An old talk from the 99u conference 2010 — one of my first ones on some of the challenges, and opportunities, in leading as a creative. -JM
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” —Lao Tzu
In 1999 I made these four rules for myself to live by. One of my Public Safety officers at RISD recalled me talking about them on campus three years ago and asked to be reminded what they were — and I had forgotten them, and couldn’t find them on my old websites at MIT. Here they are, unearthed and a little bit dusty, thanks to the archaeology work of a close friend.
I can’t remember what motivated my putting these down to paper — I recall that it was shortly after I became a professor at MIT and was trying to figure out this “leadership” thing. I still strive to live by these rules every day — failing more than succeeding, but I love to keep trying through doing and I don’t intend to give up.
- Don’t speak ill of others. It’s human nature to knock the other party down when they aren’t watching as a natural survival instinct. I always admire the people I meet in life who never feel they have to speak ill of others to make themselves look good.
- Avoid passive aggressive behavior. Failing to be forthright with what you really want to say can be hurtful. Being honest and respectful is a good way to deliver a difficult message.
- Listen broadly, but don’t waffle on decisions. When people depend upon you to make a decision, they’re basically asking you to be responsible for the possible failed outcome. Your decision should be based upon expert opinions culled from your team, but in the end you make the final decision and are the one responsible — you bear the responsibility for the team. If you’re wrong, admit you’re wrong early and things will usually go better that way. If you’re right then consider yourself lucky and pass on the win to your team. Keep moving forward.
- When in error — admit, apologize, move forward. I am not perfect. The only way that I can guarantee not making any mistakes is if I were to do absolutely nothing. So by doing anything at all, I risk making errors of varying degree of intensity. When, and I will, make a mistake I will admit the error as soon as possible, apologize for it, and then move forward without being paralyzed.
Long ago I looked up to a professor who wasn’t my direct academic advisor. This professor was often more giving of his time than my immediate professor — and knowing this, he once referred to himself as “the diagonal advisor.” I truly appreciated this geometric interpretation of a working relationship.
The other day I had the chance to sit with a friend and his mentor. I gained a great deal from listening to his mentor — a gentleman of 80 years of age — and was reminded of the special opportunity to be “diagonally” mentored many years ago by my diagonal advisor. Some observations:
- When someone is 80 years old, and s/he says, “I have *many* stories,” you tend to realize the definition of wisdom as related to having enough stories to pick and choose from … that you *might* find the right one that matters with a good enough set of choices. The wise do well on the average with their picks.
- “It takes time,” is something you hear often from those that are wise. We want everything to happen right now. Especially when it’s as easy as pressing “Publish Post” to get this thought out into the ether. It’s impossible to imagine anything taking longer than a button press. But many things … still … take time. That doesn’t mean that you should sit and wait for something … to … happen. Knowing that “it takes time” doesn’t mean that you are willing to wait forever. It does mean, however, that you’re willing to push for as long as it takes. Until it’s … time.
- “Life is never easy, so don’t bother lamenting the fact. Be joyful instead.” If you are engaged in challenging work, days that are downers can be expected as the norm. It’s because you’re trying to do something. And the power of feeling lucky to be challenged versus the power of feeling down due to difficulties … well, those powers are quite different.
My 5 minute blogging break is up, so now it’s back to work for lucky me :-). -JM