My Leadership Brand

I was recently asked to speak about my leadership brand, a topic I hadn’t seriously thought about ever, until now.

So what is my brand. Here are a few things that I know:

  • I have always been a reluctant people manager, with management responsibilities thrust on me without me actively seeking such roles. I have been told I am reasonably good at leading and managing people, although I don’t particularly enjoy doing these things — I am an introvert, after all.
  • The primary way I lead people is by influencing their thinking and actions, by being the voice of reason, knowledge and rationality in all situations. I actively cultivate and exercise what some people call Expert Power, which is usually associated with knowledge and an ability to identify and cut through to the core issues in complex problems. I rarely use Positional Power, which comes from one’s position in the organisational hierarchy, even when I have it.

So I think my leadership brand is the rational leader who understands how things work, and who seeks to inspire his people to individual and team greatness through highly decentralised management practices, which is to say I delegate whenever I can.

Let’s unpack the above into its components.

I think I am (coldly) rational by nature, but the person that impressed upon me the importance of being rational is Charlie Munger, who said it is our moral duty and imperative to be rational. You should never be stupider than you need to be, he said. Moral imperative! To be rational! Not being stupider than one needs to be! These things resonated with me when I first read them and they have stayed with me ever since.

So how does one go about being rational and not being unnecessarily stupid? By seeking to understand how the world works, of course. How do we improve our understanding of the world? Charlie Munger’s idea is to work one’s entire life to collect and learn about useful mental models, from a wide variety of disciplines, and build the linkages in a lattice of interconnected models that would allow us to understand complex phenomenas through multiple and related lens. These are his words:

“You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience — both vicarious and direct — on this latticework of models. 

What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models — because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does.

So you’ve got to have multiple models. And the models have to come from multiple disciplines — because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department.”  

So the first idea is to have mental models, as many you can master. But how do we master many different mental models? This is where Donald Knuth has the biggest influence on me. I learnt from him the concept of a liberal education, which is to seek to learn something about everything, and everything about something. I suspect most people only do one of the two things and, in doing one of these two things, probably don’t go as wide or as deep as they are capable of going too.

I think we can all appreciate the usefulness of learning something about everything in our increasingly complex world, but I suspect not many people appreciate the true value of learning everything about something, or at least the way I think about it. My first real experience with trying to learn everything about something is, of course, when I did my PhD on the arcane topic of using higher-order logic to improve the expressiveness of machine learning models. It may surprise some people that the real value I got from that experience is not so much the technical know-how I acquired, but something else that is perfectly captured in this little story someone once told me of something someone once said: “After high-school, I thought I know everything there is to know. Then I decided to go to university and after obtaining my bachelor’s degree, I thought to myself how silly I was to used to think I know everything, but at least I now know something. Then I decided to do a PhD and on completing it, I finally realised after all these years that, my gosh, I actually know absolutely nothing!”

Humility, and a sense of wonder, is the true value I got from my PhD and my other attempts at trying to learn everything about something. We all need to be acutely aware of what we know and what we don’t know, because as Mark Twain said: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Now that we have covered the need for breadth and depth in our knowledge, I will say a quick word about theory and practice. We all know what Yogi Berra said, which is amusing but probably not all that instructive from a learning perspective. This quote by Donald Knuth is the single most instructive thing I have found so far on theory and practice: “If you find that you are spending almost all your time on theory, start turning some attention to practical things; it will improve your theories. If you find that you are spending almost all your time on practice, start turning some attention to theoretical things; it will improve your practice.” This is something I try to do every single day of my life.

There you have it, my quick summary on how to cultivate and exercise your expert power as a thought leader: Go for both breadth and depth of knowledge through lifelong learning, and strike a balance between theory and practice as you go about doing that.

The last element of my leadership style is decentralised management and execution. I am a relative novice when it comes to managing large teams — my two largest teams so far are both around 60-70 people — so even I myself won’t take my words seriously on how to manage well, but I am influenced by the highly unusual but extremely scalable, both in size and complexity, trust-based decentralised management structure that is in place at Berkshire Hathaway. Rightly or wrongly, this is what I try to build in my every team, and I think it’s mostly working, but time will tell.

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