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!

One Simple Thing That Will Help You Live Your Values

In my weekly email to the Praxis participants and alumni, I talked about the power of aligning your values with the incentives you face, and the danger of having them out of sync.  It’s easy to overestimate our own willpower and ability to do the right thing even when the wrong thing is rewarded.  I think the best strategy for staying true to your values is to assume that you have zero willpower and stay out of systems that incentivize you to violate your values.  The Proverbs recommend taking the long way home over walking the path that goes by the house of the “wayward woman”, because you shouldn’t trust your ability to resist temptation.

One of the easiest ways is to consider institutions or laws that violate your values.  Then try to avoid all situations where you benefit from them.  It’s not always easy or possible (I may dislike government provision of roads, yet their near monopoly in this realm makes it hard for me to not benefit from and use a new road), but it often is more doable than we assume.  Wherever it is, try to put yourself in a position where your values align with your incentives.  Don’t get a job at an agency you think shouldn’t exist.  Don’t take a contract that incentivizes overcharging or dragging out a project, if you value thrift, honesty, and work ethic.

The analogy I used in my email was, if stealing violates your core values, try not to put yourself in a position where you are desperately hungry and sitting next to someone else’s unattended apple cart for hours on end.  No one is so strong that they can resists incentives to violate values indefinitely.