What Made a Great Leader in 1776

Originally posted on HBR Blog Network - Harvard Business Review:

The ordinarily decisive George Washington was paralyzed by indecision. It was the summer of 1776, and the Continental Army was being routed by the British in New York. Sick from dysentery and smallpox, 20 percent of Washington’s forces were in no condition to fight.

Militia units were deserting in droves. General Washington had exhausted himself riding up and down the lines on Brooklyn Heights, attempting to rally dispirited troops. Prudence dictated retreat – to preserve the hope of fighting another day. At the same time, though, Washington viewed any defeat as damage to his reputation and a stain on his honor.

There are any number of good reasons to read Joseph J. Ellis’s splendid little book, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence. Ellis is a wonderful storyteller. His prose is lucid and succinct. Revolutionary Summer is a riveting exposition of exploded myths and excruciating dilemmas. For one thing, Washington —…

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Good Producers and Good Managers — Creativity, Inc.

In the book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull, he talks about how to communicate to people on different levels. Below is an excerpt about Katherine Sarafian on how she manages her directs.

 

Good producers–and good managers–don’t dictate from on high. They reach out, they listen, they wrangle, coax, Creativity, Inc.and cajole. And their mental models of their jobs reflect that. Katherine Sarafian another Pixar producer, credits the clinical psychologist (Dr.) Taibi Kahler with giving her a helpful way of visualizing her role. “One of Kahler’s big teachings is about meeting people where they are, Katherine says, referring to what Kahler calls the Process Communication Model, which compares being a manager to taking the elevator from floor to floor in a big building. “It makes sense to look at every personality as a condominium,” Katherine says. “People live on different floors and enjoy different views.” Those on the upper floors may sit out on their balconies; those on the ground floor may lounge on their patios. Regardless, to communicate effectively with them all, you must meet them where they live. “The most talented members of Pixar’s workforce-whether they’re directors, producers, production staff, artists, whatever — are able to take the elevator to whatever floor and meet each person based on what they need in the moment and how they like to communicate. One person may need to spew and vent for twenty minutes about why something doesn’t look right before we can move in and focus on the details. Another person may be all about, ‘I can’t make these deadlines unless you give me this particular thing that I need.’ I always think of my job as moving between floors, up and down, all day long.”

When she’s not imagining herself in an elevator, Katherine pretends she’s a shepherd guiding a flock of sheep. Like Lindsey, she spends some time assessing the situation, figuring out the best way to guide her flock. “I’m going to lose a few sheep over the hill, and I have to go collect them,” she says. “I’m going to have to run to the front at times, and I’m going to have to stay back at times. And somewhere in the middle of the flock, there is going to be a bunch of stuff going on that I can’t even see. And while I’m looking for the sheep that are lost, something else is going to happen that I’m not aiming my attention at. Also, I’m not entirely sure where we’re going. Over the hill? Back to the barn? Eventually, I know we will get there, but it can be very, very slow. You know, a car crosses the road, and the sheep are all in the way. I’m looking at my watch going, ‘Oh, my God, sheep, move already!’ But the sheep are going to move how they move, and we can try to control them as best we can, but what we really want to do is pay attention to the general direction they’re heading and try to steer a little bit.”

Notice how each of these models contains so many of the themes we’ve talked about so far: the need to keep fear in its place, the need for balance, the need to make decisions (but also to admit fallibility), and the need to feel that progress is being made. What’s important, I think, as you construct the mental model that works best for you, is to be thoughtful about the problems it is helping you to solve.

I’ve always been intrigued, for example, by the way that many people use the analogy of a train to describe their companies. Massive and powerful, the train moves inexorably down the tracks, over mountains and across vast plains, through the densest fog and darkest night. When things go wrong, we talk of getting “derailed” and of experiencing a “train wreck.” And I’ve heard people refer to Pixar’s production group as a finely tuned locomotive that they would lovethe chance to drive. What interests me is the number of people who believe that they have the ability to drive the train and who think that this is the power position-that driving the train is the way to shape their companies’ futures. The truth is, it’s not. Driving the train doesn’t set its course. The real job is laying the track.