Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Leadership by humor

After crying, the first emotion that my newborn son predictably expressed was laughter. It's a pure emotion and and possibly the deepest one.

Want to inspire people and be a better leader?
Be funny.

I think that we laugh because we know we don't have to be afraid.  It takes the stress out of situations, it resolves confrontations, and it helps build and strengthen teams which improves communication (and project performance).  Oh... and it shortens long days and makes work a fun place to be.

Here is my advice for using humor in leadership:

  • Be self-effacing, but never in a way that would give others doubt in your competence.  Humility does not imply incompetence.
  • Never make a joke at the expense of somebody else.  Do the opposite.
  • Situational humor almost always works.  It's ok to laugh at having to work on weekends.
  • When making a joke about a bad situation, never use humor to complain.  As a matter of fact, never complain.  Ever.  Handle everything with grace and strength.
  • Be clever, but not in a way that makes other people feel dumb.
  • It's ok to be a little controversial.  Do so with integrity and never say anything so controversial that you might have to back down from it later (i.e. it shows up in an article or on the news).
  • If just saying something to be funny or brighten somebody's day, avoid using the reply-all button.  It doesn't work if it's not personal.
  • If circumstances have somebody else in the leadership position and you as a follower, don't use humor to outshine them.
  • Avoid sarcasm
  • If the joke falls flat, ignore it and drive on.  You messed up the timing or misread their mood, it's nobody's fault.  Keep the conversation and dialog moving.  
  • If you don't think you're funny, no problem.  Experiment and learn from the results of your experiments.  We all do it.  The most experienced and excellent leaders I know can be hilarious to be around and listen to.  This is the result of a lifetime of iterative improvement.  Start now.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

SYSK: Simpson's Paradox

If you are conducting analysis on a set of data, you may get results that conflict with each other as you change the sample size.  This has big implications for data driven decision making.  Anyone trying to drive decisions by analyzing data needs to understand that things like this can happen and understand how to react when they do.'s_paradox

Friday, September 14, 2012

Humble management

There’s a form of knowledge withholding perpetrated by the professional management cadre.  It’s a good thing to have a sharp mind, but if you are in a position of authority, it’s extremely impolite to poke people with it.  It’s a pet peeve of mine when I see folks attempt to withhold knowledge from others or bully them by refusing to speak plainly.  I’m not referring to the professional engaging in a dialog with another specialist, a form of mental sparring that serves to elicit an understanding of each other’s capabilities.  I’m referring to the instances I’ve seen where a supervisor has intentionally withheld information from subordinates in order to derive power from it.

My own experience with this occurred several years after transitioning out of the military.   I was asked to take over as program manager on a large contract (88 employees).  Being young, a technologist, and my basis of leadership and management being in the military; I admittedly did not know as much about business as I should.  Some people I respected had confidence in me.  To my surprise, immediately several people attempted to intimidate me and asked me to back down and not take the job.  Ultimately it was unsuccessful because my self-confidence had been forged in much tougher circumstances. I took it more as a lesson in human behavior than wasting time worrying about it. The overt aggression came primarily from those who’s entire career was “managing”.  They were also the same folks who I feel derived their self validation from having authority over other people and they routinely used terms like “work for me”.  That term has since become a red flag in my mind.  In my opinion, nobody works for anybody.  People contribute to your project because you are compensating them.  In some circumstances, such as volunteer work or compelling projects, people show up because they enjoy doing it (key word "enjoy" as in self-serving).  With very few exceptions, your only true authority is derived from your employees desire to serve themselves and their ambitions.  The other type of authority is derived from threat of violence, such as when you have to obey the police (or they will put you in jail against your will).  I might write more on that on a future post, I'll try and keep this one to project management.

