Tag: Leadership

How Clever Leaders Overcome More Talented and Better Funded Competitors

Talent and resources aren’t always enough to succeed. Doing incredible things requires true passion. Sometimes a driven, inspired team can succeed against one with more talent and funding.


In the early 1900s Samuel Pierpont Langley wanted to be the first man to fly an airplane. He stacked the odds in his favor, or so he thought, by arming himself with all the ingredients for success.

His friends included some of the most powerful men in government and business. He was given a $50k grant from the War Department (an enormous sum at the time.) He brought together the best minds of the day – the most talented team imaginable. The team had access to the best technology and materials. They were treated like rockstars and followed everywhere by the press.

It was virtually impossible to fail. Or was it?

Not very far away Wilbur and Orville Wright were working on their own airplane. Only they didn’t have a lot of money. They didn’t have a team of world-class talent – not a single person on the team had a college education let alone an advanced degree. They didn’t have the best materials. Heck, they were operating out of a bicycle shop. But they did have something that Pierpont didn’t have. They had passion.

That passion was so intense, writes Simon Sinek in his book It Starts With Why, “that it inspired the enthusiasm and commitment of a dedicated group in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio.”

Like the Titanic, we know how this story ends.

On December 17, 1903 the Wright brothers took man into flight for the first time.

Why did they succeed against a more talented and better funded team?

It wasn’t luck. Both Langley and the Wright bothers were motivated, had scientific minds, and worked hard. It wasn’t money, talent, or materials. Langley had more of these in spades. It wasn’t systems or processes as these are easily replicated.

The difference was that the Wright brothers, according to Sinek, “were able to inspire those around them and truly lead their team to develop a technology that would change the world.”

passion over talent

The difference between someone doing something because they want to and not because they have to is huge.

Have you ever worked for a boss you didn’t like on a project you didn’t like? You might be the most talented person in the organization but it doesn’t matter because on that project and for that boss you’re a 9 to 5 worker. You do your job and nothing more. You shut your brain off.

Compare that to a time you worked for a boss you loved on a project you loved. I bet you went all in. The hours flew by, you thought about the project in the shower in the morning, your passion and excitement about the project was hard to contain.

The difference between these two examples is not a few hours of a day. The difference is non-linear. (And anytime you get a non-linear result when you expected a linear one, you need to pay attention as the world is trying to teach you something.)

This is how team can trump talent and one of the mains reasons that culture eats strategy.

Sinek concludes that great leaders “are able to inspire people to act. Those who are able to inspire give people a sense of purpose or belonging that has little to do with any external incentive or benefit to be gained.” In short, they inspire people to acts because they want to, not because they were swayed with money or rewards. And people who are inspired to act have a deeply personal motivation for doing so and they endure inconveniences, personal suffering and setbacks.

Give me a team of people acting because they want to, not because they have to, and you can compete with anyone.

Why Micromanaging Kills Corporate Culture

“The more he kept sweating the details,
the less his people took ownership of their work.”


The most important part of a company’s culture is trust. People don’t feel trusted when you micromanage and this has disastrous implications.

In It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, Michael Abrashoff  writes:

The difference between thinking as a top performer and thinking like your boss is the difference between individual contribution and real leadership. Some people never make this jump; they keep doing what made them successful, which in a leadership role usually means micromanaging. My predecessor on Benfold (the ship Abrashoff commanded), for instance, was extremely smart—a nuclear engineer and one of the brightest guys in the Navy. He spent his entire career in engineering, and when he took command of Benfold, he became, in effect, the super chief engineer of the ship. According to those who worked for him, he never learned to delegate. The more he kept sweating the details, the less his people took ownership of their work and the ship.

This so often happens in organizations: Micromanagement (or picomanagement, if micro doesn’t quite describe it) kills ownership. And when employees don’t have ownership—skin in the game—everything starts to go to hell. This is one reason government organizations are considered to be dysfunctional — everything is someone else’s responsibility. The incentives are awful.

Consider this anecdote Abrashoff uses to illustrate his point.

A pharmaceutical company I was working with promoted its best salesman to be head of sales. Instead of leading the sales force, he became the super salesman of the company. He had to be in on every deal, large or small. The other salespeople lost interest and stopped feeling as if they were in charge of their own jobs because they knew they couldn’t make a deal without him there to close it. The super salesman would swoop in at the last minute, close the deal, claim all the glory, and the others were left feeling that they were just holding his bat.

