Leadership

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Leaders show themselves in various forms. There are rhetorical magicians (Barack Obama) and iconic revolutionaries (Steve Jobs). There are also workplace leaders - the silver-tongued employee who can articulate issues several steps beyond what others are thinking, or the clever, diligent coworker whose performance alone encourages others.

Whatever the kind, leaders have three priceless skills: they’re doers, they persuade, and they inspire.

Be a Doer

This is widely accepted as an absolute necessity in startup circles, so I’ll leave it at that and let you read 37signals’ take on it if you want an explanation (see chapter: “Everybody Works”).

Persuasion

To persuade is to find common ground among your audience, anchor into it, and use it to lead them stepwise through your train of thought, arriving with you at your conclusion or solution. It is a very logically-grounded process, almost entirely syllogistic, but with enough color along the way to keep people interested and motivated to take the next step with you.

At SAP I had the pleasure of working alongside Bob McCarty, an excellent persuasive leader. Sprint planning meetings were often a mess, with total incongruence between business needs and engineering needs. Management wanted more features out of a codebase that wasn’t ready for it, and engineering wanted to take enormous amounts of time to fix things that probably weren’t worth fixing.

Bob, a senior engineer, had a natural knack not only for seeing what was most important for the company, but for walking the rest of us through his thinking in a way that engendered a room full of “oh yeah, yeah!”s. We all knew where we were, but it took a Bob to see where we needed to get to. There was nothing magical about how Bob operated; he just had a lot of foresight and logical consistency, and used those things to build trust and get everybody on the same page.

Inspiration

Inspiration is taking something that seems impossible and making people believe they can accomplish it anyway. This lends itself to metaphor and abstract expression more than persuasion does, but fluffy thinkers are not off the hook: to sell your case, you have to convince your audience that they can really achieve this seemingly impossible task. If you don’t convince them, you’ll come across as naive and be ignored.

The proven way to convince someone that the impossible is possible is to paint them a picture of it and give them something tangible to do. Unlike persuasive leadership, you don’t need to guide them all the way to the solution; you just need to show them what success looks like, and give them an actionable first step that they feel puts them on the correct trajectory.

Obama, for instance, when running for President in 2008, convinced supporters that America could pass health care reform. It didn’t take a cynic to find this daunting. Health care has long been rigged by lobbyists on both sides, and Hillarycare suffered a demoralizing defeat in the mid-90s. These facts were inescapable in the minds of reform supporters, leaving them no reason for optimism.

But Obama was still able to sell it. He painted a picture of what success looked like, by speaking of an America that no longer sends the sick home from hospitals or the disabled into bankruptcy. He pointed to his history of delivering on seemingly impossible legal agendas, and he explained that his bipartisan methods were the first step towards bringing that change to Washington. With that, he gave them a first step - to vote for him.

When to Use What

When should you persuade and when should you inspire? Here’s a good rule of thumb: when a path from a problem to a solution is clear to you, persuade your audience to follow that path. If a solution is unclear, inspire them to find it with you.

Bob was able to map out a full solution to our sprint planning problem in his head and walk us through it. Obama, on the other hand, could not have possibly foreseen the political calculus that would exist two years later, so he opted instead to inspire us to get there with him.

When you’re leading others, consider which approach makes more sense. For an early, idea-stage startup, inspirational leadership will keep people’s minds open and ambitious. On the other hand, if you’ve found your revenue model, it’s probably time to paint the complete picture of what success looks like and explain to your team how they fit into that picture.

Credits

I became aware of most of this while taking Professor Steven D. Cohen’s public speaking class in 2010. Steven deserves credit for much of what I’ve explained above, and I recommend his class to anybody who wants to become a better leader, speaker or writer.

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