Traits for Leadership

A friend emailed me the following question yesterday:

“What are the most important attributes of leaders?”

I thought about it for a few minutes and sent this reply.  This was off-the-cuff, so don’t hold me too tightly to it.

Patience, impatience, perspective, morally neutral disposition, and a sense of humor.

Patience is pretty self-explanatory.  You can’t be frustrated with everyone all the time and pressuring them.

Impatience is equally necessary.  When you have a vision, you have to be unable to sleep until you make progress on it.

Perspective allows you to weather the bad stuff.  I lost a customer early on and was feeling defeated.  My brother (a successful entrepreneur) asked me what the big deal was.  “So What?” he said.  “Cornelius Vanderbilt had steamers sink and people died.  Yet he was able to continue on and create value for millions.  What if he had quit?  You don’t win everything.”

Moral neutrality doesn’t mean you have no morals.  It means you approach other humans with a rational choice lens.  You assume their actions are taken not out of goodness or evil, but rational self-interest.  This helps you understand how to change the incentives they face to get cooperation, instead of being bitter at what you think their motives are or what they “should” do.

A sense of humor is the only thing that keeps it fun, and if it’s not fun it’s hell!

Don’t Aim for the Goal, Just Remove the Obstacles

If you’re unhappy where you are sometimes envisioning where you want to be instead is a little too hard.  Sometimes you know enough to know you’re unhappy, but not enough to know exactly what would improve things.

This makes goal-setting difficult.  If a clear goal is the key to achieving it, it puts a lot of pressure on you to have one.  I think there’s another way to improve your situation.

Not that clear goals are bad.  I think they’re great if you can have them (and be honest about them).  But it’s possible to make progress even with really fuzzy goals.  What you want doesn’t need to be clear, but what you don’t want does.

Say you’re in a job you hate.  You want out, but out to what?  You (think you) need X amount of income, and it’s not obvious where you’d get it in a better way.  It’s helpful to envision whatever vague idea of what you really want you can conjure, taking into account all the actual costs and tradeoffs.  But when that’s not clear enough to provide a plan of action, go the opposite direction.

Identify one by one the things you really hate about your current situation.  List them out.  Now you’ve identified the known obstacles to a better life (many currently unknown obstacles will crop up later, but don’t trouble over those until you meet them).

Next ask yourself if you can simply stop doing those things.  You might be surprised to find that several things making you unhappy are things you can stop doing right now.  If you can’t, ask what is keeping you from cutting those things out.  Decide what it would take to avoid ever doing those things again.

Now you have your goals.

If one of the things making your life suck is a coworker in the next office over who is profoundly rude and negative all day and you realize the only way to escape it is to quit, move to a new department, work from home, or request a different office, now you have options.  You can weigh the costs of each and decide which course you want to take.  Maybe you decide moving to a new department is the best way out.  But you don’t have the skills required.

Perfect!  Now you have a clear, tangible obstacle to overcome.

Build yourself a set of daily challenges and activities that work towards gaining the necessary skills.  Don’t stress about the long term, ten-years-from-now-you and how these skills may or may not help you reach some fuzzy utopia.  You need the skills now to overcome a real, present pain in the ass.

You’ll probably never figure out the perfect mix of skills to help you get to the lofty neverland of the distant future.  But if you can identify real pain points in the here and now, you can build your self-improvement project around chipping away at them.

Work backwards from where you want to be.  Identify the things keeping you from happiness, then the things you’d need to do to work around, or over, or through those obstacles.  Then build a daily, weekly, monthly schedule targeted squarely at beating them, one at a time.

The stoics say “The obstacle is the way”.  I think for those of us without a really clear end goal, this is phenomenal advice.  

Removing impediments to happiness can be a better form of goal setting than attempting to reach perfection.  Your life might be more like a sculpture than a painting.  Subtraction sometimes yields a better end product than addition.