This reminds me of something Marshall Goldsmith, author of the impressive What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, once relayed in a conference. He told the story of a typical person in a typical organization presenting an idea to the senior approval body. This person did all this work, it’s their idea, and they know it inside and out. Anyway, they present and the senior management team, keen to exercise their egos, start chiming in with things like “did you think of this …” or “but … ” or “however …”. The project gets better with these comments, after all most people don’t get to that level without being somewhat intelligent. However the commitment of the person who presented the idea goes down dramatically because it’s no longer their idea. They’ve lost some ownership (the degree to which is very dependent on the conversation). The end result is a better idea with less commitment. And you know what? The outcome is worse than if the management team just approved the project. Goldsmith was pointing out the obvious and the world has never looked the same to me since.

Abrashoff aptly concludes:

When people feel they own an organization, they perform with greater care and devotion. They want to do things right the first time, and they don’t have accidents by taking shortcuts for the sake of expedience.


I am absolutely convinced that with good leadership, freedom does not weaken discipline— it strengthens it. Free people have a powerful incentive not to screw up.

Remember the wisdom of Joseph Trussman. Trust is one of the keys to getting the world to do most of the work for you. Call this an unrecognized simplicity — and one that Ken Iverson exploited to help show why culture eats strategy.

Lessons on Leadership: Michael Abrashoff on Turning the Worst Ship in the Navy into the Best

“Organizations should reward risk-takers, even if they fall short once in a while. Let them know that promotions and glory go to innovators and pioneers, not to stand-patters who fear controversy and avoid trying to improve anything.”


Michael Abrashoff was in his mid-thirties when he took command of the USS Benfold, a guided missile destroyer and one of the worst performing ships in the navy. Despite her potency, the “dysfunctional ship had a sullen crew that resented being there and could not wait to get out of the Navy.” By the time he left, less than three years later, Benfold had become the highest-performing ship and retention was amazing.

As he recounts in It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy the opportunity wasn’t without its irony.

Our military has spent a lot of time and money preparing for tomorrow’s battles with antiquated methods. We continue to invest in the latest technologies and systems, but, as we all know, technology is nothing but a facilitator. The people operating the equipment are who give us the fighting edge, and we seem to have lost our way when it comes to helping them grow.

Echoing Confucius who said “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance,” Abrashoff believes the key to leadership is about understanding yourself first and then using that knowledge to shape the organization.

Leaders must free their subordinates to fulfill their talents to the utmost. However, most obstacles that limit people’s potential are set in motion by the leader and are rooted in his or her own fears, ego needs, and unproductive habits. When leaders explore deep within their thoughts and feelings in order to understand themselves, a transformation can take shape.

That understanding shifts the leader’s perspective on all of the interactions in life, and he or she approaches leadership from a completely different place. As a result, the leader’s choices are different from those he or she made when blinded by fear, ego, and habit. More important, others perceive the person as more authentic, which in turn reinforces the new behavior. This can vastly improve how people respond to their leaders and makes their loyalty to the source of gratification more likely: my ship, your company, their peers, the culture that gives their lives meaning and purpose.

To be sure, your organization has a pragmatic goal, and obviously, it isn’t to be a therapeutic shelter. My ship’s job was war; your company’s purpose is profit. But we will achieve neither by ordering people to perform as we wish. Even if doing so produces short-term benefits, the consequences can prove devastating.

Adding to this later and expanding on how so many people lead, he writes:

Leaders must be willing to put the ship’s performance ahead of their egos.


The command-and-control approach is far from the most efficient way to tap people’s intelligence and skills.


Show me an organization in which employees take ownership, and I will show you one that beats its competitors.

Highlighting the divisiveness that so many organizations experience, he writes:

In business, as in the Navy, there is a general understanding that “they” don’t want rules to be questioned or challenged. For employees, the “they” is the managers; for managers, the “they” is the executive cadre. I worked hard at convincing my crew that I did want the rules to be questioned and challenged, and that “they” is “us.” One of the ways I demonstrated my commitment was to question and challenge rules to my bosses. In the end, both the bosses and my crew listened.

In a world that is always moving, staying still is near-certain death.

Organizations should reward risk-takers, even if they fall short once in a while. Let them know that promotions and glory go to innovators and pioneers, not to stand-patters who fear controversy and avoid trying to improve anything. To me, that’s the key to keeping an organization young, vital, growing, and successful. Stasis is death to any organization. Evolve or die: It’s the law of life. Rules that made sense when they were written may well be obsolete. Make them extinct, too.

The primary reasons that people leave an organization have nothing to do with money.

