Ser Allister Thorne on leadership

My wife and I caught up with the 4th season of ‘A Game of Thrones’ over the past few days as it is finally available on the iTunes store. This would normally lead to a few rants about HBO’s antiquated approach to content distribution online. But, not today.

In one of the (many) war scenes in the season, Ser Allister Thorne says this to Jon Snow –

“Do you know what leadership means, Lord Snow? It means that the person in charge gets second guessed by every clever little twat with a mouth. But if he starts second guessing himself, that’s the end. For him, for the clever little twats, for everyone.”

As much as I despise Thorne’s character, I thought this observation on leadership was particularly insightful.

I’ve observed this over and over again. The idea “often mistaken, but never in doubt” is regularly used in jest. But, it is one of those characteristics that I find to be essential in leadership. No matter what you do, you’re always going to be second guessed. Yes, sure, an ability to listen to reason and change course matters. But, if you’ve just set sail, the right course is almost never clear. More often than not, conviction and self-belief matter more.

And, I’m not just talking about leading teams. This applies just as well to just leading ourselves..

Nobel prize winners and stupidity – MBA Learnings

In our first Microeconomics class this quarter, our professor spoke of her experiences presenting research to audiences that included Nobel prize winners. She noticed that the Nobel prize winners were most often the ones who raised their hands and asked questions. Some of these questions might even have been perceived as “stupid” questions as they occasionally sought to clarify some of the most basic concepts of the discussion.

When she observed this pattern repeat over and over again, she realized that it was that willingness to learn and dig deep that made the Nobel prize winners special. You see, they might have been stupid when they started but they saw to it that they didn’t stay stupid for long. And, her message to us was to make sure we asked questions about any concept we didn’t understand in class.

This is my third iteration of being a student and, in my quest to learn how to learn, I feel like I’m finally begin to understand and internalize lessons like this. This is a trait I observed in top executives from my time as a consultant as well. They were very willing to look stupid and ask questions around the underlying assumptions. And, these questions often unearthed real insight.

This lesson reminded me of the Mark Twain quote – ‘ A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t.’

You don’t often control your current level of stupidity. But, staying at your current level of stupidity is entirely your choice. If you find yourself wondering if your question is a stupid question, remember the Nobel prize winners..

(Thanks Professor!)

The perfect spaghetti sauce

What is the perfect spaghetti sauce? How spicy, salty, or thick would the perfect spaghetti sauce be?

Howard Moskowitz’s breakthrough insight here was that there is no perfect spaghetti sauce. Instead, there are many different kinds of perfect spaghetti sauce that suit different kinds of people. Starbucks wouldn’t exist if there was a perfect cup of coffee. And, Earl Grey certainly isn’t everyone’s favorite cup of tea.

The best products, services, and businesses don’t attempt to be everything to everybody. There’s a simple and important reason for this – the best products stand for something. The moment they make that choice, they lose people who don’t agree with what they stand for. A multi-millionaire may scorn Ikea’s philosophy but, for every one of those, you’ll find ten 20-somethings who will swear by it. That’s part of the game. You can’t win them all. In fact, I’d go far as to say you don’t really want to win them all.

It is much the same for us as people. If we attempt universal popularity, we will almost certainly lose what we stand for. Unlike in the case of a product or service, that means more to us than a decline in sales. It is the difference between a life and a life well lived.

The stakes are much higher. Forget about choosing wisely. First, we must choose.

Immortalized through music

I am a quirky music lover. I don’t go out of my way to discover new music and, instead, rely on serendipity. But, once I discover a song I like, it goes onto my iTunes list – this is an eclectic yet carefully curated list that has grown with time. I buy my music because it solidifies this deep emotional connection with it. The other quirk is that I have music on through 60-80% of the time I work. Since my high school days, I’ve just gotten used to having music in the background. It suits my kind of ADD for some reason.

Now, the reason for this post is that the music I listen to often has some really powerful memories associated with it. There are songs that remind me of certain times in the last 12 years – some good, some tough, and some fun – and then there are many that remind me of people. In some cases, it was because a close friend loved it and, in other cases, it was because we listened to it on repeat during a memorable moment. These people and moments become immortalized in my memory through music.

Just this weekend, I heard a song that nearly brought tears to my eyes. The funny thing is that I didn’t even know the lyrics – it was just the “feel” of the song.  There’s something about it that makes me want to pause, take stock and reflect. I’ve been listening to this song often these past few days – my wife’s normal question when I go through the ‘listen-to-a-new-song-often-phase’ is – “are we listening to this on repeat today?” (I clearly have a long list of music quirks :-))

As I explained to the friend who shared this song, music is my favorite kind of gift and she’s been immortalized in my memory through this song.

