Sunday, June 14, 2009

Leadership as a Subversive Activity

When I edited a weekly alternative newspaper, called The Real Paper, I learned how hard it was to put out a single issue of a weekly publication with consistent high quality. That's why I am so in awe of how frequently The New Yorker meets that test.

The most recent example was dated May 11, and called "The Innovators Issue." I could go on and on about all the interesting stuff in there (see the pieces by Adam Gopnik on scarcity or surplus as a driver of innovation, Douglas McGray on a charter school crusader, and John Colapinto on the frontiers of neuroscience), but the piece that really grabbed me was Malcolm Gladwell's essay called "How David Beats Goliath".

Gladwell's ostensible purpose was to explore why underdogs sometimes win. He isolated two factors: (1)endurance and (2)changing the implicit rules of the game.

These are both critical elements of exercising leadership.

Look at endurance. My Kennedy School colleague and fellow part-time Italy resident Frank Hartman calls it relentlessness. Whatever the framing, the quality is about playing harder, or longer, than you are supposed to. A dear friend and mentor of mine was able to exercise leadership successfully without great authority on many matters that he cared about the tough bureaucratic infighting at the Kennedy School by making it clear to whoever was involved in the issue that he was willing to stay on the playing field as long as it took to get what he wanted. As soon as he announced his relentlessness, people started backing off, unwilling to match his effort.

Marathon runners understand this. Most of them - I used to be one, but never again - do not expect to win. The game is about finishing, completing those 26.2 miles. But if that is your goal, it is simple. All you have to do is to keep going and you will succeed. Endurance. Relentlessness.

How many times have you backed away from your purpose when you realized that you were dealing with someone or someones who were committed for the long haul, and were going to stay in the game no matter how long it went on?

Gladwell's other insight is about bending the rules, or interpreting the rules and norms in a way that also changes the game and gives you an advantage. His has several examples. There is the biblical David, perhaps history's most famous successful underdog, who eschewed armor and traditional weapons in favor of a sling shot, which would play to his strengths. And Gladwell profiles a young not-so-skilled girls basketball team who were trained for endurance and coached to incessantly press the other team trying to get the ball over the half-court in ten seconds. They generated confusion and turnovers...and unlikely victories. Both David and the girls were accused of not playing fair. They had not broken any technical rules, but they had violated the norms of play, under which they could not have hoped to be successful.

Leadership requires challenging, not meeting, the expectations of the other people in the game. That's what makes it risky. People don't like it when you fail to meet their expectations. But doing so is, pardon the cliche, a game-changer, experienced as subversive, not fair, not playing by the rules.

How many times have you sacrificed your objectives by playing by the informal and implicit rules that were designed to serve someone's interest and purpose other than your own.

Leadership requires the courage and skill to stay in the game for as long as it takes to achieve your purpose and to sustain the disapproval of those who like the game the way it is currently played, because it suits their purposes, whether or not it is in the interests of the organization or community as a whole.

So, let's hear some of your stories.

Why is it so hard to be relentless on behalf of what you care deeply about?

Why is it so hard to sustain the disdain of your colleagues when you adapt the rules to your own purposes?

And, please, send us a question for Leadership House Call, our column in the Washington Post. This week's question was about how to break down the silo mentality and get people to collaborate across boundaries.

Finally, take a look at The Stimulist. It is the best place to find out what those Gen Y Millenials are thinking (who are the world's most accomplished drunks?) and doing (rent-a-friend if you're lonely) and talking about (why you shouldn't go to law school).

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Empathy in Judging and Leading

Judging is not the same as leading. They are different roles and require different sets of skills. So it has been interesting to watch the use of the word "empathy" connecting to the work of judging.

President Obama declared that empathy would be an "essential ingredient" in his choice of a successor to the retiring, in both senses of the word Supreme Court Justice David Souter. And from everything we know, his selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor honors that commitment.

But how empathetic do we want our Supreme Court Justices to be?

