Sunday, September 06, 2009

Leading with the Secret Squash

I'm working my way through General Anthony Zinni's book "Leading the Charge: Leadership Lessons from the Battlefield to the Boardroom".

It's pretty good, but actually putting his thoughts into practice is going to be a challenge. He's obviously correct that the leadership qualities and styles of 50 years ago are no longer sufficient in today's world; naturally he makes a stronger case for that proposition than I can but let us just note for the record that the people being lead today have far better access to information than anyone ever before. That makes the unit potentially far smarter but only if it is lead well.

Zinni seems to have some pretty good ideas on how we can ... if we choose ... develop our leadership ability. This can be very useful and I'm eager to try it. But am I willing to pay the price?

The first thing to do (of about 11, looking at the chapter headings) is to acquire solid self-knowledge. Hey, I figure, who doesn't have THAT! Maybe I should skip the chapter ... but I slog on through. I don't like to read how-to manuals but once I've made the commitment, I try to be meticulous. Hey: self-knowledge! I can be meticulous, but it's not my first impulse; I prefer to wing it if I can. Uh-oh, does that really sound like a leadership quality?

Zinni tells of an exercise he puts into each of his leadership courses: to write down a self-description. Invariably, he says, the students write up some bullshit (...he doesn't use that word...) expecting it to be read to the class, so it's nice and shiney and not very accurate. Then he tells his students to hold on to that description, and write one solely for themselves: brutally honest. Invariably, the 2nd description is very different and why not? if we choose to fool ourselves, the whole effort is wasted so we may tend to be more honest.

I suspect that Zinni's trying to get at another point: if you present yourself as person X but really are person Y, you're going to fail as a leader because your followers will figure out you're a phoney. But I have a deeper concern.

I spend a day or two thinking what I would write. The 1st description is easy: it's on all my resumes: I hope people like it! But the second, true description: what it is? Heck, I don't really know myself what I'd write!

This is very interesting. The one tool we have that we completely control, that no-one can take away from us, is ourselves; and if we cannot figure out what that is, how can we succeed at all?

It's like I've been trying to use a tool, and I don't know if it's a hammer or a saw!

It's going to take a long time to figure out this tool called the self. But that's o.k.; it's better to get started than not even to try. And perhaps I can get this task done faster for having about five decades of life to ponder, than I might have back in high school when I was a bit short on the life experience that tests you.

After two days of pondering, I have two elements of self description:
  • I have a sort of ADD that involves what Thom Hartmann calls the Hunter's Mind in a Farmer's World. I would not fit in as a scribe in a medieval monastery, reproducing scrolls word-by-word ... even though that is the basic mentality of our school system. I prefer to look at a lot of things at once and zero in on things only as needed; I can hyperfocus on something extremely minute to the exclusion of everything else (including food burning on the stove) but have no interest in routine what-so-ever. Just look at my weeding style; I really don't care about a little bit of grass here or there; I'm more interested in seeing if I slide a squash into an empty space under a pine tree (see photo). I positively enjoy grabbing odd little opportunities that would not even occur to the "Farmer Mentality"; indeed there is more joy in a squash raised in secret than in the one grown normally in a pot. I suspect that this attitude grossly affects my style in working on projects whether as a leader or not; it certainly drove some of my managers mad, although in my programming life, I can't recall missing a deadline but once (I'll have to write about that one time some other time...).
  • The other characteristic of myself that I can identify so far is that I have a deep, nearly religious belief in fairness; that is to say, although I have no evidence what-so-ever in its existence or utility, and often have doubts, I still feel deeply and unreasonably that fairness is very very important. What can I say? You can't carve some things out of your soul even if you wanted to.
The secret squash, by the way, was a classic "Hunter" move. There was a bit of dirt unused in the pot; I had some extra seed. The staff that went around weeding tended to pull up any guerilla gardening I'd done elsewhere; they literally wiped out a crop of small sunflowers I had growing in a large pot that they'd left as naked dirt and rock on the north patio, apparantly reasoning that the authorized naked dirt was better than the unauthorized flowers. What a bunch of sillies!

However, the pine tree protected the Secret squash. Pine needles don't look like much, but they concealed the growing squash and perhaps with their sharpness discouraged the weeders from looking too closely. Eventually the squash leaves got big enough to be an identifiable plant that the weeders would leave alone. It looks like, in return, it will grace us with a few small squash; we'll be sure to save some seeds for next year.

Everyone wins, so long as the "Farmer" weeders stay out of the way.

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