A Leader's Toolbox

A Leader’s Toolbox

In the book Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer describes the work of top executives within companies as being inherently intuitive. Executives and managers within high performing companies are constantly pressed for time. There are more decisions, more incoming items that need attention, and more things to work on than any executive or manager can adequately handle on their own. Consequentially, delegation is necessary, as is quick decision-making based on intuition. “Senior managers routinely need to make decisions or delegate decisions in an instant after brief consultation and under high uncertainty,” writes Gigerenzer. This combination of quick decision-making under uncertainty is where intuition comes to play, and the ability to navigate these situations is what truly comprises the leader’s toolbox.

 

Gigerenzer stresses that the intuitions developed by top managers and executives are not arbitrary. Successful managers and companies tend to develop similar tool boxes that help encourage trust and innovation. While many individual level decisions are intuitive, the structure of the leader’s toolbox often becomes visible and intentional. As an example, Gigerenzer highlights a line of thinking he uncovered when working on a previous book. He writes, hire well and let them do their jobs reflects a vision of an institution where quality control (hire well) goes together with a climate of trust (let them do their jobs) needed for cutting-edge innovation.”

 

In many companies and industries, the work to be done is incredibly complex, and a single individual cannot manage every decision. The structure of the decision-making process necessarily needs to be decentralized for the individual units of the team to work effectively and efficiently. Hiring talented individuals and providing them with the autonomy and tools necessary to be successful is the best approach to get the right work done well.

 

Gigerenzer continues, “Good leadership consists of a toolbox full of rules of thumb and the intuitive ability to quickly see which rule is appropriate in which context.”

 

A leader’s toolbox doesn’t consist of specific lists of what to do in certain situations or even specific skills that are easy to check off on a resume. A leader’s toolbox is built by experience in a diverse range of settings and intuitions about things as diverse as hiring, teamwork, and delegation. Because innovation is always uncertain and always includes risk, leaders must develop intuitive skills and be able to make quick and accurate judgements about how to best handle new challenges and obstacles. Intuition and gut-decisions are an essential part of leadership today, even if we don’t like to admit that we make important decisions on intuition.
Paternalistic Choice Architects

Paternalistic Choice Architects

The idea of paternalism in the United States is full of contradictions, challenges, and conflicting opinions. Many people in the country don’t want to be told what to do by anyone, and don’t want to appear as though they are accepting paternalistic messages or nudges. Some people fully buy into the idea of paternalism, looking for prescribed rules and ways of living. And most of us have a mixture of people we view as leaders and role models, from whom we expect paternalistic messages.

 

In the book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write, “In our understanding, a policy is paternalistic if it tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves” [emphasis in original]. This is the definition I am working with for paternalism. The idea is that someone else can know what is best for us, even if we don’t see it ourselves.

 

I believe that a lot of conflict in the United States today stems from the people and authority figures we are willing to accept paternalistic messages from. Some people in the United States, I include myself in this group, will accept paternalistic messages from university professors, while others will reject their messages. Leaders who we will accept messages from can be religious leaders, community elders, parents, successful business people, or even celebrities. For all of us, there is a set of people that we look to for guidance and advice. A set of people that we believe knows what might be best for us. The fact that our set of leaders can be very different and in some instances be completely discredited by others can lead to a lot of friction across our populace.

 

Nevertheless, what all these figures have in common is that they all can be in a position to be a choice architect. As Thaler and Sunstein write, “A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” Business leaders shape the decision context for people’s healthcare, retirement savings, and many other daily choices. Religious leaders can shape the way people think about charitable giving and volunteering. Community leaders can influence the same choices and university professors can influence the way people think about certain situations. In all of these contexts, the way that choices are framed, the choices that are presented as viable options, and how people understand their agency can be influenced by a choice architect.

 

By nature then, choice architects are paternalistic. They are in charge of the form you use to sign up for healthcare, the range of volunteer and charitable activities that are available to you for consideration, and the responses that are considered appropriate for you when thinking about politics, society, and individual behaviors. Someone else presents you with options and decisions they believe are best for you.

