Harvard Business Review has an interview with historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough, author of books such as 1776 and John Adams, on leadership.
You can also read the executive summary.
Here’s a section on why he thinks it critical for all leaders to have a sense of history:
You are passionate about the necessity for history education. Why do you think it’s so important for a leader to have what you call a sense of history?
Leadership, then, partly has to do with luck. And luck, chance, the hand of God—call it what you will—is a real force in human affairs; it’s part of life. Washington might have been killed; he might have gotten sick; he might have been captured; he might have given up. Besides being fortunate, he knew how to take advantage of a lucky moment, because he was blessed with very good judgment. Luck provided the opportunity, but Washington’s night escape across the East River—made possible by the direction of the wind—after an overwhelming defeat in the Battle of Brooklyn would never have succeeded had it not been for his leadership and the abilities of Colonel John Glover. Glover was a Massachusetts merchant and fisherman who, with his Marblehead Mariners, knew how to do the job.
I like to remind people of something General George C. Marshall said. Asked once whether he had had a good education at the Virginia Military Institute, Marshall said no, “because we had no training in history.” He knew that a sense of history is essential to anyone who wants to be a leader, because history is both about people and about cause and effect. The American historian Samuel Eliot Morison liked to say that history teaches us how to behave—that is, what to do and what not to do in a variety of situations. History is the human story. Jefferson made that point in the very first line of the Declaration of Independence: “When in the course of human events…” The accent should be on “human.”
History also shows how the demands of leadership change from one era to another, from one culture to another. The leaders of the past experienced their present differently from the way we experience ours. And remember, they had no more idea how things were going to turn out than we do in our time. Nothing was ever on a track, nothing preordained. The more you study the year 1776 and the course of the American Revolutionary War, the more you have to conclude that it’s a miracle things turned out as they did. Had the wind in New York City been coming from a different direction on August 29, 1776, Americans would probably be sipping tea and singing “God Save the Queen.”
A. G. Lafley, the CEO of Proctor & Gamble, has a good article in Harvard Business Review called What Only the CEO Can Do. This article may be helpful for those working in business or in the non-profit world.
You can also read a quick summary of the idea in brief and the idea in practice.
Harvard Business Review has a good article on how five discovery skills distinguish true innovators.
Here is the idea in brief, from the site:
The habits of Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and other innovative CEOs reveal much about the underpinnings of their creative thinking. Research shows that five discovery skills distinguish the most innovative entrepreneurs from other executives.
• Questioning allows innovators to break out of the status quo and consider new possibilities.
• Through observing, innovators detect small behavioral details—in the activities of customers, suppliers, and other companies—that suggest new ways of doing things.
• In experimenting, they relentlessly try on new experiences and explore the world.
• And through networking with individuals from diverse backgrounds, they gain radically different perspectives.
• The four patterns of action together help innovators associate to cultivate new insights.
Every business and organization needs to anticipate the future. Failure to anticipate where things are going often results in outdated models that hinder organizational effectiveness. But how do you predict what is going to happen?
You can’t. But one part of the solution is found in the title for a book that Peter Drucker once said he wanted to write: “The Future that has Already Happened.”
Joseph Pine, co-author of The Experience Economy, put it this way: “We see what’s going on in the world — not what will happen, but what is already happening that most people do not yet see. Then we develop frameworks that enable others to see it too and determine what they should do about it.”
In other words, the critical skill for anticipating the future is actually the ability to understand the present. That is, to understand the present in a way that goes beyond the obvious. The way things will go tomorrow is to a large extent a function of what is happening now, but which most of us just don’t have the frameworks to see.
Marvin Olasky has a good column from last summer on how the demise of newspapers creates great opportunities.
Should you hold back high performers from promotions until they have “paid their dues”? Jack Welch answers no. “That uncompetitive practice is a throwback to the days when an employee’s time served could, and often did, trump his value added.”
Moral clarity — and the willingness to speak it — brought the Berlin Wall down back in 1989.
That’s the point made by two fantastic pieces in the Wall Street Journal from last month on Nov 9 (the day the Berlin Wall fell). I highly recommend them. I’m mentioning them now because they are relevant beyond simply the anniversary of that date. For woven throughout them are some of the core principles that are at the center of any sound theory of government. The pieces are:
Here are a few key excerpts from the articles, which I’ve categorized underneath headings that state some of these core principles:
1. The biggest threat to freedom is not military aggression, but moral ambiguity and sophistry.
The reason for this is that moral ambiguity serves as a mechanism to cloak the practices and principles that oppress people. In the twentieth century, this resulted in the enslavement and death of millions. Without moral clarity, you will not have action and people will not organize together.
