Leading Apples And Oranges

( Penn, MSG Leadership)
The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases. — CARL JUNG

First things first, why am I writing this? Let’s start with a very general concept: since we are very different from each other and that is why, a singular style of leadership might not (and mostly, it does not) be conducive for all the members in a team. Now, let me further elucidate this assertion. The following has primarily been taken from Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet’ with few minor alterations.

Every autumn at the Harvard Business School (HBS), the incoming class participates in a role-playing game called ‘Subarctic Survival Game’. Students are told, “It is approximately 2:30 p.m., October 5, and you have just crash-landed in a floatplane on the east shore of Laura Lake in the subarctic region of the northern Quebec-Newfoundland border”. Students are then divided into small groups and asked to imagine that their group has salvaged 15 items from the plane namely a compass, sleeping bag, axe and so on. Their task now is to rank these 15 items in descending order according to their importance to the team’s survival and the game starts.

At first, the students rank the items individually and thereafter, they repeat the task as a team. Next, they compare their rankings against that of an expert to see how well they faired. Finally, they watch a video recording of their team’s discussion pertaining to the task to understand what went right or wrong. As you can imagine the game is designed to test the group synergy, that is, how well a team performs collectively. A team is successful when its ranking is higher than any of its individual members. The team fails if any of its members have a higher ranking than that of the overall team.

All of us can imagine scenarios where a team is trying to take a decision based on the contributions of different individuals. It may be a small meeting where you are deciding a place for your team dinner, or something as common as prioritizing tasks for the next release of your product (as we are trying to do at ‘Bombardier’, my current employer) or you, being a board member of a privately held company, trying to take your company public. In all such scenarios, as a leader you would want to take advantage of all the talent available in your team. This becomes even more critical when every organization is trying to adopt agile methodology in their work. And that is exactly where this post is meant to help you.

Know your People:

A shy man no doubt dreads the notice of strangers, but can hardly be said to be afraid of them. — CHARLES DARWIN

Let’s go back to the example of the participants playing the Subarctic Survival game. As Susan talks to the participants of the game, one of them points out that their plan of action was a product of the suggestions made by the most vocal persons. The tendency of following most vocal, confident and dominating people naturally did not allow allocation of attention to the ideas of the less vocal ones and the same were ultimately discarded. Though those very ideas that were rejected would have produced the better outcome for the group and would have led them to winning the game, yet they were easily dismissed because of the lack of relative conviction. Thereafter, he also mentioned the embarrassment they felt when the video of their team discussion was replayed to them.

I guess you can imagine where this discussion is heading. I am trying to draw your attention to the fact that any team or group of people, who are expected to work together in order to achieve a common goal, will mostly have both quiet and furiously vocal people. In other words, every team may have introverted and extroverted people, the two major categories of personality types as propounded by Carl Jung. Now, our goal should be to tap the positives generated by both these types of people. As Grant’s research shows, in order to maximise the performance of introverted and extroverted people, different styles of leadership have to be employed.

So, the first step to become a better leader is to know your people well and it is easier than you may think. You just have to pay a little attention to how your team members behave in large groups against their behavior in a one-on-one set-up. If this seems too much to do, you may just ask your team to take a simple test based on the ‘’Myers–Briggs Type Indicator’ (click here to take the test), which takes less than fifteen odd minutes to complete. If the first letter of their result is ’I’ they are introverts while if it is ’E’, then they are extroverts. It is right there that you get to know a little more about your people than what you knew before reading it. And with this we are ready to move forward.

Defining Leader and Leadership:

Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything. — ROBERT RUBIN, In an Uncertain World

In this section, we will try to understand the concept of leadership and the traits that a leader is expected to have. But before that, let us talk about who are perceived as better leaders. Studies in group dynamics suggest that we perceive talkers as smarter, more intelligent and better looking than individuals who talk less. Thereby, talkers are generally perceived as leaders. The more a person talks, the more the other group members direct their attention towards him. This means that the talker becomes increasingly powerful and confident as the meeting progresses. We tend to rate quick talkers as more capable and appealing than slow talkers. During another study, groups of college students were given an exercise to develop a business strategy for a start-up company. The students who spoke first and more often were given very high ratings for their creativity and analytical power. Even though there was no correlation in performance and talkativeness of the participants. Another study based out of U.C. Berkeley by organizational behavior professor Philip Tetlock found that television pundits make worse predictions about political and economic trends than even what would be made by random chance. It also deduced that the worst predictors tend to be the most famous and confident.