This is an unusual mid-week post but, as I woke up this morning, I reflected on what’s been a busy few days. And, I felt I needed to take some time this evening to stop, reflect, and take it all in. But, as I started writing today’s post, I played the song and realized that the mini-moment of peace would go a long way in making sure I start the day in the right mindset. So, I deleted what I began writing about and thought I’d just share the song with you.

Maybe you might find it helps too. Here’s to a bit of pause, a bit of reflection, and a bit of peace this mid-week.

Building great teams

I’m making slow progress through “The Innovators” by Walter Isaacson. The book is a nice walk down technology memory lane starting from when Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace first conceptualized the computer.

The learning from the book that stands out most to me is the sheer importance of great teams in every technological innovation. Media and culture celebrate great individuals but history makes it apparent that it is teams that succeed. Taking the Tolstoy logic of “all happy families look the same,” I noticed 2 common traits of great teams through the book so far –

1. A mesh of individual and collective genius. Every team somehow managed to encourage individual skill while ensuring a collective ownership of the end product. Some of the biggest breakthroughs were indeed made by individuals. But, they wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the rest of the team. That’s a powerful idea for us as team members and team leaders. We need to be able to encourage individual skill while, perhaps, making sure everyone on the team has a collective ambition. The collective ambition is what allows for true collaboration.

2. Complementary skills, similar dreams and a lot of trust. Every great team had a mix of personalities with complementary skills – the founding team of Intel is a great example of this with Robert Noyce being the visionary, Gordon Moore being the innovator and Andy Grove being the manager who got things done. Despite these differences, they were united by similar dreams. When dreams or values differed, these teams disintegrated. But, when they aligned, it gave rise to great trust and chemistry stemming from a deep understanding of each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

For me, it goes back to the idea that teams are not people who work together, teams are people who trust each other. Yes, we all work in teams in our jobs and assignments, but, how many of those are real teams? How many times do we, as team members, make an earnest effort to get to know each other? We don’t need to be leaders to build great teams. We just need to care enough about collective success and want to really get to know our teammates. Understanding follows knowledge and trust follows understanding.

The days of the lone inventor are long gone. Science and business innovation builds on those of previous generations. And, it is my belief that, today, more than ever, the future belongs to those who can build great teams.

Looking for the next mountain

Life has a way of making sure we face a continuous stream of ups and downs. It is akin to mountain climbing. If you are on top of the mountain right now, you’ve probably endured a lot of hardship as you made your way uphill these last weeks. And, if you’re currently enduring hardship, you’ll be at the top in due time.

The wise realize this and ensure they don’t get too high when they reach the peak and feel too low when they’re stuck in the weeds. This perspective keeps them focused on the bigger picture. The important thing is to keep climbing.

The one trait I have observed in people who seek to make a dent in the world is that they don’t wait around for life to hand them the next mountain climbing assignment. Instead, they go look for it themselves. They take up new responsibilities, start projects, attempt to drive change and make things happen. This means they sign themselves up for more intense climbs than most and fail to reach the peaks they want more regularly than most.

But, as you might have gathered, it isn’t in the peaks that life is lived, but in the climbing. And, people who make a dent go out of their way to find new mountains and keep climbing. Yes, they fail. But, yes, they also learn how to be relentless in their pursuit of the next thing.

And, it is thanks to that relentlessness that great things happen.

Someone’s dad or mom – The 200 words project

I hope you’re having a nice weekend. Here’s this week’s 200 word idea thanks to ‘From Values to Action’ by Harry Kraemer..

Early on in his career as an analyst, Harry Kraemer noticed a colleague who made an excellent presentation to senior management. He commented on what an excellent presentation it was. She then shared her secret – her father had been the Chairman of a very large company and regularly held meetings at their home. So, from a very young age, she thought of directors as “somebody else’s dad or mom.”

She never Iost that perspective as an adult and that meant she gave presentations to senior management just as she would give presentations to her fellow analysts or, in her case, her parents.

Harry Kraemer found it incredibly useful in a career that saw him make many presentations to the Board of Directors as CFO and then CEO of Baxter, Inc.

And, it makes for great perspective as we head into our next “big” presentation.

Someone else's dad or momSource and thanks to:

‘Often we allow ourselves to be intimidated by someone at a higher level in the organization, but with true self-confidence, we understand that we’re all just human beings.’ | Harry Kraemer