Not very, is my answer, even though, as Carlos Watson has pointed out in his new blog The Stimulist, Sotomayor might be the most qualified judge ever nominated for the Court.

A little more empathy on the Court might be a good thing. David Brooks tried to thread the needle on this question in a complex column in the Times at the end of May.

The danger is that empathy easily turns into sympathy and the difference between the two is crucial. Empathetic people are able to put themselves in other people's shoes. Sympathetic people are reflexively supportive of people in pain. Sotomayor's membership in the National Council of La Raza, an important and respected Hispanic rights advocacy group, while she was on the appellate court, is evidence that she has crossed that line.

The United States has always been mostly a club for white males, the dominant and, for most of US history, the majoritarian faction in the country. The rules and norms and, yes, the laws understandably have reflected that culture. So it is a challenge for the Supreme Court to apply abstract Constitutional principles to specific laws and cases, when those cases are about the impact on people from minority factions.

The Justices, however well-intentioned they may be, cannot easily ascertain the constitutionality of those laws for people whose life experiences they do not understand. The best example of this, of course, is abortion. It is difficult to decide whether a right to privacy should apply when you have never carried a fetus and cannot remember when you were one. Having had the experience of being pregnant, or being empathetic to it, does not argue for or against the decision in Roe v. Wade, but is relevant to whether you think the principles embedded in the Constitution should be understood to protect the decision of the woman or the rights of the fetus.

Look at it this way. Sympathy is on one end of a continuum and cold-bloodedness is on the other and empathy is somewhere in the middle. We should want our judges to be more toward the cold-blooded end and our legislators to be more toward the sympathetic end, but a little bit of empathy can help them understand the impact of their decisions on people and circumstances with which they cannot identify.

But if too much empathy is dangerous in judges, empathy is a quality that is critical in exercising leadership.

What Obama has shown, most recently in his Cairo speech, is his unusual capacity for empathy, for knowing how others feel, for deeply understand how the world looks to them, even and especially if it is very different from the way it looks to him. Read his speech, if you have not already done so. He is comfortable honoring mutually exclusive views of reality.

In exercising leadership, being able to have real empathy is essential. You can never move people off a story they are comfortable with that is part of their self-identity until you can relate to that story, no matter how cock-eyed you may think it is, as if it were your own.

It is hard to be empathetic when someone else's feeling and experience are so foreign to you. I remember an uncomfortable moment early in my time in the Massachusetts Legislature, over forty years ago. I had co-sponsored and debated on behalf of a bill that would have allowed minors to buy a condom without a prescription. (Yes, this was Massachusetts in the 1960s.) We lost, but we came closer than our side ever had before, and it was pretty clear that the bill would pass in the next year or two. I was feeling pretty puffed up as I strode out of the House Chamber into the so-called Reading Room, where legislators gathered to talk and relax.

Sitting on a couch was a colleague, a strong opponent of the bill, sobbing. I assumed that he was having some personal problem so in an act of naive fellowship I went over to inquire and console him. But his tears came from the debate over the condom bill, and its near success. To him, defeating that bill meant preserving values that he believed in deeply which had guided him throughout his life: sex was only purposeful for procreation, never for recreation. And the idea that he would be a member of the legislature when that value was abandoned was almost too much for him to bear.

It was a great lesson for me. I understood that other people's reality which was sometimes so different than mine, both had its own legitimacy and needed to be deeply understood - not condoned - by me if I was to accomplish my own purposes.

There are three advantages to empathy in leadership, none of which apply to judging.

First, some people will go along simply because you do understand how they feel and acknowledge the pain you are inflicting on them.

Second, if you deeply understand their world view, you will be better equipped to distinguish what element of that picture they are most committed to and what the elements are that they may be willing to sacrifice for those priorities.

And third, if you are empathetic to those most threatened by what you are trying to do, their friends and allies, who are undecided on whether to go along, will be more likely to be with you because of the way you have treated their friends who will be suffering the losses.

How empathetic are you? How willing are you to acknowledge the legitimacy of point of view which are radically different than the truths you hold dear?