Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about we what do, start here.

Category Archives: Leadership

Words Like Loaded Pistols: Wartime Rhetoric

Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, is an ancient topic that’s no less relevant today. We are in a golden age of information sharing, which means you are swimming in a pool of rhetoric every day, whether you realize it or not.

The book Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith is one tool to help navigate our choppy waters. Leith does an impressive job of unpacking rhetorical concepts while also providing all the knowledge and nuance required to be a powerful speaker.

The book is laid out beautifully, with sections entitled ‘Champions of Rhetoric,’ in which he dissects the work of some of the most famous orators. The chapter comparing Adolf Hitler to Winston Churchill is particularly interesting. 


Churchill was a prolific speaker: Between 1900 and 1955 he averaged one speech a week. (That’s 2,860 speeches for those who like math). And they were not just speeches; They carried some of the most famous sayings produced in the twentieth century:

Among the phrases he minted were ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat,’ ‘their finest hour,’ ‘the few,’ ‘the end of the beginning,’ ‘business as usual,’ ‘iron curtain,’ ‘summit meeting,’ and ‘peaceful coexistence.’

While this impressive resume and history solidified his place on the throne of oratory excellence, it’s important to note that he wasn’t a “born speaker” — in fact he made many mistakes. And he learned. 

Like many of us, Churchill would even get nervous to the point of nausea before addressing the public. To counter this he engaged in deliberate practiceHe would rehearse his speeches in the mirror, modify them as needed, and scribble meticulous notes including pauses and stage direction. In other words, one of history’s great orators painfully engaged himself in a process of trial, error, and practice

To shape himself as an orator he learned by heart the speeches of Disraeli, Gladstone, Cromwell, Burke, and Pitt. Churchill combined their example with his father Randolph’s gift for invective. But he added something of his own – and it was this that helped tether his high style to something more conversational. He was a master of the sudden change of register – a joke, or a phrase of unexpected intimacy.

Stylistically, Churchill was known for building up to a great crescendo and then suddenly becoming gentle and quiet. Students of rhetoric recognize this as a device to keep your audience engaged, to surprise it. The joking and intimacy showed his prowess with another important rhetorical device, ethos.

Ethos is about establishing a connection with your audience. A joke can help with this because humor is often based on joint assumptions and beliefs; sharing a laugh with someone tends to make us feel closer to them. It’s human nature to gravitate towards those people who are like us (see the principles of influence). 

Yet, for all the aspects of the ethos appeal which Churchill got right, on more than one occasion he didn’t judge his audience well and was unable to persuade them.

When he was an MP in 1935, his colleague Herbert Samuel reported, ‘The House always crowds in to hear him. It listens and admires. It laughs when he would have it laugh, and it trembles when he would have it tremble… but it remains unconvinced, and in the end it votes against him.’

Much like today, in Churchill’s time parliament was designed for a type of call and response dialogue, not a grand soapbox type speech that he was so fond of.

Leith argues that if it wasn’t for the war, Churchill might have never found his audience and surely would have been remembered much differently, if at all.

The thing about Churchill was that, like the stopped clock that’s right twice a day, he occupied one position and waited for the world to come to him. He spend much of his political career predicting the imminent end of Western civilization — and it was only by the damnedest good luck that it happened to be on his watch that it suddenly appeared to be coming about. If not, he might have been remembered as a self-aggrandizing windbag with an old-fashioned speaking style and a love of the sound of his own voice.

But when the country really was under threat, Churchill’s fierce certainties were what an anxious audience wanted, while his style — steeped in the language of the previous centuries — seemed to encapsulate the very traditions that he was exhorting them to fight for. What at another time might have been faults became rhetorical strengths. That, you could say, is kairos writ large.

What does that last phrase “kairos” mean? It’s all about timing and fit:

As a rhetorical concept, decorum encompasses not only the more obvious features of style, but kairos, or the timeliness of a speech, the tone and physical comportment of the speaker, the commonplaces and topics of argument chosen, and so on. It is a giant umbrella concept meaning no more nor less than the fitting of a speech to the temper and expectations of its audience.

You could argue that the war needed Churchill and that Churchill needed the war. And unlike conflicts of the past, he also had access to the public like no other leader had before. You didn’t need to crowd into a square to hear Churchill speak, you needed to only turn on the radio.

