When I was younger, I felt like I was pretty smart. Then I turned 23, was thrown into the fast-faced world of helping CxOs try to straighten out their wayward enterprise software implementations, and realized just how little I knew. My turning point came around 6pm on a hot, sticky, smelly evening on Staten Island in a conference room where a director named Mike Davis was yelling at a bunch of us youngster consultants. I thought he was mad at us, but in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that he just wanted something simple, and no matter how clearly he explained it, no one could hear him. Not even me, not even when I was being smart.
The customer was asking for some kind of functionality that didn’t make sense to me. It seemed excessive and unwieldy. I knew a better way to do it. So when Mike asked us to tell him, step by step, what user scenario we would be implementing… I told him THE RIGHT WAY. After about five attempts, he blew up. He didn’t want “the right way” — he wanted “the way that would work.” The way that would draw the most potential out of those people working on those processes. The way that would make people feel the most engaged, the most in control of their own destiny, the way that they were used to doing (with maybe a couple of small tweaks to lead them in a direction of greater efficiency). He knew them, and he knew that. He was being a leader.
Now I’m in my 40s and I have a much better view of everything I don’t know. (A lot of that used to be invisible to me.) It makes me both happier (for the perspective it brings) and unhappier (because I can see so many of the intellectual greenfields and curiosities that I’ll never get to spend time in — and know that more will crop up every year). I’m limited by the expiration date on this body I’m in, something that never used to cross my mind.
One of the things I’ve learned is that the best things emerge when groups of people with diverse skills (and maybe complementary interests) get together, drive out fear, and drive out preconceived notions about what’s “right” or “best”. When something amazing sprouts up, it’s not because it was your idea (or because it turned out “right”). It’s because the ground was tilled in such a way that a group of people felt comfortable bringing their own ideas into the light, making them better together, and being open to their own emergent truths.
I used to think leadership was about coming up with the BEST, RIGHT IDEA — and then pushing for it. This week, I got to see someone else pushing really hard for her “best, most right, more right than anyone else’s” idea. But it’s only hers. She’s intent on steamrolling over everyone around her to get what she wants. She’s going to be really lonely when the time comes to implement it… because even if someone starts out with her, they’ll leave when they realize there’s no creative expression in it for them, no room for them to explore their own interests and boundaries. I feel sorry for her, but I’m not in a position to point it out. Especially since she’s older than me. Hasn’t she seen this kind of thing fail before? Probably, but she’s about to try again. Maybe she thinks she didn’t push hard enough last time.
Leadership is about creating spaces where other people can find purpose and meaning. No pushing required.
Thanks to @maryconger who posted the image on Twitter earlier today. Also thanks to Mike Davis, wherever you are. If you stumble across this on the web one day, thanks for waking me up in 2000. It’s made the 18 years thereafter much more productive.