Like most of you, I have no idea what I am doing 98.3% of the time I make a decision. Of that slice of the pie, I am actively getting it not-even-wrong 93% of the time. I bumble through on the strength of the 5.3% of the time I get it right by accident, and the 1.7% of the time a dim sense of direction lasts long enough that I can think more than one step ahead.
Of course, being the geniuses we are, we use almost all of the slim edge we possess over randomness — to the tune of 6.9% of the available 7% — to convince ourselves we actually know what we’re doing all the time. This evolving, self-congratulatory narrative of determinate agency is what we humans call “culture.” We dislike indeterminacy almost more than non-survival.
This means our survival, at individual and collective levels, rests on our actions during the 0.1% of the time we:
- Have a dim sense of what the hell we are doing, and
- Are doing something other than congratulating ourselves about it.
Fortunately, thanks to the miracle of compound interest, over hundreds of thousands of years, we’ve collectively translated this thinnest of thin edges into an altered environment that is highly forgiving to having almost no idea what we’re doing, almost all of the time. This environment is what we humans call “civilization.”
This view is basic calibration concerning the human condition. If you’re lucky, you’ll figure this out at some point. If you’re really lucky, you’ll promptly forget it.
But if you’re really, really lucky, you’ll never figure it out at all and turn into a leader.
Dramatizing only a little, my first encounter with leadership was probably around 1993. There I was, screwing around, with no idea what I was doing, when a Tall Handsome Man walked up to me.
THM: “What are you doing?”
Me: “I have no idea.”
THM: “Oh, how about I leader you a bit then?”
Me: “Leader me? Don’t you mean lead me?”
THM (cautiously): “What’s the difference?”
Me: “I suppose if you convince me I am doing the wrong thing or doing the thing wrong, and that I ought to be doing something else or doing it some other way, that’s leading.”
THM: “That sounds like a lot of work. What’s leadering?”
Me: “I have no idea. That’s your word.”
THM: “Fine then, I will leader you. Is what you’re doing working?”
Me: “Well, I’m not dead yet.”
THM: “Carry on then, I’ll be back to leader you some more in a bit.”
While I haven’t yet met anyone capable of actually leading me or anyone else, a lot of people have tried leadering me over the years. Unlike being managered (a story for another day), which is not too intolerable if said manager protects you from some paperwork in exchange for you humoring his or her delusions of psychological insight, being leadered has no benefits at all. It is just plain annoying.
At some point, I got sick of leaders getting in my way. So I wandered off, muttering under my breath and occasionally yelling “STOP LEADERING ME!” over my shoulder to people who were still trying to leader me. Since then, I’ve been mostly wrong, most of the time, all by myself. But as in 1993, I am not dead yet. Contrary to the popular interpretation of such survival, this does not necessarily mean I am doing something right. It just means I am just avoiding doing fatally wrong things.
See, the difference between leading and leadering is that leading is an extraordinarily rare event: one person getting it right for 20 seconds instead of 5 seconds. And in those 20 seconds, getting enough right, and getting it right enough, that the precious, gooey rightness can be shared with others. When some of this precious, gooey shared rightness gives an entire group a bit of an edge for a while, we call it leading.
Given the default randomness of the human condition, and the extreme power of compound interest, a little bit of leading goes a long way. Many thriving corporations, for instance, live out their entire lifespans fueled by about five minutes of actual leadership. Sometimes those five minutes can even be attributed to the person who later graduates to full-time leadering.
Episodes of actual leading are rare enough that they do not constitute pervasive, persistent and effective behavior patterns. So we do not in fact need a noun like leadership. Most of what passes for leadership is in fact systematic and self-serving misunderstanding of the pervasive, persistent and ineffective (but mostly harmless) behavior patterns corresponding to the verb leadering.
Leadering is the art of creating a self-serving account of whatever is already happening, and inserting yourself into it in a prominent role. This requires doing things that don’t mess with success (and the baseline for success is continued survival), but allow you to take credit for it. Successful companies might have only about five minutes of actual leading in their stories, but they have hour after endless hour of leadering.
Look around you. Chances are, somebody is doing some useless leadering within stone’s throw of wherever you are. If you have a stone handy, you might want to chuck it at them. You’ll probably miss, given your likely median 93% miss-rate, so you likely won’t get in trouble, but it will feel good.
