That split second and the quest for leadership

When I read about leadership, I quickly get the sense that leadership is some kind of elusive thing — a quality, or a process, or something I need to hire management consultants for. And having personally shifted into a management role that I would rather be a leadership role, I’m here to testify that leadership is surely elusive and it may require all of those other things.

But for all the talk, my sense these days is that leadership magic happens in a split, deeply personal second.

By this I mean that I think true leadership happens in mundanes moments, when you’re in some anonymous conference room deep in Corporate America, when the conversation is fluid, when you aren’t 100% sure what you think the team should do but you are 60% sure what maybe some of the folks should be working on, when there’s an awkward silence in the room, when someone has to say something, when everyone else is staring at their laptops or their phones, and you — you are the manager who wants to be a leader — need to execute. This is the moment. You start talking, and this is the split second.

To date, I do not believe I have done well with that split second.

I think I’ve done well so far with bigger picture stuff and pulling people together and assembling big moving parts into a cohesive result for my clients over the years despite the split second moment. I’ve done it repeatedly, and I’m proud of that much. But I have this strong, nagging feeling that I’m missing that split second moment.

And I’m not happy about it because I think it’s in that split second that the magic of leadership happens. While it can happen on a stage in front of thousands, the foundation of that magic is those close, intimate conversations between two people.

In contrast to leadership, management seems relatively easy. If I’m a delivery manager on a project and I say, “hey guys, let’s try to get X, Y, and Z done this sprint,” it’s pretty easy as long as I’m reasonable and thoughtful about what X, Y, and Z are. I might get a few pointed questions, but generally everyone follows my direction.

But it’s that fundamental, split second reaction that I want to own.



Management by pixel

More and more I’m getting involved in consulting management roles, and I’m really enjoying it. Management is hard enough as it is, but managing software engineers is famously difficult. While there are lots of interesting high-level reasons and discussions about this, what you never hear anyone talk about is something really small and practical.


Imagine this: you’re in a small conference room with a handful of developers. They all have their laptops open. You’re talking. They watch you — sometimes — but mostly they’re watching their computer as you talk. Sometimes they talk, but mostly they’re watching the computer when they do. Overall, it’s just hard to know if you’re being effective in this situation, a situation that’s repeating itself all over the world as you read this.

I’ve seen managers deal with this in different ways (I’ve used all of the following, and more, myself). Some managers just plow through their agenda assuming something is happening. Others go to the other extreme and make everyone close their laptop (happened to me once in a ten hour meeting). Others will call out people’s names to force them to focus. Others raise their voice or do something vocally to get everyone to pay attention. Obviously, the context of the meeting and what’s at stake require different techniques.

Since software developers are stereotypically bad at eye contact and shun face to face meetings, one thing to consider adding to the palette of techniques — for routine, low stakes kinds of meetings, anyway — is using a tool like Trello or whatever tool of choice that helps them do what they naturally want to do (push buttons, stare at screen) but yet still focus on the purpose of the meeting. Just a thought.

(Image from Mike Lee on Flickr)


The Week’s Tenzing Norgay Award Goes to Butch Harmon

I see things all the time that consultants (or similar people) do that helps others get to whatever that next level is. When I was at Accenture, the partner I worked for (who was an amazing guy) created the Tenzing Norgay award for us. I never won it, but I’m totally going to rip it off and use it here to just call out things I see that are amazing. This week, because I’ve been getting ready to watch the Women’s PGA Championship, I’m giving it to Butch Harmon.

Tenzing Norgay

"Tenzing Norgay (cropped)" by SAS Scandinavian Airlines - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Tenzing Norgay (cropped)” by SAS Scandinavian Airlines. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

First, let’s talk about Edmund Hilary. Everyone remembers the name of the first person to summit Mount Everest. Few remember the name of his Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay.  (In truth, Time named Norgay one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century, but few remember that either).

Even less well known than his name is who Norgay was. He was a scrappy kid who never knew his birthday, ran away from home a few times, and dropped out of Buddhist monk school. Instead, he chose an adventurous life as a Sherpa and grew up with a Sherpa family in the foothills of the Himalayas. As an adult he stayed scrappy and tough. At some point his wife died and he crossed the Indian border with his two daughters without a train ticket, posing as a member of a Swiss mountaineering team.

Also little known is how Norgay became Hilary’s Sherpa in the first place. In 1953, on Norgay’s seventh expedition he met Edmund Hilary, who was also part of the expedition. During that expedition, Hilary almost died when he fell into a crevass. Only through Norgay’s quick reflexes did Hilary survive. So long before the two made it to the top, Norgay had become Hilary’s trusted advisor.

It’s that toughness, scrappiness, and dedication that led my old boss to name his award after Tenzing Norgay. Who am I to argue?

Butch Harmon

Photo by Wharrel. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Wharrel. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Butch Harmon is famous even among casual golf watchers because he was Tiger Wood’s coach up until about 2004. But he’s been a fixture in the golf world long before Tiger. He grew up completely differently from Norgay in that his family was heavily involved in the sport and Harmon himself was a professional player for some time.

What made me want to celebrate him here is that golfer Suzann Pettersen just recorded her first win in two years due to Harmon’s counsel. She said, “He took my game to a new level. He’s no sugar coater and gives me what I need every single time. It’s nice to finally see the results. Obviously, I can see the difference in my game but the general public might not see what I feel.”

See also, “Woods needs one thing at this time: Butch Harmon.