Monday, February 24, 2014

The Arbitrariness of Leadership

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Some time ago I got hooked on the Corner Office series in The New York Times. It's great. Every Sunday, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about the challenges of leading and managing. It's almost become a morning devotional for me, going to the backlog of posts on their RSS feed and reading one before starting my busy day. A lot of what I've read has resonated strongly with me, and when inspired, and when wisdom can be distilled down into 140 characters or less, I've shared some of the more impactful ideas through my Twitter feed.

But at the same time, with surprising frequency, I come across something like this:

Q. So let’s say you’re interviewing me. How do you find out if I’m an outlier?

A. Well, one clear sign is if you’re difficult. Outliers are, by definition, always difficult. They’re difficult to manage, difficult to get along with. The other thing is, you’ve got to start by looking outside the industry. I’m looking for people with new ideas, a new set of eyes who look at things differently.

But in the interview, I have to look and say, “Well, what really makes him tick that would make him different?” So I’d be probing to see if you have a hobby. What do you do in the evenings? I’m trying to find data points, some clues to figure out what you are all about.

Q. Give me an example of how you do that.

A. Here’s one. There are five animals — a lion, a cow, a horse, a monkey and a rabbit. If you were asked to leave one behind, which one would you leave behind?

Q. Leave behind? In what sense?

A. Make up your own scenario.

Q. I’d leave the rabbit behind.

A. What was the story you had in mind?

Q. If I’m going on a journey, the rabbit isn’t a lot of use to me.

A. “Isn’t a lot of use. ...” O.K., so a utilitarian approach.

Q. Right.

A. Well, I would leave the cow behind because I thought I could ride the horse; the monkey would be on my back; the little rabbit, I would just stick in my jacket. But the one thing that was going to hold me up is the cow, which is slow. And the lion can forage out there. So now you know what I picked and I know what you picked.

So the lion represents pride, the horse represents work, the cow represents family, the monkey represents friends, and the rabbit represents love. In a stress situation that you and I’d be working in, I know the one thing that you would sacrifice would be love, and your story would be something like this: that you could sacrifice love with people because you could make it up to them later.

So if you have to get something done on the weekend, you’d work all weekend. When push came to shove, you’d sacrifice love. So that teaches me quite a bit about you. If you picked the horse, the conversation would end. I wouldn’t hire you because we’re never leaving work behind. Those types of examples teach me quite a bit about you.

Q. But this psychology test of the five animals ...

A. It’s actually a Japanese personality test. I just happened to pick that up.

Every installment reminds the reader that the interviews have been condensed, and I'd like to think that this excerpt is one that has been condensed to the point that it has lost some of its needed context. Because if I am to believe that this particular executive has been successfully deciding who to hire and who not to hire based on which animal a candidate chooses to leave behind--especially when only revealing the cryptic symbolism of that choice after the choice has been made--I have to wonder why I'm bothering to read these articles at all.

Anecdotes like this do serve a useful purpose, however. They remind me that there will always be a certain arbitrariness to leadership--that there isn't a finite set of practices and procedures that can be used to define effective leadership in all situations at all times. Leadership is more of an art than a science, and some artists appeal more to some people than to others.

And so, looking back over some of my recent Corner Office tweets:

it makes me realize that these can be viewed by someone else with the same level of skepticism that I bring to bear on the choice of the five animals. These tweeted ideas resonate strongly with me. They are the kinds of things I would like to better incorporate into my leadership style because I believe they will help me create the kind of culture and organization I'm striving to lead.

But they are, in fact, arbitrary. They may not work for you--and, to be honest, they may not even work for me. I've come to believe that much of what we read about how other leaders lead is not universal, but specific to that individual's situation. The only thing a leader can realistically do is to take a new idea that feels right, experiment with it, and possibly adapt it to their own environment.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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