Leadering is pervasive in nature, and since most people have no idea how evolution works, they tend to assume it must therefore serve some hidden useful function.
It mostly does not.
Most of the time, leadering is neither adaptive nor maladaptive, but superfluous. It is part of the tolerable burden of non-functional behavior, subsidized by functional behavior, that we carry around as a species. In other words, leadering is the behavioral analog of junk DNA. Sound and fury signifying nothing, which only exists because it takes an order of magnitude more work to eliminate than to tolerate. This is a corollary to Alberto Brandolini’s bullshit asymmetry principle: it takes an order of magnitude more effort to refute bullshit than to create it.
During times of chaotic change, however, leadering goes from being tolerably irrelevant to being actively harmful and FUD-creating. This is because so much attention is focused on the showy leadering that everybody involved misses the opportunity to do the few minutes of actual leading that is necessary during such change.
A lot of what I do is allegedly about helping executives lead. But to be honest, what I really do is try to get them to stop leadering so much. Hopefully that increases the chances that they’ll spot and exploit the rare opportunities to actually lead when they float by.
Sometimes this is impossible because people can become so addicted to leadering that they resist any attempt to lower the amount of it they do. When I meet such leadering addicts, I tend to retreat hastily. Even though enabling and amplifying leadering is a far more lucrative business than eliminating it, it is really annoying work that takes a particular kind of extreme patience that I lack.
To understand human leadering and its modern, somewhat less unuseless form, agile leadering, it is useful to understand it in a broader context, with reference to leadering in other species.
After humans, lions probably exhibit the most familiar example of leadering in nature. Leadering in lions is such a convincing fiction that it took biologists decades to work out that it did not in fact represent one lion wisely leading others, Mufasa-style.
At first, biologists thought the noble, large alpha-male lions did the leading, guiding the pride through life in the perilous savanna with foresight and courage.
After some research, it turned out that the noble, large alpha-male lions mostly did a lot of roaring, strutting around, screwing and cubs-of-rivals slaughtering. The only somewhat functional part of the theater of sound and fury is that it drives herds of dimwitted wildebeest or zebra into stampeding panics. Then lionesses leap out from strategic hiding places to do most of the thankless work of actual hunting (in human contexts, these behaviors correspond to marketing and sales respectively).
After some more research, it turned out that even this was giving lions way too much credit. The essence of lion leadering is in fact sneaking up on hardworking hyena packs just before dawn, right after a successful hunt, stealing their kill, and posing for wildlife photographers in the dawn light. These pictures are then turned into soul-stirring motivational posters for humans, about the courage and solitude necessary for successful leadering.
There is a reason lions are among the charismatic megafauna, claiming a disproportionate share of nature conservation funds. And it is not entirely a coincidence that charisma is also the primary trait that enables leadering in humans.
Lion leadering then, is at best a lot of noisy roaring to cause panics. More often, it is a case of simple schoolyard bullying to steal lunch from smaller animals. At worst, it is about killing the cubs of outgoing alpha males during a hostile takeover of a pride.
What makes this behavior work out is really the even more depressingly stupid behaviors of wildebeest, zebras and hyenas. They have even less of an idea what they are doing than lions or humans, so they have to do it in larger, faster-reproducing groups to make the odds of continued species survival work out.
The thing is, all social species seem, at first glance, to exhibit wonderful and noble patterns of leadership and cooperation. These turn out, upon more careful examination, to be theaters of showy leadering enabled by indifference or greater cluelessness among the leadered (and slaughtered). Ever since Mark Twain pointed out the first example of leadering and “cooperation” in ants over a century ago, examples have been cropping up all over the place.
Take geese for instance.
What seems to be a case of enlightened and collaborative leadership — the birds take turns being the apex of the V formations we so admire — turns out, upon further examination, to be a case of lazier birds free-riding in the wakes of slightly more energetic ones. As the most energetic bird tires, the next-least-lazy birds ends up at the tip of the V. The only reason they even head in the same direction is that they all have compasses of sorts, and share the same, but not necessarily correct, genetically coded idea about where to go. Given plate tectonics and other inconvenient truths from earth’s geological and geomagnetic history, the routes of migratory species are not exactly models of optimality.