One of the virtues of Churchill’s wartime rhetoric, however, was that whatever his peers in the House of Commons thought, he was able to speak — as politicians a generation before had not been able to — directly to the public through the wireless.

After delivering many of his key speeches in the Commons, Churchill read them out on the radio. Here, that presidential style — all that gruffness and avunicularity all those rumbling climaxes — was able to take full effect without being interrupted by rustling order papers and barracking Opposition MPs. He was pure voice.

Churchill indeed was pure of voice, but there was another loud voice in this conflict: Adolf Hitler. When it came to speaking, the two shared many things in common, but their differences were just as noticeable.


Hitler understood the power of words: He saw them as a tool which he needed to master if he wanted to achieve his goals. He had a strong vision which he believed in passionately and he knew that he needed his people to share that passion if he was to succeed.

From Mein Kampf:

The power which has always started the greatest religious and political avalanches in history has been, from time immemorial, none but the magic power of the word, and that alone. Particularly the broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech… Only a storm of hot passion can turn the destinies of peoples, and he alone can arouse passion who hears it within himself.

It would seem that Hitler associated passion with anger, his speeches were known to peak with shouting resembling rage. Even when writing his speeches he would work himself up into a frenzy.

Traudl Junge, the young secretary whose memoir of the last days in the Fuhrerbunker formed the basis for the film Downfall, recalled him composing the speech he gave to mark the tenth anniversary of his dictatorship. He started out mumbling almost inaudibly, and pacing up and down, but by the time his speech reached its crescendo he had his back to her and was yelling at the wall.

Like Churchill, Hitler would often practice in front of a mirror and choreograph the whole performance, but he would take it much further. With an eye for theatrics, he would pay close attention to the acoustics of the venue to accent both his booming voice and the martial music that would accompany him. He was particular about the visuals, with his dramatic lights and placement of flags.

Hitler also used pauses to his advantage. While Churchill would use them mid speech to maintain an audience’s attention or ‘reel them in’, Hitler would use them at the beginning.

It could go on for anything up to half a minute, which is (you’ll know if you’ve tried it) a very, very long time to stand on a stage without saying or doing anything. When he started – which he’d typically do while the applause was still fading out, causing the audience to prick up its ears the more — he would do so at a slow pace and in a deep voice. The ranting was something he built up to, taking the audience with him.

Hitler liked to control every aspect of his performance and paid close attention to those details that others dismissed, specifically the time of day that he gave his speeches (a lesson infomercials learned).

He preferred to speak in the evening, believing that ‘in the morning and during the day it seems that the power of the human will rebel with its strongest energy against any attempt to impose upon it the will or opinion of another. On the other hand, in the evening it easily succumbs to the domination of a stronger will.’

Hitler had a keen interest and insight into human nature. He knew what he needed from the German people and knew the psychological devices to use to sway the masses. He was even cognizant of how his attire would resonate with the population.

While other senior Nazis went about festooned with ribbons and medals, Hitler always dressed in a plain uniform, the only adornment being the Iron Cross First Class that he had won in 1914. That medal, let it be noted, is a token of bravery, not of rank.

This was a calculated move, an appeal to ethos: I am one of you. It was a tricky balance, because he needed to seem like one of the people but also to portray an air of exceptionality. Why else would people follow him if he wasn’t the only one who could do tend to Germany in its time of need?

As a wartime leader, you need to make yourself both of and above your audience. You need to stress the identify of their interests with yours, to create unity in a common purpose. You need, therefore, to cast yourself as the ideal exemplar of all that is best and most determined and most courageous in your people.

As expected, the same type of thing happens in modern politics, which is especially amplified during election time. Everyone is scrambling to seem like a leader of the people and to establish trust while still setting themselves apart from the crowd, convincing us that they are the only person fit for the job.

If you look closely, many of the rhetorical devices examined in Words Like Loaded Pistols are in high use today. Leith discusses a speechwriter for Reagan and one of his Champions of Rhetoric is Obama; these sections of the book are just as interesting as the piece on Churchill and Hitler.


Still Interested? If you have a fascination with politics and/or Rhetoric (or just want someone to skillfully distill the considerable amounts of information from Ad Herennium and Aristotle’s Rhetoricthen we highly recommend you pick the book up.