However the economy is doing, a challenge for leaders in the twenty-first century is attracting and retaining not just employees, but the best employees— and more important, how to motivate them so that they work with passion, energy, and enthusiasm. But very few people with brains, skills, and initiative appear. The timeless challenge in the real world is to help less-talented people transcend their limitations.

Pondering all this in the context of my post as the new captain of Benfold, I read some exit surveys, interviews conducted by the military to find out why people are leaving. I assumed that low pay would be the first reason, but in fact it was fifth. The top reason was not being treated with respect or dignity; second was being prevented from making an impact on the organization; third, not being listened to; and fourth, not being rewarded with more responsibility.

Thus Abrashoff came to the conclusion that the best thing he could do was see the ship through the eyes of the crew. This makes it much easier to find out what’s wrong and help people empower themselves to fix it. Most systems reward micromanagement which only disempowers subordinates and removes ownership and accountability.

Officers are told to delegate authority and empower subordinates, but in reality they are expected never to utter the words “I don’t know.” So they are on constant alert, riding herd on every detail. In short, the system rewards micromanagement by superiors— at the cost of disempowering those below.

Organizations commanded by a micromanager create a sub-culture of micromanagement. Individual initiative is the exception not the norm and the people who exhibit it get beaten down quickly and either quit or become cynical.

I began with the idea that there is always a better way to do things, and that, contrary to tradition, the crew’s insights might be more profound than even the captain’s. Accordingly, we spent several months analyzing every process on the ship. I asked everyone, “Is there a better way to do what you do?” Time after time, the answer was yes, and many of the answers were revelations to me.

My second assumption was that the secret to lasting change is to implement processes that people will enjoy carrying out. To that end, I focused my leadership efforts on encouraging people not only to find better ways to do their jobs, but also to have fun as they did them. And sometimes— actually, a lot of times— I encouraged them to have fun for fun’s sake.


No one is capable of making every decision. While there are as many ways to approach this as there are organizations, most seem to create an ineffective system of rules and policies that attempt to prepare for every possible contingency. Over time, people working in these organizations have no ownership — they simply follow the rules. Great organizations, on the other hand, use principles and allow for exceptions. They train people to think and make judgments on their own.

It’s Your Ship goes on to detail the ideas and techniques that Abrashoff used to win trust, create an environment where people felt accountable, and gain commitment.

Are You an Outsider Trying To Change A Broken System?

Elizabeth Warren was one of the key architects in the U.S. government’s response to the financial crisis. In her memoir, A Fighting Chance, Warren draws our attention to the troubling reality of high-level Washington.

One particular anecdote is worth noting for its penetrating insight into how the world actually works.

Warren was a member of the Congressional Oversight Panel, which, she writes, “couldn’t change a system that seemed hellbent on protecting the big guys and leaving everyone else by the side of the road.”

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

— Joseph Tussman

In 2009 after the panel had produced its third report, concluding that the risks to the American taxpayers were far greater than Treasury let on, Lawrence H. Summers, then the director of the National Economic Council and a top economic adviser to President Obama, “leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” Ms. Warren writes.

Larry’s tone was in the friendly advice-category. He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

And that is how the world inside government and organizations often works. You’ve been warned.

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership: Classical Wisdom for Modern Leaders

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership

How many of today’s problems are the result of leadership?

What’s lacking, the author of The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership argues, is the lack of real leadership.

Here the problem may lie with a lack of deeper, broader insights, the kind of insights that technical skill alone does not confer— the ability to see the big picture, to connect with members of the organization, to foster a meaningful and productive work environment, and to steer the corporate ship through the challenges of highly competitive markets and new technologies.


What is leadership?

The authors define the term “leadership” in a way that that differentiates their “interpretation from the offhanded views that too often distort the word’s meaning.”

It is the assumption of the authors that leadership is an uncommon composite of skill, experience, and ripened personal perspectives. It is, of course, the last of those elements that sets the real leader apart from those who simply “run” organizations. Ripened personal perspectives are an essential ingredient in a leader’s efforts to develop and articulate a sound corporate vision. Real leaders, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, see things more rapidly than does the typical executive. At least in part, their insights are a reflection of an “inner” clarity that allows for fuller concentration on the challenges at hand.

This is why leadership cannot be “done by the numbers,” why those who have failed to comprehend the motivating subtleties in their own lives are unlikely to achieve the status of “leader.” Simply put, only those men and women who have cultivated a care fully conceived philosophy of life are ready and able to exhibit the kind of workplace mastery suggested by the term “leader.” Now for some, invoking the term “philosophy” in this context may seem strangely out of place. To one degree or another, we all have been conditioned to believe that philosophy is at best a kind of noble laziness, a speculative exercise devoid of concrete benefit. Yet it may be that many of the inefficiencies and failures that plague our managerial environments are ultimately related to an inadequate consideration of what philosophy has to offer.