I feel that anyone who seeks out management roles as a way to make themselves feel exceptional in any way should probably not be entrusted with the responsibilities that come with it.  A perfectly executed role of a manager is to recognize the environmental factors that are influencing the project and take actions on the decisions that are practically being made for you.  An environmental factor might be employees leaving, so we increase their compensation or provide opportunities that reduce the risk.  If the risk is running out of money, the opposite action might need to happen.  It wasn’t some virtue of the manager that inspired them to do that.  They were just able to see what the right thing to do was and took action on it.  The right thing to do is always to empower those around you and maintain a level of transparency with your actions.  When making decisions regarding the outcome of a project we are the humble stewards of resources: human, financial, and physical.

In contrast to management, leadership is the empowering of the spirits and confidence of those around you.  Study after study has indicated that employee ownership and motivation are the most influential factor in performance by a large margin.  If you’re not a servant leader that highlights employee accomplishments and motivates them, you are negatively affecting the outcome of the projects which you have responsibility for.  I even hesitate to engage in these dialogs because it is a self-correcting behavior.  With very rare exception, those managers with self serving ego will spend their entire careers only being moderately successful. The biblical verse of Mathew 5:5 was the one that said something along the lines of “the meek shall inherit the earth”.  This, I believe unfortunately, has been the translation of the verse that has been popularized.  Other translations word it like this "God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth."  Meekness implies things that humility does not.  A person can, and should, be both humble and energetic; aggressively pursue good endeavors, but receive and hold the accomplishments with humility and grace.  If you're not inclined to dive into the Bible right now, here are some other quotes from important people  throughout history.  Humble leaders are more successful. h/t to Businessinsider for this compilation of quotes (

Ancient China:  “The great leader speaks little.  He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.  When all is finished, the people say: ‘we did it ourselves.’”  Lao-Tzu

Ancient Greece:  The Ancient Greeks had a word for the loss of humility and the triumph of the ego: hubris.  Hubris is the outrageous arrogance where a person in power overestimates his or her own competence and capabilities, gradually loses touch with reality, and (in Greek tragedies) succumbs to a tragic fall.

Ancient Rome:  “To conquer one’s spirit, abandon anger, and be modest in victory… whoever can do this I compare not to the greatest of men but to a god.”  Cicero

Mongol World around 1200:  “The key to leadership is self-control: primarily, the mastery of pride, which is more difficult to subdue than a wild lion.”  Genghis Khan 

Louis XIV France: “Louis’s greatest gift was to maintain his quality of common sense in the midst of constant flattery.  Throughout, the king demanded respect and obedience, not flattery.”  Louis XIV biographer, Olivier Bernier

18th Century Austria: To keep herself humble and ensure that she did what was right and best for the Austria-Hungarian Empire, the Archduchess Maria Teresa employed one advisor as her official critic.  It was the formal job of Emmanuel Count Sylva-Tarouca to tell Maria Teresa all of her mistakes.

20th Century America: “To possess self-confidence and humility at the same time is called maturity.”  Jack Welch

What comes before the fall?  Pride.  Walking the line of maintaining humility and confidence at the same time is a fine one.  When you’re certain you’re humble is the only time you can be certain you’re not.  It’s my aspiration to always empower those around me and always attempt to act with humility and transparency.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Writing abstract code is avoidance behavior

Don't start off a project by spending 4 months writing  classes, libraries, or other abstract stuff.  Doing so is an insidious form of procrastination.

Write the interfaces first.  Human or otherwise.  Mess with them.  Get trusted opinions.  Some of the time you'll discover that your approach was wrong.  Better to discover that sooner than later.

Optimize and abstract later.  Premature optimization is the root of all evil.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Adapting to new stuff

Having an open mind to unfamiliar programming languages and technologies is a good thing.  An open mind is especially useful in a field that changes as quickly and drastically as software.  This seems so obvious to state that it’s almost cliché.  Adapting to new tools means more than bringing your old habits with you.  If all you've ever worked with is a hammer and somebody hands you a screw driver, reserve judgment and do a little research on screws before complaining about how your new tool doesn't pound in nails very well.