Moving the Finish Line: The Goal Gradient Hypothesis

Imagine a sprinter running an Olympic race. He’s competing in the 1600 meter run.

The first two laps he runs at a steady but hard pace, trying to keep himself consistently near the head, or at least the middle, of the pack, hoping not to fall too far behind while also conserving energy for the whole race.

About 800 meters in, he feels himself start to fatigue and slow. At 1000 meters, he feels himself consciously expending less energy. At 1200, he’s convinced that he didn’t train enough.

Now watch him approach the last 100 meters, the “mad dash” for the finish. He’s been running what would be an all-out sprint to us mortals for 1500 meters, and yet what happens now, as he feels himself neck and neck with his competitors, the finish line in sight?

He speeds up. That energy drag is done. The goal is right there, and all he needs is one last push. So he pushes.

This is called the Goal Gradient Effect, or more precisely, the Goal Gradient Hypothesis. Its effect on biological creatures is not just a feeling, but a real and measurable thing.


The first person to try explaining the goal gradient hypothesis was an early behavioural psychologist named Clark L. Hull.

As with other animals, when it came to humans, Hull was a pretty hardcore “behaviourist”, thinking that human behaviour could eventually be reduced to mathematical prediction based on rewards and conditioning. As insane as this sounds now, he had a neat mathematical formula for human behaviour:


Some of his ideas eventually came to be seen as extremely limiting Procrustean Bed type models of human behavior, but the Goal Gradient Hypothesis was replicated many times over the years.

Hull himself wrote papers with titles like The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis and Maze Learning to explore the effect of the idea in rats. As Hull put it, “...animals in traversing a maze will move at a progressively more rapid pace as the goal is approached.” Just like the runner above.

Most of the work Hull focused on were animals rather than humans, showing somewhat unequivocally that in the context of approaching a reward, the animals did seem to speed up as the goal approached, enticed by the end of the maze. The idea was, however, resurrected in the human realm in 2006 with a paper entitled The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention. (link)

The paper examined consumer behaviour in the “goal gradient” sense and found, alas, it wasn’t just rats that felt the tug of the “end of the race” — we do too. Examining a few different measurable areas of human behaviour, the researchers found that consumers would work harder to earn incentives as the goal came in sight, and that after the reward was earned, they’d slow down their efforts:

We found that members of a café RP accelerated their coffee purchases as they progressed toward earning a free coffee. The goal-gradient effect also generalized to a very different incentive system, in which shorter goal distance led members to visit a song-rating Web site more frequently, rate more songs during each visit, and persist longer in the rating effort. Importantly, in both incentive systems, we observed the phenomenon of post-reward resetting, whereby customers who accelerated toward their first reward exhibited a slowdown in their efforts when they began work (and subsequently accelerated) toward their second reward. To the best of our knowledge, this article is the first to demonstrate unequivocal, systematic behavioural goal gradients in the context of the human psychology of rewards.



If we’re to take the idea seriously, the Goal Gradient Hypothesis has some interesting implications for leaders and decision-makers.

The first and most important is probably that incentive structures should take the idea into account. This is a fairly intuitive (but often unrecognized) idea: Far-away rewards are much less motivating than near term ones. Given the chance to earn $1,000 at the end of this month, and each thereafter, or $12,000 at the end of the year, which would you be more likely to work hard for?

What if I pushed it back even more but gave you some “interest” to compensate: Would you work harder for the potential to earn $90,000 five years from now or to earn $1,000 this month, followed by $1,000 the following month, and so on, every single month during five year period?

Companies like Nucor take the idea seriously: They pay bonuses to lower-level employees based on monthly production, not letting it wait until the end of the year. Essentially, the end of the maze happens every 30 days rather than once per year. The time between doing the work and the reward is shortened.

The other takeaway comes to consumer behaviour, as referenced in the marketing paper. If you’re offering rewards for a specific action from your customer, do you reward them sooner, or later?

The answer is almost always going to be “sooner”. In fact, the effect may be strong enough that you can get away with less total rewards by increasing their velocity.

Lastly, we might be able to harness the Hypothesis in our personal lives.

Let’s say we want to start reading more. Do we set a goal to read 52 books this year and hold ourselves accountable, or to read 1 book a week? What about 25 pages per day?

