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).


Scott said...

There is something to be said about being relentless.

Anonymous said...

I am a marathon runner and a private pilot. Both require relentness. After 176 marathons, I still have to put one foot in front of the other, that is to train, so that I can perform on race day. A pilot must be relentness in terms of situational awareness, flying ahead of the airplane, and adding the tasks of single pilot navigation and communicating with Air Traffic Control. We learn these by doing, hour after hour, fine tuning this orchestra of events so we are safe and so are our passengers. Both marathoning and flying, many, many seek these out as goals, but few actually do them. Effort, sacrifce, and discipline are keys for all things good. Relentness may be addded to this model for composing a life as well.

ENS said...

Yes, relentless works particularly well, I believe, in an academic setting.

However, I fear that in the political economy world, money buys lawyers who do the relentless follow up and achieve the goals of those who can pay them.

Sid Gardner said...

Frank's right. Relentless works. But you need to know the downside: when you respect people enough to ask them hard questions, relentless questions--you sometimes get nailed as what my 16 year-old daughter calls a PITA--pain in the ass.

Goes with the territory.

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Unknown said...

Leadership qualities must be dynamic. The desicion0 taken by a leader must be unpredictable at the same time, wise too.

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