So, we see that those who can talk, express themselves with conviction and confidence are seen as better leaders. All of this would have been fine if there would have been correlation between talking and producing relevant insights or having better ideas. However, research suggests that there is no such link. It is unfortunate how HBS still follows the same model of vocal leadership. While on the contrary, ranks of effective leaders are filled with introverts. For instance, from Charles Schwab to Bill Gates, from Moses to Jesus to Buddha; all are shining examples of introverted leaders. So, what is it that makes a good leader?

Leader is a person who gives direction to his team and makes sure that the team achieves certain predefined goal/s. Taking cues from the Subarctic Survival Game we can also state that a leader is a person who makes sure that the team performs (substantially) better than any of its individual members. And in my opinion in addition to above mentioned things a leader is a person who can create leaders.

Leading Apples and Oranges:

A leader is best when people barely know she exists, when her work is done, her aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. — LAO TZU

Let’s refer to Adam Grant’s experiments on organizational behavior where he tried to test his theory — that there may be certain organizations and contexts which are better suited to introverted style of leadership than to extroverted style of leadership. Through his experiments he found out that extroverted leaders are better suited to lead passive people, those who do not like to take initiatives on their own and therefore, need encouragement to complete tasks with which they might not feel connected. On the other hand, introverted leaders give better results when paired with proactive people. Introverts not being dominating or interfering in nature, can give their team members a sense of individuality and ownership and thus, inspire them to put more effort and energy in their work. This shows we definitely need different leadership styles for different people in our team.

All of us, who have had any experience of the way corporations work these days, know that more and more efforts are being put to make each and every person (employee) a team player. This is evident through in initiatives like open work-spaces, frequent team building activities, meetings and group discussions. All of these again favor the extroverted style of working and leadership which always made me feel suffocated as it and it would have done the same to people like Steve Wozniak or Charles Darwin who realized their potential in solace. But then does it mean that introverts do not like collaboration? If that were to be true we wouldn’t have Apple personal computers, Linux wouldn’t be reality (and even in my case since the beginning of my career I have been collaborating with people across the globe, delivering trainings). I mentioned these two cases to point out a crucial aspect of introverted personality. In case of Apple, Wozniak was collaborating with a small group and he always used to work in isolation. On contrast Linux is a product of large number of developers collaborating with each other to deliver such a revolutionary product. But one of the most important aspect of it was they were collaborating online not while sitting in large open work-spaces or jam-packed meeting rooms where the most vocal people decide the direction the whole groups going to take.

But if that is happening at our workplace, I and You have failed as leaders. So, how do we leverage all the talent present in our teams? One thing which is clear from the above paragraph is that collaboration is essential but another thing which is striking is people perform their best when they work alone. Again, collaboration, when done over virtual mediums outperforms face-to-face collaboration. Jason Fried, for 10 years asked hundreds of people (mostly designers, programmers and writers) where did they like to work when they needed to get something done? He found that they went anywhere but their offices which were too noisy and full of interruptions. Some companies (Reebok, Pixar Animation, Microsoft etc.) are starting to understand the value of silence and solitude, and are creating “flexible” open plans that offer a mix of solo work-spaces, quiet zones, casual meeting areas, cafes, reading rooms even bathrooms so people can have interactions and when they need to get something done they can work alone.

So, to conclude, your first step should be to understand your people and then, based on their introverted or extroverted personality, provide them a quiet or more interactive environment to work. Instead of forcing everyone to some framework or style of working that you learned at an HBS or similar business schools, you should understand that introverts perform better in one-on-one or small group interactions. Introverts prefer collaboration over virtual mediums than in-person interaction. On the other hand, extroverted people prefer being in large groups. As we now know introverts are not ferociously vocal, therefore, virtual mediums of collaboration will give them a fair and equal chance of expressing their ideas which in turn will improve team performance.