(That’s not a quote from the articles, but that’s the underlying theme, and that’s how I would say it.)
2. You do not follow the principles of “how to win friends and influence people” with criminal regimes. They are different.
Reagan had the carefully arrived at view that criminal regimes were different, that their whole way of looking at the world was inverted, that they saw acts of conciliation as weakness, and that rather than making nice in return they felt an inner compulsion to exploit this perceived weakness by engaging in more acts of aggression. All this confirmed the criminal mind’s abiding conviction in its own omniscience and sovereignty, and its right to rule and victimize others.
3. The most powerful weapon against criminal regimes is publicly spoken moral clarity.
Accordingly, Reagan spoke formally and repeatedly of deploying against criminal regimes the one weapon they fear more than military or economic sanction: the publicly-spoken truth about their moral absurdity, their ontological weakness.
This was the sort of moral confrontation, as countless dissidents and resisters have noted, that makes these regimes conciliatory, precisely because it heartens those whom they fear most—their own oppressed people. Reagan’s understanding that rhetorical confrontation causes geopolitical conciliation led in no small part to the wall’s collapse 20 years ago today.
4. There are often opponents to moral clarity from within our own walls — including people with a narrowly pragmatic view of the world and people who simply should know better.
Yet it bears recalling that even these obvious political facts were obscure to many people who lived in freedom and should have known better. “Despite what many Americans think, most Soviets do not yearn for capitalism or Western-style democracy,” said CBS’s Dan Rather just two years before the Wall fell. And when Reagan delivered his historic speech in Berlin calling on Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” he did so after being warned by some of his senior advisers that the language was “unpresidential,” and after thousands of protesters had marched through West Berlin in opposition. [Which, of course, takes us back to point 1.]
I think it frequently happens that when we do something that saves time, we fail to appreciate the savings we’ve just gained. Instead, we just go onto the next thing, continuing to feel like there is less time in the day for all that we have to do.
I just decided not to do a certain household project which would be good to complete, but would take about 4 hours. It has to do with fixing a mistake the original builders made, but we’ve decided just to let it be.
Now, I could go on to the next thing on my list (which is long today). Or, I could just quit for the day (it’s Saturday, and I’m taking care of some household stuff) and say to myself: “If I had made the bad decision to fix that thing, I would have had 4 hours taken away from other stuff anyway. Why not, now, still take that 4 hours away from my work, but instead do something I want to do — like go do something fun with my kids.”
I’m not going to do that in this instance, because this afternoon is devoted for getting some of these hanging projects knocked off. But, that would be a good option sometimes. In this instance, what I should do is be glad I’ve saved some time, and now start feeling ahead of the game for the rest of the day.
We’ve been getting the bills now from when we had our third baby a month ago. The “nursery” charge alone was $2,000. He was in the hospital nursery for a total of about 20 minutes.
Grateful for health insurance — but of course that is also one of the reasons that such exorbitant bills exist.
Marvin Olasky has some good words about Jay Richards’ book Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem:
Many of us have had flu shots this fall, but what about an inoculation against the hate-America economics that many colleges teach? Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and not the Problem, by Jay Richards (Harper One, 2009), undercuts myths that students might otherwise accept as facts.
Among the myths Richards demolishes: The Nirvana Myth (contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its real alternatives), the Piety Myth (focusing on good intentions rather than results), and the Materialist and Zero-Sum Game Myths (believing that wealth is not created but simply transferred).
Richards, one of that rare breed with a theology doctorate but an understanding of economics, also points out the errors of the Greed Myth (believing that the essence of capitalism is greed), the Usury Myth (that charging interest on money is immoral), and the Freeze-Frame Myth (that what’s happening now regarding population, income, natural resources, or so on, will always happen).
After knocking down the concept of Christ against capitalism, Richards summarizes proven ways to alleviate poverty: Teach that the universe is meaningful, thrift is good, and the rule of law is essential. He discusses the importance of delaying gratification, establishing property rights, and building stable families. An appendix helpful to libertarians shows why “spontaneous order” in economics does not argue against Intelligent Design in biology.
This is a good 8-minute explanation of Google Wave by two of the product managers for it:
Why the Statement “Nobody Says on their Deathbed I Wish I Had Spent More Time at the Office” is Almost Meaningless
The statement is almost meaningless because it only deals with the “what” when the real problem is the “how.” You can have the “what” right (“I want to spend less time working”) but still fail at doing it because good intentions frequently run aground upon the absence of a realistic “how.”
Maybe I’m being too generous here, but it seems to me that most people who spend too much time at the office probably don’t do so because they want to (i.e., their priorities are screwed up), but because they don’t know how to do otherwise (i.e., they don’t know how to execute on their priorities). If they were to suddenly start working less, for example, the result would simply be that the work would build up — thereby distracting them, nagging them, and clogging things up so that their entire life becomes more difficult, not less.
