs or operational failures. It can also happen if there are more systemic ways to get the same set of results, even if there is no redundancy in resourcing. For example, the more different ways of doing the same thing, the more teams will try to compete for building solutions that are different, if there is high incentive to innovate and improve constantly.

Redundancy is good, in good measure. It is a proxy for "slack" (any available high quality capacity) within the system. However, too much of it leads to complex graphs of execution paths for achieving the same result. This leads to additional management resources to track it well. It also leads to creation of  "glue" functions to disambiguate truth. With this, we try to answer the question: How do you reduce the amount of superfluous work while maximizing the odds of finding a fairly optimal outcome?

Maximize Diversity

This is one of the most, if not the most, important principle.

To be clear, diversity is not about any class (eg. protected class), primarily, although this is definitely an important measure of delivering on our social responsibilities.

Here, we mean diversity of thinking styles, even if they are styles we disagree with. There are some limits that need to be set on diverse thinking styles based on organizational culture, legal requirements and basic sense of fairness, of course. However, it is diversity of thinking styles or modes that allows us to see a larger part of the exploding solution space. Most creative ideas come from mistakes and re-interpretations. This kind of diversity provides the framework for such things to bubble up fast.

Here, we are answering for the question: Do you get to "the right thing to do" in a more optimal fashion?

Demonstrate empathy

Empathy is a soft skill, and it works hand in hand with diversity of thinking. By identifying with a different point of view, you are finding ways to encourage that viewpoint towards its logical conclusion as it mixes with multiple other ideas. Without empathy, the common space of a group's ideas becomes smaller. With empathy, every idea or feeling gets appropriate level of importance.

In short, we are trying to maximize the opportunity for diversity to grow and flourish.

Mentoring as a primary focus for management

According to Andy Grove, there are only two things a manager/leader can do - mentorship and training. When mentoring happens as a dialogue among equals (in mind), it works well. When training is agreed based on how it affects the results of the team (along with the growth of the individual), it works doubly well.

Here, we are answering for: Do you encourage, and quickly percolate, the results of execution experiments? Do you make the learning from past experiments in leadership become the foundation of your organization?

Hierarchical check and balance

The goal is not to check hierarchy, but to check the overuse of hierarchy in decision making. Hierarchy serves two important purposes: abstracting details, and optimizing the flow of work to the right resource. Because we aren't rational actors, and we deviate systematically from rationality in many ways ("bias"), the default tendency for us is to design hierarchy as an "override" - in selecting, deciding or otherwise concluding a particular phase or activity early. When we go against this default usage, and instead use hierarchy to compress information or route workload, we encourage skills that accelerate our execution. Some of these are:

  • Using many layers of models to find the right check and balance
  • Percolate the checks and balances to as many of your organization layers as feasible.
In short, are decisions being taken at the place where they have the most impact to the goal?

Engineer discomfort around stasis

Our world is accelerating in many dimensions of progress. It is a result of continuous evolution of our needs and wants. Even basic needs have evolved to incorporate many things that we as a species were never evolved to adapt to.

Our habits of thinking, however, take much more time to catch up. The best way to lead is to let everyone be ready to act in unison. This means that we need to be able to work well, but also work well together. When you are moving fast, you need to form the right habits, and clean out habits that don't necessarily give us a long runway. We need to evolve our habits. 

Evolution involves change, experimentation and being subject to failures of many kinds. The clearest signal that one is evolving is a sense of discomfort or imbalance at the highest levels of one's performance.

We naturally seek security and comfort, and this can only be broken consciously.

A healthy respect for our own discomfort is good - the more we recognize that we enter into discomfort, the more we will do something about it.

In short, leaders enable people to stretch their limits of comfort so that they can iterate on ideas.

Surely, there is lot more to be said, but this is a starting point.

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