Not only does moving the goalposts forward tend to increase our motivation, but we repeatedly prove to ourselves that we’re capable of accomplishing them. This is classic behavioural psychology: Instant rewards rather than delayed. (Even if they’re psychological.) Not only that, but it forces us to avoid procrastination — leaving 35 books to be read in the last two months of the year, for example.

Those three seem like useful lessons, but here’s a challenge: Try synthesizing a new rule or idea of your own, combining the Goal Gradient Effect with at least one other psychological principle, and start testing it out in your personal life or in your organization. Don’t let useful nuggets sit around; instead, start eating the broccoli.

Moving the Finish Line: The Goal Gradient Hypothesis Click To Tweet

The Four Types of Relationships and the Reputational Cue Ball

There are four types of relationships with people.

  1. Win Win
  2. Win Lose
  3. Lose Win
  4. Lose Lose

Seneca says “Time discovers truth.”

Only one of those relationships is sustainable over the long-term. And longevity is the key to so many things.

Yet so many of us operate in the short term. Today. This week. This Month. This Quarter. We want to WIN even if that means the other person LOSES.

We rationalize this behavior, arguing that, while it might not be fair today, we’ll make it right in the future.

Only this ignores all we know about game theory, biology (survival/evolution), physics (compounding), and psychology (reciprocation).


The most common strategy in life when you feel like someone is taking advantage of you is tit-for-tat. That is, return what you get. (Newton figured this out long ago.)

The person on the LOSING side of any relationship tends to coil like a spring, the latent energy building with time, frequency, and magnitude of slight. The more they perceive you taking advantage of them, the higher the odds they negatively become spring-loaded. This creates a negative leaping emergent effect. That’s human nature. Given the chance to punish someone that we feel wronged us, even at personal cost, we will often take it.

These outcomes are avoidable.

Biology has taught us that the key to evolving is to be sustainable over a long period of time. We must reproduce. A one-and-done species is not even a footnote in history.

seth klarman

And yet so few of us design systems that incorporate duration as an element. We make them short term. Designed to maximize the short run while ensuring we never get on a path of sustainability.

  • When you treat people badly they will respond (eventually) in kind.
  • When you rip your customers off they will (eventually) go elsewhere.
  • When you rip off your suppliers they will (eventually) stop doing business with you or return your behaviour in kind.

Anyone can come into an organization and start throwing their title around to get things done. We’ve all met this person. This works for a while but eventually fails. And who is interested in a tactic that only works for a short time?

Ideally, we want something that works for a long time. Taking advantage of relationships, while it may achieve the desired results in the short term, takes you off a path that involves time. And often it’s perception that matters here and that perception belongs to the other person.

The best results in the world are a function of time. The key component to compounding, which Einstein claimed was the most powerful force in the world, is time.

Peter Kaufman, who published Poor Charlie’s Almanack, describes this as the the Reputational Cue Ball

Non-Win/Win tactics are akin to playing a billiards tournament with a focus on sinking only the first shot or two. Billiards—or life—is a multi-shot game. When we fail to consider the future consequences of mistreating our counter-parties in a current “deal”‘ or first phase, it can wind up leaving our “reputational cue ball” ill-positioned for the next shot—the next deal or phase to come down the pike.

The Four Types of Relationships and the Reputational Cue Ball Click To Tweet

James March: On Leadership

After reading The Ambiguities of Experience, I set out to read another book by James March: On Leadership.

The genius of March takes a while to appreciate. I assure you, however, this thought-provoking book is packed full of wisdom you won’t find in the business best seller section.


On Leadership offers a stunning demonstration of stubborn nonconformity, through the lens of some great works of literature. The questions March poses are simple; the answers are not.

The book, based on March’s lectures in a leadership course he taught at Stanford University from 1980 to 1994 is one of the best resources on the subject I’ve come across. The lectures were based on three primary convictions.

The first was that the major issues of leadership were indistinguishable from issues of life. A proper discussion involved reflecting on grand dilemmas of human existence as they presented themselves in a leadership context. The second conviction was that great literature was a primordial source of learning about such issues for educated people. An inquiring, skeptical, and tolerant gaze was cast on leadership, primarily through a lens provided by four great works of literature – Othello by William Shakespeare, Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. The third conviction was that education, including education in business schools, should not attempt to furnish students with recipes or prescriptions for success.