The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership

1. Know thyself. Understand your inner world, your bright and dark sides, your personal strengths and weakness. Self-comprehension is a fundamental precondition necessary for real leadership.

2. Office shows the person. The assumption of authority brings out the leader’s inner world. It reveals whether the leader has undergone a process of honest self-discovery that allows for the productive application of power.

3. Nurture community in the workplace. Community development and positive sentiment are virtues leaders must nurture by providing the right support, guidance, and incentives.

4. Do not waste energy on things you cannot change. Do not waste resources and energies on things you cannot control, and therefore, cannot change.

5. Always embrace the truth. Effective leaders should always embrace the truth, always encourage candid criticism throughout the organization, be skeptical of flattering appraisals, and never let authority place a wedge between them and the truth.

6. Let competition reveal talent. Nurture an environment that can use the forces of competition constructively, create a platform that releases the ingenuity and creativity of your employees in pursuing corporate goals and objectives, identify subordinates who use competition as a constructive force, steer away from subordinates who use competition as a destructive force.

7. Live life by a higher code. Dedicate yourself to a higher standard of personal conduct; don’t harbor ill-will toward those who offend; be ready to assist those who are in need without asking something in return; remain calm in the face of crisis; dedicate yourself to principle without compromise; earn the trust, respect, and admiration of your subordinates through your character, not the authority conferred upon you by the corporate chart; turn authority into power.

8. Always evaluate information with a critical eye. Don’t rely upon old premises, assertions, and theories. Develop a critical mindset that accepts nothing at face value, certify the credibility and usefulness of critical information, analyze the con text that produces critical information and the messengers who convey it, and never rush to judgments.

9. Never underestimate the power of personal integrity. Personal integrity is a critical asset for real leadership. Always set an honorable agenda, adhere to a code of professional conduct, never try to justify dishonesty and deceit, rather “fail with honor than win by cheating.”

10. Character is destiny. True leadership is ultimately traceable to factors of character and personal integrity; much of what is called “destiny” lies in our hands, not in mysterious forces beyond our control.

The Ten Golden Rules of Leadership: Classical Wisdom for Modern Leaders is a worthy read for anyone looking to embark on a journey of critical self-examination. You’ll learn from the revered ancient thinkers like Aristotle, Hesiod, Sophocles, Heraclitus, and Antisthenes.

Billy Beane on Making Better Decisions, Challenging Entrenched Thinking, and Avoiding Biases

Moneyball Billy Beane

Billy Beane was put in the spotlight when Brad Pitt played him in the movie rendition of Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

Sports fans, however, knew long before Moneyball that Beane was special. He’s the guy credited with taking a low budget team and turning them around by challenging the fundamental notions of a sport that had been around 150 years.

In a fascinating interview given on stage at the RSA conference in April 2015, Beane offered advice on how to make good decisions by challenging organizational norms, effectively using data, and avoiding biases.

When asked about pushing through entrenched thinking, Beane replied:

I sort of represented that entrenched thinking in some respect, because I was the guy who came up in the business – a business that was 150 years old – as a former player. Quite frankly, I had a great mentor, a gentleman who didn’t come up in the industry, in Sandy Alderson.

When I hired, I made sure I looked outside at somebody who didn’t have the experience bias with my first, and maybe even one of the best hires I ever had was Paul DePodesta, who was a Harvard Econ major, didn’t play sports, and really, was able to come in and look at things with an eye that wasn’t biased.

We also took ideas from people outside the industry, guys like Bill James and Sean Cook and applied them.

On how biases creep into our thought process no matter how old we are or in what industry we operate, Beane commented on taking the emotion out of the decision-making process and making it more rational.

Your own experiences, particularly in sports, where that experience may also be tied to an emotion as well, you tend to say, in football or soccer, in soccer there’s a goal, and not all goals are created in terms of how you emotionally react to them. Baseball’s a little bit the same way. So you kind of have to take a blind eye and look at things from the start and not make assumptions.

For us, we ultimately wanted to take all the emotion out of our decision making, and that came, many times, with your own experience.

One way to do that is to let data help you make decisions.

But data is everywhere and cheap. How can we leverage data analytics and extract meaningful information? On this Beane advocates an approach that makes sure you have cognitive diversity in the room – in other words, people that wouldn’t normally be there.