 

Choice architects are very important because the way they frame a choice or decision can greatly influence the behaviors of many people. Presumably, choice architects want to maximize the good outcomes that arise from the choices they shape. This means that how they structure decisions, what they consider viable alternatives, and how they build decision frameworks can have huge consequences for what people actually do. A good health benefits sign-up form can influence whether people select a healthcare plan that actually fits their needs. A good sense of where volunteering can do the most good can drive a pastor or community leader to engage their followers in a meaningful way, and a university professor who can frame thoughts and decisions in a meaningful direction can help people think about problems in new and ways. Of course, in each setting, the choice architect could be wrong, and could mislead people, could make an error that hurts people financially, leads to wasted time, or frustrates people. It may be paternalistic to think that a choice architect knows what is best and can guide people toward what is best for them, but the alternative, having the choice architect pull back and not accept this paternalistic responsibility, can have even more serious consequences.

Weapons for Our Early Ancestors

Weapons are in interesting consideration for early human evolution and how we ended up in the place we are with large brains and strong social groups. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson address the importance of weapons in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Weapons change the value of physical strength and the nature of conflict on the individual and group levels. They altered the threats and defenses that our early ancestors faced and could mount.

 

“Weapons are a game changer for two reasons.” write Hanson and Simler, “First, they level the playing field between weak and strong members of a group. … Another way weapons alter the balance of power applies to projectile weapons like stones or spears. Such distance weapons make it much easier for a coalition to gang up on a single individual.”

 

Physical force has been a dominating aspect of human relationships (and probably early proto-human ancestors’ relationships), but we don’t live in societies where just the most physically dominant individuals rule. Weapons are a big part of why this is the case. Once we could hurl projectiles, even just heavy or sharp rocks, at opponents, our social grouping had to change. Coalitions could push back against a dominant individual who did not care about the well being of the group or of others. The role of politics and cooperation could naturally be expected to rise in a system where physical dominance was not the sole determinant of leadership and power.

 

What weapons did, Hanson and Simler argue and I will discuss more tomorrow, is create a system that favored brain development. Social intelligence and intellectual capacity became more valuable when coalitions could rule with weapons, and that created a space where the brain could evolve to become larger and more complex. If pure physical dominance was the best predictor of power and of passing along our genes, then we would not have expected our early ancestors to begin evolving in a way that favored the development of a large and highly energy dependent brain. By bringing physical prowess down a level, weapons it seems, helped further the evolutionary growth of the human brain.

The Disruptiveness of Political Amateurs

Our society is all about disruption. I am writing this from Reno, Nevada, a city heavily influenced by San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech culture. Today number of Silicon Valley firms are spilling into Northern Nevada to take advantage of our great weather, beautiful outdoors, and minimal traffic. Along with theses firms comes the mindset of disruption. New technology and companies upending the way we drive, the way we access healthcare, and the way we communicate. Even our current president, and the Democrats main primary challenger in 2016, was cry for disruption, and opportunity to shake up politics and bring about a new way of doing business from the Oval Office.

 

Brookings Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch is skeptical of this disruption, at least in the world of politics, and looks at why government exists and how good governance can be promoted in his book Political Realism. What Rauch finds is that the spirit of disruption in politics is actually nothing new. We have always had candidates who focused on a single issue that they wanted to change. We have always had activists who fought for a particular idea of what was good, often excluding concerns of other issues and areas. And ultimately, we have always had a political establishment to rail against and charge with fraud, corruption, lack of interest, and complain about as a out of touch with the will of the people.

 

What Rauch describes in his book however, is that politics is a long-term game. It extends beyond the current moment and exists in the future and in the past. Our decisions are shaped by what is politically possible and we use compromises as a tool to help us make decisions now that can be adjusted, rescinded, or strengthened in the future. What is important is not necessarily winning right now or introducing entirely new programs to completely tackle a problem today, but rather the importance lies in stability and positioning ourselves to constantly be able to improve and move forward. Our traditional system has done this with professional politicians who must please large and diverse groups of constituents. We have done this with compromise and a willingness to bend on principles to allow legislation to move through. As Charles Lindblom would describe it, we opt for incrementalism, slowly changing existing programs and policies because they already exist and have already been debated and implemented rather than spend all our time debating and fighting over new programs.

 

Contrasting this stable yet slow, lumbering, and apparently corrupting system is today’s vision of disruption. We want ideologically strong candidates who represent something greater than their own self-interest who will not bend on principles and will push for a great new society. This is a terrific vision, but it focuses on short term wins for the here and now at the expense of stability and long-term functionality. The system is composed of political amateurs, “Activists,” described by Rauch in his book as, “very different animals. They are less interested in extrinsic rewards than in advancing a public purpose, fighting for justice, experiencing the intrinsic satisfactions of participation. For them, issues are the essence of politics.” When the system is overwhelmed by the amateurs and activists, activity stops. Compromise is not possible and we cannot move forward with anything because we are all fighting for different ends. From time to time it may be necessary to flood a legislature with activists who represent a shift in the zeitgeist and will fight for things like racial justice, or a reduction in unnecessarily high taxes coupled with inefficient spending, or for a better healthcare system, but when this activist mindset becomes the norm, when every representative must be willing to die for their cause on every vote, the system cannot function and we cannot govern ourselves.

