Leadership visualized

I thought it would be helpful to include an illustration of what I mean by the two reasons we follow a leader.


As I tried to reduce leadership to its most basic elements, I was left with two principles: willingness to be responsible and knowing where to go. The relationship between the two feels straightforward, but it’s a little more complex than it immediately appears.

First off, to describe those who aren’t leaders. A person who doesn’t know where we’re going and isn’t interested in shouldering any responsibility for getting us there is simply incapable of being a leader.

Someone who knows where to go but isn’t interested in the responsibility is different. This person is capable of leading but refuses to do so. Those who distinguish between a “boss” and a “leader” are describing this sort of person.

The person who doesn’t know where to go but is willing to take the responsibility is really incapable in one sense. They’re incapable because at the beginning they don’t have the knowledge necessary to attain the objective. But their willingness enables them to figure out how to get to the destination and (maybe) gives them the determination to keep trying. This person isn’t guaranteed to get us to the goal but, at least for a while, they’ll help us move along the path.

The best leader is the one who knows how to achieve the goal and is willing to take responsibility for getting us there. Because they know how to get to the goal, they can direct us with confidence and a minimum of trouble. Because they’re willing to be responsible they understand that they’ve accomplished very little if they reach the destination alone. They understand that their role isn’t just to reach the goal, it’s to expand (and probably extend) the capacity of each follower so that we can reach the goal. No guarantees of success here either, but this is the closest we can get.

P.S – I know, there are other important dimensions to leadership. But simplifying to two classes is a helpful way to start thinking about it.


Wanting to lead

Wanting to lead and leadership are not the same thing.

We follow leaders for two reasons: either they know how to get where we’re trying to go, or else they don’t know but they’re willing to shoulder the responsibility for getting us there anyway. It’s important to understand which one we’re dealing with, because the skills and attitudes required to lead and to follow in the one case are very different from the ones required in the other.

If you want to lead, it’s best to figure out which one you are, then be very clear about it with those who are following.

A service to be given

It’s tempting, if you’re in a position of authority, to make as many decisions as you can, to be involved in every detail of every transaction, and to avail yourself of every opportunity that your position affords. After all, we generally rise to our positions of authority because of our success in doing those very things. But authority isn’t leadership.
If leadership really is a service to be given (and I’m convinced that it is), then our responsibility is to introduce those we lead into every decision, transaction, and opportunity that we can, then to help them succeed.


To reliably build a successful business, you need to add value. To build a company like Ford or Apple, you have to deliver market-changing value at an individual scale. Henry Ford didn’t just succeed because he had a great business plan or the right attitude about work (although they undoubtedly helped), he succeeded because he revolutionized transportation 15 million times. Apple isn’t just succeeding because of its slick design, it’s succeeding because since the introduction of the iPod (really since the Apple II, with a bit of a detour there in the middle), it has revolutionized the experience of personal computing a billion times.

What value are you adding? And for which people?

On trust and vulnerability

A syllogism and a related thought:

The quality of a relationship is a reflection of the trust between two people.

Vulnerability is defined as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

Our willingness to be vulnerable, then, is a measure of our belief that our action will increase the trust in a relationship.

In his essay The Crisis, Thomas Paine shared an anecdote about a tavern-keeper who, standing at the door of his tavern with his child in his arms and faced with the prospect of war with England, declared “Well, give me peace in my day.”

Tom’s response was that a generous parent should have said, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”

There’s no question that peace is preferable to trouble. Thankfully, we’re not especially likely to face the reality of war or its personal effect on our children. But if we’re to truly be leaders, vulnerability means that we have take the position of the generous parent in the challenges we do face. It means that we have to be the ones who will stand up and say “I can take this if it means someone else won’t have to.”

I wish it were easier. But then, if it were, it probably wouldn’t be worth it.



What are you reading?

Yesterday I listened to Mike Rowe’s recent interview with Charles Koch. It’s fascinating all the way through, but toward the end Mike asked Charles “What are you reading?” That question made me sit up straighter in my chair as I listened for Charles’ answer.

Reading, and reading well, is an immensely valuable skill. At its heart, the ability to read is the ability to be communicated with, to receive and understand another person’s thoughts. Because it’s impossible to interrupt,  the speaker is allowed to carefully develop his or her ideas. And because the speaker isn’t in control of the conversation, the reader can take time to consider what’s being said very carefully: digesting it, interpreting it, and comprehending it as time and space allow.

But as valuable as reading is, it pales in comparison to the act of sharing what you’ve read with someone else. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to connect meaningfully with someone than to discuss what you’ve been reading.

I have a good friend who’s a successful lawyer and businessman. He’s a bit older than me and I look to him as a reliable mentor. We get together a couple of times a year for lunch and I always look forward to our visits. Every time we get together, he asks “What are you reading?” This question is one of the things I most look forward in our visits. We share notes about what we’re reading and we often both walk away with new additions to our reading lists.

In the process, we learn about each other. A good partner will engage with you in your experience, alternatively sharing in the thrill of discovery and broadening your understanding. They share other things that have affected their own reading, and even when they disagree with you they encourage you to read more.

But the best reading doesn’t stop at the sharing of it. The best reading moves you to change. It reshapes you and enlarges you. It’s what happens when you first began to understand what Atticus means when he says it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

There’s so much to do. So what are you reading?

