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!

What You Can Learn from NFL Coaching Trees

If you look into the origin of head coaches in the NFL you’ll find something pretty amazing.  There are only a handful of head coaches past from whom all current head coaches come.  If you want to get really crazy complex, check out this WSJ article and visualization.

The NFL isn’t unique among sports in this respect.  You’ll find a similar phenomenon in college and pro basketball and other sports as well.

This is not the result of rigid rules or imposed design.  It’s the spontaneous order that emerges from the demand for certain very hard to identify and cultivate skills.  Coaching is incredibly nuanced and you can’t tell who will be good at it from a resume or a few interviews.  Those who come up under great coaches and absorb the lessons, gain the trust of players and other coaches, and build a reputation through continued tests of greater and great responsibility end up with head coaching jobs themselves.  Then those that coach under them end up with HC jobs, and on and on.

Not all of them succeed of course, but that’s not surprising.  What’s suprising is how powerful the network and legacy of a single great coach can be.  Today’s NFL is made up of 32 head coaches who are the understudies of just three or four retired HC’s.  It’s pretty crazy when you ponder it.

I think there’s something to be learned from this on a personal level.  I’ve never seen a great coach in sports who does not spawn many apprentices.  I don’t think it’s possible to lead at that level in such a complex organization if you don’t have a cadre of trusted up and comers, many of whom will go on to leadership roles themselves.  If you are trying to build something or be truly great at something you’ll need other people.

Look around you.  Probe your close personal network.  Are the people in it likely to go on to greatness?  Will a family tree of leadership spring from your associates?

If not, you might need to do a gut check and ask why.  Are you too obsessed with controlling or micromanaging everything?  Do you surround yourself with low caliber people?  Do you only follow and never lead?  Do you demand to take credit for everything, swallowing up all the opportunities for those you work with to grow and possibly surpass you?

I can’t think of a more fulfilling legacy in sports that to not only be a champion at the highest level, but to be the progenitor of generations of champions.  I think the same is true outside of sports.  It’s a kind of immortality.

You don’t need to live vicariously or obsess over the success or failure of those in your network.  It’s got to be a loose, spontaneous thing.  But if you’re doing leadership right, you should see other leaders emerge from your circle of influence, and then other leaders emerge from under them.

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