Humans being suckers for inspirational lies, of course we turn pictures of flocks of geese flying off into the sunset into motivational posters with soul-stirring captions about collaboration and shared leadership. And we mount them right next to similarly captioned pictures of lions, posing with high gravitas over stolen hyena lunches, in the flattering light of dawn.
If you really want to understand how human leadering works though, you have to consider the murmuration of starlings. Once you’ve finished oohing and aahing at the strangely ordered, rapidly shifting patterns of flocking they create, consider this: starlings mostly just murmur (murmurate?) for collective safety from predation. The rest of the seemingly complex behavior is just the mathematical consequences of simple flocking rules. About 93% of the time, the turn-on-a-dime aerobatics serve no higher purpose.
To simplify a bit, all starlings seem to do is head in the same direction as their neighbors. Unlike migrating flocks of geese, they don’t even have a strong shared sense of the wrong absolute direction, so the movements are largely meaningless. It just looks very pretty, because the flocking behavior is at the edge between order and chaos. Small local disturbances can drive the whole flock suddenly in a new direction.
I suspect the behavior evolved to settle in this regime because it allowed enterprising starlings to do some leadering by pretending there is deeper meaning hidden in the cryptic order. Somewhere, right now, there is a starling leadership conference going on, where a starling leadership coach is making reverential, cryptic remarks about emergent tribal leadership and spiritual strange attractors.
As I said, biologists do have theories about how the agile dancing of starling flocks is about avoiding predators like hawks, but let’s face it: they (the starlings that is, though possibly also the biologists) basically have no idea what they’re doing. They just do it in somewhat more visibly beautiful ways than other species. Occasionally, the behavior may pay off in terms of avoiding hawks, but most of the time, the behavior has no significance. The spectacular display of swarm aerobatics is merely what starlings call “culture” and I call “flying bullshit.”
The point of sampling the collective behaviors in the natural world is that it allows us to describe the social contexts in which human leadering practices occur more clearly. There is, after all, no leadering without a base of natural collective behavior to take credit for. Collective human behavior, it turns out, can be reasonably approximated as a mix of lion, goose and starling collective behaviors.
Alpha-male lions, posing for pictures at dawn over stolen lunches, are of course, the epitome of a pride. As the name suggests, the behavior is more charismatic show than substance.
Geese flying in a V, according to a shared sense of direction and a laziness-and-free-riding formation flight model constitute a skein. Depending on the relationship between their current destination and earth’s plate-tectonic and geomagnetic history, their sense of direction is somewhere between good enough and hilariously off. Thanks to survivorship bias, the paths of surviving species work well enough to perpetuate them, but that does not mean they are either right or capable of surviving further disruption. We just don’t know much about the now-extinct species that got hopelessly lost the last time a continent drifted a bit or the earth’s magnetic pole flipped.
Starlings doing their cryptic strange-attractor dances constitute, as I have noted, a murmuration. Depending on whether or not there are any actual predators around, much of that agile dancing is a waste of energy. Unlike prides, murmurations have no charismatic alpha males taking credit. Unlike skeins, there aren’t even any situational leaders taking turns. I am tempted to call a murmuration of starlings a “leaderless organization”, except that to do so would be to assume that the presence of leadering in lions and geese is more significant than it actually is.
Humans leaders believe that what they do is mostly real leadership rather than leadering. They imagine it is 90% about lion-like wise leadership, 9% setting a goose-like sense of shared and correct direction for all, and 1% cryptic, leaderless, starling-like murmuration.
In practice, human leadership is almost entirely leadering. It is 90% flying starling bullshit that just looks meaningful, 9% poorly calibrated goose-like navigational inertia reflecting ancient realities that have almost certainly shifted, and 1% lion-like roaring and posturing by a charismatic few.
Whatever the actual or claimed ratio, leaders like to call the three elements agility, mission and vision. Until recently, most leaders only admitted to the presence of mission and vision in the behaviors of the groups they led. That they even acknowledge the presence of agility these days is a huge retreat in the claims made by leadership narratives. So you should not be too upset that they only admit 1% agility rather than 90%.
We need a name for human groups that exhibit this behavioral profile of collective and leaderly behavior. Let’s call it a twittering.