[T]he book was really based on public information, as I said. Bill James had been writing for years, but because they didn’t come up in the industry, it really was never applied. Again, sports is very emotional. Very much, you have to come pass the eye test. What we wanted to do was make sure our eyes weren’t fooling us.

As far as today, the game and sports has changed dramatically. In fact, looking at the book now, it feels like you’re watching an episode of “The Flintstones” a little bit when you see some of this stuff. The only thing that I haven’t changed is making sure that I bring in guys that normally wouldn’t be in this room. The advantage I have is I have access to intellectual capital that normally would be in this room, but want to work for a sports team.

We have access to data, everything … was being measured, thrown into this huge vat of data, and it’s up to my staff to sift through what has relevance and which doesn’t as it applies to predicting player performance.

One of the keys to looking at data is to bring different lenses to it to gain insight. You also need to put processes and systems in place with respective feedback loops to make sure you’re not a sucker—that is, you can distinguish between luck and skill.

You’re constantly evaluating. Sometimes, even when you have success, there’s an assumption that that success was based on your process. Actually, you’re always analyzing your process, making sure that the reason you weren’t correct wasn’t through serendipity, but the reason was because you have a good process and you’re doing things properly.

It’s challenging because the business of sports has become very, very intelligent. Baseball teams, football teams, basketball teams, they’re all using this, and hiring, once again, guys that normally would probably be in this room.

The world is always changing as its a dynamic system. Your processes need to be adaptive. Static processes in a dynamic world lead to extinction.

[T]here’s so many variables in sports, too. We try and quantify things that you don’t think you can quantify, things that people…Once again, when you talk about challenging assumptions, things that people assume can’t be quantified.

You try and quantify them so, at least, you’re creating a process that, more than anything, when you are right or wrong, you can at least go back and look and see why you were right or wrong, similar to a mathematical equation.

Beane found a way to challenge assumptions and in so doing gain insight that he had the courage (and authority) to put into practice. How did he change the way things were done?

Well, sometimes you don’t. Early on in our process, we lost employees because there certainly wasn’t a belief. Now, understand, when we started out we had a great platform. We were challenged from revenue standpoint, so it was an opportunity in some sense, and we really had no other way to operate.

Through the course of doing things this way, we certainly lost people, but in the same sense, another year later we would gain two more people who were interested in going down this road. For us, it was rational. It made sense, and we really had no other choice.

But, as Keynes so aptly put it “Worldly wisdom teaches us that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” And that path was not a linear story to success. There were moments when he doubted himself and operating in a cut-throat industry probably didn’t make things easier. All eyes were on him. Was there pressure to go back to the way things were always done?

Unfortunately, probably for some A’s fans. They probably doubted me more than I (did). I think the one thing about the process, it was like a math equation. At least we knew why we were doing something. Our other option, to us, didn’t make much sense. Certainly, you’re hoping you’re going in the right direction, and the assumption is that you are. We felt like that was the best road that we could travel.

I think, if anything, we certainly didn’t fear failure, because we felt like going a traditional path was certainly the surest of failure, based on our revenues and the payroll that we were on. We had a lot of autonomy, too. Autonomy within, we were given a budget. The only limitations we had in terms of our intellectual curiosity was really making sure we stayed in the budget our ownership gave us. “Listen, hey, do what you want to do, but make sure you stay within the lines a little bit.”

But again, the fear…We knew going down another subjective path, we were certain to fail. We weren’t going to consistently put something together that was on a year by year basis. The fear of going that route, there was greater fear going that route than going an objective route.

As a leader, it was Beane’s job to make sure the strategy they were using to find under-rated players was embedded throughout the organization.

At times it was challenging, because we hired some really…I was a former baseball player, and a lot of guys who had come up in the business, the guys we were bringing in were guys with PhDs in behavioral economics and Harvard masters in statistics, and things like that. Bridging that gap initially was challenging because most, certainly a baseball player like myself, my default position isn’t to run a regression log.

We operate in a world with tremendous amounts of data and information, but we’re not challenging the platform that we’re starting with to the extent we should be.

Even with a very young and progressive group of thinkers that are around me,  with a little bit of experience, you will always start at a platform that you assume to be true based on previous success. We always have to analyze our foundation because very quickly a culture and a tradition of doing things can get ingrained in a very short period of time. If you assume from a false platform that you’re correct, you can go really awry. For us, it is constantly…Also, not being wrapped up in your own hubris with success and understanding that even with an objective based decision making, you are not going to be right 100 percent of the time.