In other words, spending less on time on work is not without consequence. It’s not something you can just do — regardless of intentions. Systems and know-how trump intentions. Just because someone toward the end of their life says “I wish I had spent less time at the office,” it doesn’t mean that they could have. The statement ends up making people feel guilty for wrong priorities when the real problem is often lack of knowledge about how to execute on those priorities.
Further, the statement also fails to acknowledge (“no one says…“) that some people should spend a ton of time working and all people rightly and properly tend to have seasons like this. (Yes, I affirm this in spite of my post yesterday that “you don’t have to be busy” — there are different types of busyness, and doing a smaller number of things sometimes still requires lots of time working if the nature of those things requires it.)
The apostle Paul is a good example of someone who often worked “night and day” (1 Thess 2:9) and labored extremely hard over the course of his life. I don’t think that Paul said at the end of his life “I wish I had spent less time laboring for the gospel.” He might have said “I wish I could have spent less time making tents to fund my ministry,” but his preference with that time would probably have been to devote it to his ministry. In part (this is an important side lesson), the reason that it worked for Paul to be so devoted to the work of his ministry is that he crafted his other responsibilities in a way that made this possible (for example, he remained single).
To be sure, I’m not saying the statement is bad. And neither am I getting into the really interesting new reality that doing work does not always have to equal “being in the office” anymore — which really has the potential to change things up. I don’t want to sound like I’m trashing the intention of this statement.
My point here is simply that we need to be people who do more than simply say things like “no one at the end of their life wishes they had spent more time at the office.” That’s not helpful because it doesn’t acknowledge that it requires skill to actually accomplish the “task” of working less and spending more time with family. We need to be people who give the “how,” not just the “what.”
Jim Collins: “Peter Drucker Contributed as Much to the Triumph of Freedom Over Totalitarianism as Anyone — Including Churchill”
In other words, management matters immensely for the health of society. Free society is not ultimately sustainable without effective organizations and, therefore, effective management.
Here’s a good word from a BusinessWeek article summarizing Peter Drucker’s insight on how to price a product:
Properly pricing a product is no easy exercise. It involves a complex bit of calculus that must take into account not only a business’ up-front investment but also the ongoing costs it expects to incur (as it moves down the learning curve and, presumably, becomes more efficient); the position of its competitors; and the crucial interplay between price and volume.
It also requires a degree of self-restraint. “The first and easily the most common sin” among businesses, Drucker wrote in a 1993 article, “is the worship of high profit margins and of ‘premium pricing.’”
Historically, many companies ignored these factors. They set the price of something simply by adding up all their expenses and then slathering on top as much profit as they thought the market would bear.
As Drucker pointed out, such “cost-driven pricing” was backward. In the end, he concluded, “the only thing that works is price-driven costing”—that is, figuring out what customers believe a product or service is worth and then designing the item accordingly (with a sufficient profit built in to support sustainability and growth, which does not necessarily equate to the highest price that could be obtained).
Productivity is not first about getting a lot of things done, but about getting the right things done.
If you are getting the right things done, you don’t necessarily have to be doing a large number of things.
In other words, you don’t have to be busy in order to be effective.
So don’t measure your effectiveness by how much you are able to do, but rather by what you do.
And, ironically, if you focus on the quantity of things you do, you will most likely fail to identify and execute on the things that are most important — that is, on the right things.
Momentum is one of the keys to accomplishing your priorities. If you always have to start and stop, not only will things take longer, but you might get thrown out of the mental state that is required for various complex and high-level tasks that you need to accomplish.
The result is that a one hour divergence can actually destroy four hours of productivity (or more).
The most well known (but certainly not only) momentum killer is email. The thing about email is that you never know what you are going to get. You could have had your email clear at 10:00 am, but then at 1:00 some complex emails come in that present a series of tasks that may take an hour to complete. Simply knowing about this can be distracting, but more than that it can be tempting to diverge from your course to accomplish the more important task.
So let’s say you have the afternoon blocked off for a large and complex task. But when you get back from lunch you decide to check email before digging in — and the above scenario happens. A series of complicated emails comes in that require about an hour to complete.
Because you now know about these tasks, your mind starts going down that road a bit. You find this distracting. So you say to yourself, “it sure would be nice to get my email all clear again before heading into this big and complicated project I need to work on.” Then you move ahead on getting those emails and the tasks they contain out of the way.
At the end of this hour, more emails have come in — in part because people are responding back to you from some other smaller emails that you also decided to get out of the way — and you are now on a completely different course.