Having a human experience

My wife and I got together with our friends a couple of weeks ago. As the night went on we chatted and laughed and commiserated with them about life as young parents trying to get it all done without letting anyone see us break a sweat. In the middle of the laughter and the tears, my wife wondered why we try to snooker everyone else: they all know we’re faking it, she said, because we’re all of us in the middle of “having a human experience.”

It might be because I’m reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly or it might just be because she was right on, but either way, I’ve I’ve thought a lot about what my wife said.

It’s probably as much a reflection on me as it is on anything, but it seems that work is the place where people are least willing to be seen having a human experience. I think there are many reasons for this, not least because of the pervasive attitude that work is—or ought to be—a pure meritocracy. I can’t count the number of times where I’ve heard people say “we only work with the best,” as if there’s some objective way to measure who is the best and who isn’t.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that this sort of thinking—the sort of thinking that leads us to say we only work with the best—is one of the more pernicious riffs on the shame/guilt dichotomy that Brené discusses in Daring Greatly. Put briefly, the difference between shame and guilt is the difference between “I’m a bad person” and “I did a bad thing.” The little ditty about working only with the best is particularly noxious because it sounds so true.

But it’s not true. As a matter of simple statistics, it can’t be true; there’s simply no way for every organization that claims to work only with the best to actually have engaged the best person in that particular field.

More problematic than that is what this idea does to those who try but don’t succeed on their first try. The message to those folks is “you’re not good enough.” That message gets repeated a thousand times a day in a thousand different situations. We’ve all heard it.

But even more problematic than that is the fact that in this framework, even success is not necessarily a relief. For many of us, each success is only a temporary reprieve from the need to prove our worthiness.

Those who don’t get caught up in the rat race are those who have learned, like my wife, that really we’re all just in the middle of having a human experience. Life isn’t really about surrounding ourselves with “the best.” It’s about surrounding ourselves with people and trying to help them do their best.



Recently, Simon Sinek said “We must find a purpose or cause to pursue otherwise all we have left are our imperfections.”

We can find such a transcendent purpose when we devote our business lives to serving our neighbors instead of chasing money.



Our business is people

Shortly after I started my little hiatus a month and a half ago, my wife turned on a light bulb for me. I was trying to describe the point of what I’m trying to do, both with this blog and with my career, when she asked something like “aren’t you just saying that our business is people?”

And she’s exactly right. Our business is people.

I’ve struggled for the better part of a year to describe my first principles, ever since a colleague challenged my inability to effectively describe what I’m trying to do here. This is it: our business is people.

I advance this principle in direct opposition to the idea that business is “carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders.” I know that this makes me different from many of my fellow capitalists, who are steeped in the modern American interpretation of capitalism that followed the Michigan Supreme Court’s declaration in Dodge v Ford Motor Co. In this, I feel a lot like Arthur Brooks (president of the American Enterprise Institute), who said of his conversion to capitalism:

“I was feeling more idealistic than ever. The more I read and learned, the more I believed that everyone—poor, rich, minority, immigrant, everyone—should be able to earn their success. I realized that free enterprise could build a better, more humane world on a mass scale, so long as the United States had the moral confidence to live its own values and share them with the world.”

Like Arthur, I’m a convert. Not to capitalism, but to the idea that our participation in the free market can and should be an exercise of our moral convictions. I believe it down to my toes.

One of the most compelling aspects of this conversion is that it has helped me understand how to apply a scriptural passage that has long captivated me. In my Mormon tradition, there is a story about a prophet named Jacob. Near the end of his life, Jacob preached to his people, calling on them to live more godly lives. Right in the middle of it, he tells his people:

“Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.

“But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.

“And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted.”1

Jacob was a humble man and a great leader. When I first read this passage as a boy, I thought it meant that I was ok to chase my dream of becoming fabulously wealthy. I just had to figure out that whole “kingdom of God” thing and I’d be set. I’m essentially a good person, I figured, and I’ve pretty much always wanted to do good, so I just had to keep that up and God would give me the riches. As I’ve matured I’ve realized that’s not it at all.

I’ve realized that the point of this scripture is to point us toward each other, to help us see that seeking the kingdom of God inevitably and necessarily leads us to looking out for our neighbors.

Simon Sinek captures the idea in a different way. Speaking of leaders, he explains that part of what offends us so much about the CEOs who receive such disproportionately high salaries is not so much the money that they have received, but that they have “violated the very definition of leadership. They have violated this deep-seated social contract. We know that they allowed their people to be sacrificed so they could protect their own interests, or worse, they sacrificed their people to protect their own interests. This is what offends us, not the numbers. Would anybody be offended if we gave a $150 million bonus to Gandhi?” The video is below, and the relevant portion starts at around the 7:32 mark.

Like Arthur Brooks, I believe this is a moral issue. To say that our business is people is to make an explicitly moral argument. It stands in opposition to the moral argument that a business exists primarily for the profit of its stockholders. And like Arthur Brooks, “I hear pretty frequently that we should focus on economics and not morality. That is dead wrong and a false choice besides. Economic issues are moral issues. Americans are not materialists. The vast majority of Americans want public policies that are not merely economically efficient, but also morally just.”2

We can build business that is both morally just and economically efficient. It starts by aiming at the right goal: people.

  1. Jacob 2:17-19, emphasis mine.
  2. Arthur C. Brooks, The Conservative Heart: How to build a fairer, happier, and more prosperous America, p. 15