 

Sometimes the boring, the candidates who want office for the glory and not for the issue, and sometimes the flexible compromises are what we need for good governance. I would argue, and I think Rauch would agree, that most of the time these are the political leaders we need. They do not inspire great visions of a world where our political tribe dominates and where everything is about us and our priorities, but  they do work with others who are not like us and position the government to slowly move forward perhaps interrupted on occasion by groups that arise with strong preferences for a noble cause. Too many of these boring officials and we fail to meet the will of the people, but too few, and the system breaks and is open for demagoguery and encourages between-group meanness rather than between-group compromise.

Humble Teachers

Senator Corey Booker gives us an insight into the people he sees as mentors and role models in a brief paragraph in his book United. Throughout his book, Booker talks about the people who have made an impact in his life, and almost all of them were citizens trying to make a difference in their local community. These individuals were impactful not because they wanted power, control, or notoriety, but because they truly cared about their community and the people around them. Regarding the people Booker learned the most from, he writes, “you reap what you sow; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; cause and effect. Humble people teach us this and more. They are great masters, the best of whom I have found are not on television, not at a university, and not elected to any office. They do not preach sermons, give lectures, or dispense orders. They do. Without fanfare, they do the best they can, with what they have, where they are.”

 

Booker’s message is one I think needs to be shared more broadly with people and youth in society. It is often easy to look at problems, think that someone should do something, and then sit back and make excuses for why we are not the people to try to make a difference. We don’t have much time. The problem is not really our responsibility. We don’t know who to talk to about the problem. And we don’t know what our first step would ever be.

 

Instead of focusing on the problems in tackling the problem, if we shared a community wide message of each of us doing the best that we can where we are, we could begin to make a difference. The perspective we usually take is that the issue is too big and our actions are too small to matter. This perspective can be shifted to say that we can start, we can try to do a little bit with what we know, and we can take action based on good intentions. Our efforts may not be perfect, but at least we can begin to move the ball and build momentum. Focusing locally can help us find new directions for improvement and can help us start to tackle the challenges that impact not just us, but everyone. We don’t need to do something with the intent of being noticed and appreciated. We can take action because we know it will make the world a better place.

 

If we look around and try to find people who are already doing this we can learn and find new ways that we can get involved and make a difference. These individuals can lead and mentor through their actions, and their focus and thought process can be absorbed to help us become better people and make positive impacts on our communities. Booker learned this by living with people in low income high rise communities and by working with local people trying to make a difference for the people where they lived. Great knowledge can be gained from professors and lecturers, but a certain wisdom can only be achieved by being active and surrounding oneself with people who truly care about making the world better.

The Trouble With Group Brainstorming

Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds continues to explain the results of experiments on group behavior by explaining ways in which group discussions can lead to individuals dominating group discussions and stifle others.  “When strong-willed people lead group discussions they can pressure others into conforming, can encourage self-censorship, and can create an illusion of unanimity.” This quote very accurately explains many of the groups that I was a part of for school projects in high school and college.  A single individual can drive the group in the direction they see best while shutting out the ideas of others in the group.  This can make the group feel hostile, and can actually reduce creativity.

 

Being in a group with a strong-willed individual can be uncomfortable for everyone involved.  If the group does not lead in the exact direction desired by the strong-willed person, then they will feel betrayed and angry, and the quality of their work and participation will dwindle.  I have been part of groups where one person pushes the group in a certain direction, only to have the rest of the group eventually go in another direction and leave them as an outcast.

 

In terms of creativity, group brainstorming can be one of the least effective ways to come up with creative ideas, and Wiseman’s quote shows why.  Self censorship during brainstorming is the opposite of what is desired, but it is often what occurs when a group of individuals get to gather.  The strong-willed individual may push people to think in ways that are more aligned with their ideas, and not necessarily the most creative.  Those who are more shy may be reluctant to share good ideas in a group because they know that the leaders or their colleagues may not be open to the ideas that they have.  Strong-willed individuals can shut them down with as little as a shake of the head or a brief smirk at the mention of an idea that does not align with their thoughts.