Now, this is not bad in itself. Email is not the enemy, and there are many instances when it is useful and productive to follow your email for a period of time. The issue here, though, is that you have a different, non-email, high priority task that you need to accomplish. And email derailed you from it.
The real problem, though, is worse: Email didn’t simply cost you the 1-2 hours that you spent away from this high priority task. For by the time you have your email wrapped up again where you want, it’s 3:00 in the afternoon. Half the afternoon is gone. Further, your momentum has been going towards email for the last two hours, making it hard to shift gears into this complex task.
As a result, you are “out of the mindset” needed to generate the focus you need to make progress on the task. So even though you have two hours left before you planned to head home, you cannot use that two hours for the original task you had planned. You’ve lost your momentum. Two hours on email destroyed four hours of productivity on your more important task.
And, it gets even worse. Because, unfortunately, the following day is all booked, you have some other things you need to get done in the middle of the week and, of course, more email will be coming in over that time as well. So it looks like it will be a few days before you can get back to this task. And even then, it is going to be a fight to make it happen.
This is how the loss of momentum makes important things take forever and makes us less satisfied with our days. There is no perfect solution here, but it can make a huge difference to pause and reflect before taking a “small and temporary detour” in a different direction.
By being aware of the potential consequences of losing momentum, we can become more disciplined at putting first things first, and letting other things be crowded out rather than those first things.
Keith Ferrazzi recently asked his readers for some of their favorite productivity practices, particularly in regard to building relationships. Today he posted his ten favorite tips that readers submitted. They are all really good and worth checking out.
(And, make sure to take a look at tip number three on the list — that name might sound familiar to readers of this blog!)
In his book The One Thing You Need to Know: … About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success, Marcus Buckingham has a great section on how the most fundamental and critical skill necessary to thriving in this new world of “excess access” is focus. This reality, in turn, has the surprising implication that we should not seek balance, but rather should seek intentional unbalance.
Here’s what he has to say (from pages 25-26):
We live in a world of excess access. We can find whatever we want, whenever we want it, as soon as we want it. This can be wonderfully helpful if we are trying to track down last month’s sales data, an errant bank statement, or a misplaced mother-in-law, but if we are not quite careful, this instant, constant access can overwhelm us.
To thrive in this world will require of us a new skill. Not drive, not sheer intelligence, not creativity, but focus [emphasis added]. The word “focus” has two primary meanings. It can refer either to your ability to sort through many factors and identify those that are most critical — to be able to focus well is to be able to filter well. Or it can refer to your ability to bring sustained pressure to bear once you’ve identified these factors — this is the laser-like quality of focus.
Today you must excel at filtering the world. You must be able to cut through the clutter and zero in on the emotions or facts or events that really matter. You must learn to distinguish between what is merely important and what is imperative. You must learn to place less value on all that you can remember and more on those few things that you must never forget.
This “filtering” component of focus is critical if we are going to avoid drowning in our world of “excess access” and are going to be able to truly benefit from the abundance of access that we have. It allows us to identify what is most important among everything out there.
That is critical all on its own. But its when we come to the second dimension of focus — laser-like precision — that we come to the big implication of these things. Buckingham continues:
But you must also learn the discipline of applying yourself with laser-like precision. As we will see, … [effectiveness] does not come to those who aspire to well-roundedness, breadth, and balance. The reverse is true. Success comes most readily to those who reject balance, who instead pursue strategies that are intentionally imbalanced.
This focus, this willingness to apply disproportionate pressure in a few selected areas of your working life, won’t leave you brittle and narrow. Counterintuitively, this kind of lopsided focus actually increases your capacity and fuels your resilience.
That is exactly right. The world of “excess access” means not only that there is an over-abundance of information and detail to sort through. It also means that there is an over-abundance of choices we have to make in regard to where to spend our time and how to focus our efforts. How do we make this choice?
We make it on the basis of our strengths. Seek to build your life around what you are good at and are energized by, and apply yourself with laser-like precision to those things. The more you can stay on this path, the more effective you will be.
Because none of us are strong in everything, this of necessity means that we must give up pursuing the myth of balance and instead pursue strategic imbalance. We should be “imbalanced” in that the things we choose to do should disproportionately come from areas of our strengths. But this is strategic — not haphazard — because we do this intentionally because we know that we will be most effective when operating in the realm of our strengths rather than our weaknesses.
This leads to two practical questions and applications:
- What things do you do best and find most energizing? Seek to craft your role (and your personal life) in a way that will enable you to do more of those things.
- Which things do you find depleting — even if you are good at them? Seek to carve those out of your role, or if you can’t do that, find ways to tweak how you do them so that they can be done in a way that calls upon your strengths more fully.