Here are some of my notes from the book:

If we are to believe the current thinking, the issue of leadership has been resolved.

What is certain is that the industry recycles, sometimes with blatant opportunism, materials and techniques whose link to leadership is not readily apparent: 360 degrees, group dynamics, etc.

The fundamental issues of leadership — the complications involved in becoming, being, and confronting, and evaluating leaders—are not unique to leadership. They are echoes of critical issues of life more generally. As a result, they are characteristically illuminated more by great literature than by modern essays or research on leadership.

Future leaders are taught to remove inconsistencies, ambiguities, and complexities through precise objectives and well-conceived plans. … However, inconsistency and ambiguity have a role in change and adaptation, and the compulsion toward coherence could be an incomplete basis for understanding or improving leadership and life.

In general, effective leadership implies an ability to live in two worlds: the incoherent world of imagination, fantasy, and dreams and the orderly world of plans, rules, and pragmatic action.

There is often ambiguity about outcomes and their attractiveness. There is ambiguity about who is responsible for the outcomes. As a result, reputations are social constructs negotiated among observers, accountants, journalists, academics, leaders, competitors, friends, and enemies. Reputations diffuse through a population of observers and often change over time.

History is pictured as being the result of intention and actions of leaders. Biographies of leaders are a steady element of lists of best selling books. These writings develop notions of the role of leaders in society, on the attributes of leaders, and on the relation between being a leader and being a proper person. they create a language of leadership, a language filled with ideas, vision, power, and virtue.

To an overwhelming extent, contemporary ideologies of action within theories of choice see action as instrumental, coherent, and justified subjectively. Action is instrumental in the sense that it is taken intentionally and is based on expectations of future consequences for the objectives of the actor. Actors are intendedly rational. Action is coherent in the sense that goals and alternatives are well-defined and the decision rule is clear. Actors choose from among alternatives by calculating and comparing their expected returns. And the justification for action is subjective. It is assumed that the value an individual associates with a particular outcome cannot be compared meaningfully with the value another individual associates with a particular outcome. There is no interpersonal comparison of utilities. Values, thus, are assumed to be irrefutable.

Human behavior has often been described as stemming less from calculations of consequences than from the fulfilment of an identity, a logic of appropriateness than a logic of consequence. Moreover, such a bias for action has been praised as resulting in more deeply human, even more effective, actions.

Nothing significant about leadership is likely to be said by people who have been leaders. People who have been leaders are no more capable of an intelligent appreciation of leadership than Americans are of appreciating the American experience, men are of appreciating masculinity, artists are of appreciating art, or the elderly are of appreciating old age. Comment.

In the contemporary western world relationships based on contracts (economic relations) have increased in importance relative to relationships based on senses of belonging (family, group, nation).

Our understanding of the actions of individuals is often influenced by various myths and interpretations of the world that determine what we think of as true, beautiful, and just.

Do we expect a good leader to be clever or innocent? Being clever involves a worldview in which every player pursues individual interest, a virtuous action is one that is effective, and the end justifies the means, with God rewarding the toughest by allowing them to survive—unless he simply bestows the gift of cleverness on those he loves. In this scheme, we admire the wily politician who achieves personal end at the expense of gullible fools, the crafty negotiator, and manipulator.

Being innocent involves a worldview in which people are naturally good, virtue is based on a clear knowledge of good and evil or, at the very least, on simple actions, God rewards virtue, history is marked by human progress.

We only tolerate cleverness when it is crowned with success, while the failure of innocence is attributed to the perversity of the world.

We condemn the military commander whose troops have committed atrocities, because he is morally culpable if he know about them and unworthy of his command if he did not know (because he should have).

What happens in a world populated by a mixture of clever and innocent people? In one standard morality/evolutionary tale, at first, the clever ones dominate and exclude the innocents from all positions of power. the distinctions between the powerful very quickly become tenuous, however, as only the clever have survived and cleverness no longer represents a decisive advantage in a competitive situation. The deviants who remain worthy of confidence now become rare and much sought-after allies and find themselves associated with victorious coalitions. This does not lead to a stable equilibrium, however, as when a society of trust is established once again, opportunistic behavior can become worthwhile.

The person responsible for a decision will tend to interpret its consequences in a favorable light, whereas a changeover of power can lead to accusations that past strategies were failures.

