August 18th, 2014

Evaluating Leadership Advice

This is an excerpt from my book Enlightening Technical Leadership.

Leadership advice comes in a lot of flavors – from the soothing stories of a grandmother, to the salty screed of a hardened skipper, to the bland babbling of a bureaucrat, and many others. But when we digest them, we see how they break down into the same set of underlying components. Let’s take a look at some popular nuggets of leadership advice, with an eye towards putting things into larger contexts.

“Embrace failure” is a perspective that encourages us to let go of our attachment to success. When we become attached to success, we become hypersensitive to the pain of failure. As a result, we may impose limits on our activities out of fear of experiencing that pain. Embracing failure allows us to be more present with failure, without being overwhelmed by it. We can pick up additional details about what went right and what went wrong, details that would otherwise be masked by our reaction to our pain. We can subsequently approach more situations with less fear.

If we start to embrace failure as an end in itself though, we start to lose sight of what success means to us. Further down this path, we become like the compulsive stock trader who tolerates failure so much that he neglects to take profits regularly. Addiction to risk is not a healthy substitute for aversion to risk.

A broader perspective is to embrace the continuum of success and failure as a whole. Both have many lessons to teach us. Take these two sharply contrasting pieces of advice: “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough” and “failure is not an option”. There are times when one of these speaks more powerfully to our growth than the other, as well as times when neither feels relevant. At their core, they are actually not different. Both derive their energy from the polarities that span success and failure, like two arcs of lightning from the same cloud. To assert one is to imply the existence of the other, via the existence of the continuum to which they both belong.

Whatever advice on success or failure that we start with, we end up redrawing the same continuum. Any part inevitably implies the whole. The more we are aware of the whole, the more clearly we can appreciate the value of any particular piece of advice.

With that in mind, let’s look at examples of other contrasting pairs of advice, along with the polarities that generate their energy:

  • “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” and “not everything that counts can be counted” – polarity of Quantitativeness and Qualitativeness
  • “stay hungry, stay foolish” and “know how to take yes for an answer” – polarity of Seeking and Finding
  • “what got you here won’t get you there” and “remember what got you here in the first place” – polarity of Changeability and Consistency

In all of these cases, our perspective is expanded by looking at the polarity as a whole. Again, it’s not that any of these pieces of advice are wrong; they’re just partial.

With greater mental space, we have less of a need to short-circuit the polarity by declaring a victor or by imposing a devitalizing compromise between the two sides. Instead, we become increasingly able to contain the polarity like a plasma globe. We can point to a variety of locations on the sphere to direct its energy, or we can let go of the polarity as a whole. The deeper calling of every piece of advice we receive is to lead us here.

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