Let’s switch terminology to bizspeak. A twittering of humans is some mix of agility, mission and vision.
Agility is seemingly significant flocking behavior that involves changing direction frequently and quickly.
Mission is navigational inertia, usually with forgotten origins, sacralized into things called values.
Vision actually has nothing to do with the waterfall picture a leader paints, and everything to do with the lion-like posturing that accompanies such painting.
The main job of a human leader is to pretend that the mix of factors driving success is 90% vision, 9% mission and 1% agility, when in fact the mix is 1% vision, 9% mission and 90% agility. The reason they fudge the ratio (aside from the fact that many actually believe it) is that a vision-dominant leadership image gets you lion-like wages. Mission-dominant leadership narratives makes you just one temporary goose among many, paid according to how long you actually stay at the apex of the V. Agility dominant leadership narratives are the worst, since your claim to doing effective leadering might vanish with the next change of direction.
Being a “leader” in the sense of being the starling that is closest to the average direction and geometric center of the flock is so ephemeral a condition that it might get you no more than a pat on the back and fifteen minutes of fame. Lions get big paychecks and bonuses, geese get bonuses when they do play V-apex so it is smarter to pretend you’re a lion if you can and a goose if you cannot. The starling leadership narrative gets you nothing.
Most of the time, misreporting the actual mix is harmless. Leadering being the junk DNA of organizational behaviors, it merely imposes a tolerable burden. Under benign and slow-changing conditions, it really doesn’t matter what the mix is and whether the CEO pretends to be a lion, first among a bunch of equal geese, or one anonymous starling among thousands. Everybody gets to enjoy a false sense of determinate control over the narrative, and some also get paid more for their more charismatic roles in the theater.
But when the environment is changing, assuming the wrong ratio can be fatal. The false sense of high agency inherited from peaceful periods turns into a kind of blindness to whatever little agency does exist in chaotic, transient times.
During such times, agility is worth more than a mission, and a mission is worth more than a vision.
Or to put it in terms of embodied intelligence, agility contains more intelligence than missions, and missions contain more intelligence than visions. Visions contain so little intelligence that they are practically homeopathic in their ineffectiveness.
Agility is the least-wrong component. Generally, doing random things is better than doing nothing, for the same reason playing the lottery is better than doing nothing when you are down to your last buck. In the best case, you might win. At the very least, you will present fewer exploitable patterns to predators, and won’t get stuck in a game-ending rut doing the same wrong thing over and over again. No matter what the environment is like, the right amount of agility is not zero. There is always a benefit to a certain amount of random direction changing.
Mission is the next-least-wrong component. If you have no idea where to go, it probably makes sense to at least head together in roughly the direction that worked at least once before. A rough sense of direction is much more robust than a detailed plan. It takes something truly rare and literally earth-shaking — such as plate tectonics in the case of really old migration routes — to make a sense of direction maladaptive. The key to successful missions is to only be wrong in ways that don’t really matter to survival, such as belief in a god, and sharply limit the number of things you actually need to be right about. That means there will be fewer ways for you to be catastrophically wrong.
Once set, a sense of rough direction can often last a really long time, but this does not always mean there is any fundamental antifragility that can resist all kinds of change. My favorite example is the case of Kongo Gumi, once the longest-lived corporation. It tamely succumbed to very banal financial problems in 2007, after 1400 years of existence. You’d think such a venerable business would end in a grander way. That’s the sort of assumption too much leadering tempts you into.
The most-wrong component of leadering is vision. Unsurpisingly, visioning is the favored activity within the leadering game, since it justifies the highest pay. It is also the biggest liability during turbulent times. Not only is a clearly painted picture of the future likely to become wildly inaccurate within minutes, it also exposes to rival twitterings a risk surface of exploitable predictability, while simultaneously constraining the creativity of your own twittering.
In turbulent times, agility is essential for keeping the game alive, a mission may be useful depending on how much has not changed, and a vision is serious double jeopardy.
So really, agile leadership is no more than a willingness to sacrifice a false sense of determinate progress. This means fostering the sort of comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty that a 90:9:1 ratio of agility, mission and vision takes, and forgoing some or all of the profiteering that selling a 1:9:90 delusion allows.
Or to distill it to something even a twittering with ADD can understand: stop leadering so much.