It is therefore very difficult to maintain a balance between efficiency and the capacity to adapt, as there is a tendency, in the case of success, to specialize and refine the procedures that have been successful; and, in the case of failure, to be impatient for positive results and novel innovations.

The stories of successful change recounted after the event by leaders, consultants, or researchers are deceptively simple, as they depict the leader as a hero guided by a vision that goes against the prevailing ideas and is brought to fruition through heroic efforts.

Most original ideas are bad ones. Those that are good, moreover, are only seen as such after a long learning period; they rarely are impressive when first tried out. As a result, an organization is likely to discourage both experimentation with deviant ideas and the people who come up with them, thereby depriving itself, in the name of efficient operation, of its main source of innovation.

The choices of an organization therefore depend on the respective importance that it attaches to its mean performance and the achievement of a few dazzling successes.

As a general rule, politically weak, peripheral, or subordinated groups will advocate diversity and decentralization, while dominant groups will sing the praises of unity and centralization.

The genius therefore makes it possible to explore unknown and sometimes profitable paths in a situation in which the exploitation of the run-of-the-mill skills mastered by the institution does not serve in a crisis. When exploration becomes too costly or creates too much uncertainty and threatens established positions, the institution abandons the genius.

Organizational leadership is a contradiction in terms. The essence of organization is routine, conventional behavior, bound by the standards of knowledge, morality, and legality of the time. The essence of leadership, on the other hand, is escaping the routine, the standard, and the contemporary to implement a new morality, knowledge and legality quite different from that seen by others. Leadership is pre-eminently anti-organizational. Leaders confront organizations rather than build or serve them. Comment.

Modern leaders are, in a similar way, deluded into heroic commitments by the St. Catherines of modern life — journalists, pundits, and professors. The promises are the same—that heroic action will be rewarded by honor and respect—and those promises are as false today as the ones made to Joan by her voices.

War and Peace develops Tolstoy’s theory that history does not follow any defined structure, but arises from the complex interaction of countless insignificant events.

Power gives rise to desire, envy, and celebration, but also to revulsion, fear, and jealousy.

The taste for power can be considered an individual characteristic that varies from one person to the next, from one culture to another, from one sex to the other. Like the thirst for vengeance, ambition, or love, it is potentially insatiable.

If there is to be change, we need to reconsider our ideas about order founded on the domination of leaders and an endless tug-of-war among contending interests.

War and Peace proclaims that most people cannot escape from the corruptions of society, but that it is possible to attain some degree of wisdom, based on a lack of faith both in accepted truths and in great expectations along with a capacity to lead a simple life and perform everyday tasks effectively.

Widely diffused competence and initiative, allied with coordination via mutual adjustments, allows for efficient reactions and avoids the need for costly specialists or hierarchical controls. Heroic leadership is neither required nor helpful.

It is unfortunate that studies of visionary leadership focus too much on the lone leader and not enough on the way that he or she can maintain a climate propitious to the blossoming of original visions.

The logic of reality entails two aspects of relevance to a leader. On one hand, reality is complex and our knowledge of it is limited, so we are not sure whether a particular action will achieve our desired goal. This awareness can lead to paralysis (what is the point of doing anything if the results depend on chance?) or cynicism (what is the the point of fighting for a better world if we are not certain of the effect of our actions?). On the other hand, reality can be created by action. It need not necessarily be taken as given.

Heroic leadership demands great action and great commitment. Such commitment is usually justified by expectations of great consequences.

For Quixote, intention is primary in judging virtue; consequences are secondary.

It is often, therefore, easier to understand certain aspects of leaders’ behavior by focusing on the pleasures that they can gain from their actions rather than on the consequences they achieve.

“Do you not see, senor, that what is gained by restoring Don Quixote’s sanity can never equal the enjoyment his delusions give?”

There are two essential dimensions of leadership: “plumbing,” i.e., the capacity to apply known techniques effectively, and “poetry,” which draws on a leader’s great actions and identity and pushes him or her to explore unexpected avenues, discover interesting meanings, and approach life with enthusiasm.

The plumbing of leadership involves keeping watch over an organization’s efficiency in everyday tasks, such as making sure the toilets work and there is someone to answer the telephone. This requires competence, not only at the top but also throughout all parts of the organization; a capacity to master the context (which supposes that the individuals demonstrating their competence are thoroughly familiar with the ins and outs of the organization); a capacity to take initiatives based on delegation and follow-up; a sense of community shared by all the members of the organization, who feel they are “all in the same boat” and trust and help each other; and, finally, an unobtrusive method for coordination, with each person understanding his or her role sufficiently well to be able to integrate into overall process and make constant adjustments to it. These aspects are essential for the smooth operation of organizations, but they do not appear in most treatises on leadership, no doubt because they are too mundane or too closely linked to a precise context and specific techniques.

Leadership also requires, however, the gifts of a poet, in order to find meaning in action and render life attractive.

A leader must know how to appreciate life and be aware of reality, without falling into the cynicism and bitterness that can arise from the knowledge that our efforts are probably in vain.

If variations are almost always less efficient than tried and tested methods, particularly in the beginning, how can we encourage exploration?

There is a sizable industry devoted to producing books about leadership and optimal leadership styles. For the most part, such books, portray relatively heroic attributes of leadership as producing relatively heroic consequences.

In our contemporary sophistication about the limits of elementary efficiency, we sometimes forget the simple fact that organizations cannot work well unless ordinary tasks are performed routinely and well.

Organizing so that problems are handled quickly and more or less automatically by whoever is there requires certain general attributes within the culture, certain kinds of individual feelings within the organization, a distribution of individual competences, and some organizational arrangements.

If you are going to encourage initiative, you need to be tolerant of small deviations from what you would do yourself in the same situation. Delegation implies the right to be wrong.

These four things—competence, initiative, identification, and unobtrusive coordination—are very conventional. They are found in any standard book on administration. Because they are so conventional and so standard, many of us who think we are sophisticated sometimes act as through they are unimportant.

As managers rise through an organization, managerial power is celebrated; the trappings of managerial importance are increased; but it becomes less clear that a leader’s actions have major effects on organizational performance.

The procedures and drama of decision are organized to emphasize the importance of management and managers, to reassure us of the significance of leaders.

As a result of these rituals and ceremonies, it seems very likely that most organizational leaders exaggerate their control over their success.

The managers we see in an organization are typically people who have risen to their present positions by being evaluated as success in previous positions. Such success encourages them to see their own histories as the consequences of their own actions and competences.

Organizations work because they have mutual trust without personal favoritism.


Still curious? Read the book and check out my notes from The Ambiguities of Experience.

William Deresiewicz on Learning To Lead and the Ills of Exposing Yourself to a Constant Stream of Other People’s Thoughts

William Deresiewicz delivered a stunning lecture on Solitude and Leadership to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

In the lecture, Deresiewicz convincingly argues that

  1. We don’t teach leadership;
  2. Excellence doesn’t get you up the greasy pole of bureaucracy;
  3. We constantly bombard ourselves with the opinions of others; and
  4. Leaders need to spend some time alone with their thoughts and ideas so they know why and where they are leading.

While a contradiction to a lot of today’s common practice, it’s also an antidote to many of our ills.

Here are two parts to whet your appetite.

My title must seem like a contradiction. What can solitude have to do with leadership? Solitude means being alone, and leadership necessitates the presence of others-the people you’re leading. When we think about leadership in American history we are likely to think of Washington, at the head of an army, or Lincoln, at the head of a nation, or King, at the head of a movement-people with multitudes behind them, looking to them for direction. And when we think of solitude, we are apt to think of Thoreau, a man alone in the woods, keeping a journal and communing with nature in silence.

Leadership is what you are here to learn-the qualities of character and mind that will make you fit to command a platoon, and beyond that, perhaps, a company, a battalion, or, if you leave the military, a corporation, a foundation, a department of government. Solitude is what you have the least of here, especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership. This lecture will be an attempt to explain why.


The very rigor and regimentation to which you are quite properly subject here naturally has a tendency to make you lose touch with the passion that brought you here in the first place. I saw exactly the same kind of thing at Yale. It’s not that my students were robots. Quite the reverse. They were in­tensely idealistic, but the overwhelming weight of their practical responsibilities, all of those hoops they had to jump through, often made them lose sight of what those ideals were. Why they were doing it all in the first place.

… Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts.


If you liked this, you’ll love:

Learning how to think — The journey of learning requires patience, concentration, and most importantly time for thinking.