Leadership — It’s Not a Math Problem

Nicholas Mitsakos

Special thanks to Prof. Christopher Robichaud and Prof. Dana Born of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for their assistance in compiling this material, and their invaluable perspective on this topic.

Leadership is managing the challenges of an unpredictable world while keeping an organization focused on shared values and common goals. Effective leadership is when a leader’s values focus an organization on a well-defined purpose — it’s “Why.”

It’s Not a Math Problem

Leadership has been described as a planned and predictable series of action; a formulaic approach to meet managerial and organizational challenges:

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Give guidance.
  3. Manage expectations.
  4. Be adaptive.
  5. Measure results.

But leadership is not an algorithm. It combines understanding an organization and making the goals and vision of that organization consistent with your own. This is a much greater challenge because it magnifies an obvious tension — the struggle between who you are and whom you need to be for your organization; what do you want both you and your organization to become — and why are you doing this?

Leadership is about being authentic to your organization and to yourself — and connecting the two. There is a constant struggle between a leader’s authentic self and the authenticity of his or her message. The wider the gap, the less effective and more conflicted an organization will be. How does one become an authentic effective leader?

An effective leader asks questions and doesn’t deliver answers via commands and authority. Authentic leadership poses the right questions and focuses on the pursuit of answers to those questions:

  1. Why do we exist?
  2. What purpose do we serve?
  3. What, specifically, do we need to do and how do we do it?
  4. What essential skills are needed, what can be taught, and what resources are necessary to solve problems?
  5. What have we planned for and what contingencies do we need?
  6. What other perspectives are critical?
  7. What is the schedule and how do we manage outcomes?
  8. How do we deal with disappointments, delays, unforeseen challenges and fundamental changes?
  9. How do we manage uncertainty?

While these are all important components, there are a few that distinguish true leadership and are often overlooked.

Leadership is being comfortable with uncertainty, managing unforeseen influences, necessary revisions, and potential disappointment while keeping an organization focused on shared values and common goals.

Leadership is overcoming the most important challenges, and that means being adaptive — managing expectations, dealing with uncertainty, managing disappointments, struggling with your own authenticity as an individual and a leader, and grappling with why we are doing any of this — and why am I doing this?

Learning and Creating

Dynamic and competitive environments create unforeseen changes, unknown results, unpredictable circumstances, and uncertain responses. There is no choice but to be adaptive.

Adapting means learning and creating. Openness and flexibility, essential for learning, are typically the first casualties in a fast-changing, highly competitive environment. It is easy to succumb to these pressures, but it is openness and flexibility that enables the most effective leadership within that very competitive and challenging environment.

It is a symphony orchestra versus a jazz ensemble. One performs a musical piece composed precisely to be performed with little variance within well-defined parameters. The other performs within some structure, general guidance, and a common goal, but many specifics are uncertain and surprising. Passages are created spontaneously, and the direction can change as new ideas are explored. A learning organization is a jazz ensemble creating with, and learning from, each other, pushing each other forward. A leader works to combine a common vision and goal into a coordinated performance. Leadership is creating something new, harmonic and beautiful.

Authenticity

A leader is a person, not a combination of authority, ideas, and hard work, and that person can sometimes struggle with his or her personal image behind the “leader.” The image can be at odds with reality — who is the man behind the curtain? An organization sees us one way, but we may see ourselves differently. Plus, we may choose to act differently for the benefit of the organization. This is an often unseen, but profound struggle. Understanding the tension between who we are as a person versus how we are perceived by others is an underestimated, often ignored, and increasingly challenging leadership dimension.

Who am I and what am I trying to accomplish? What is my authentic self, and can I be that person for my organization and still be an effective leader?

How do we tradeoff between who we are and who we should be? Both should be closely related, but are they? A leader needs to act in a certain way, but also needs to be true to oneself. An organization will know when “you are not you,” and it will suffer. You must be authentic. You must be you.

Communication

What does it mean to communicate effectively? The message is the least important aspect. The perception of, and the feeling toward, the person delivering the message matters more. Knowing this, communication can be described effectively as having three components (from the Greek words ethos, logos, and pathos):

1. Ethos (character): what is the quality of my character? Does my organization respect and value those qualities? Who am I to my team and to myself?

2. Logos (reason): have I defined the problem effectively? Have I communicated the essential components and my expectations for performance? Am I willing to teach, deal with issues as they arise, and map expectations to reality? Will my logic be well-understood, and will I be perceived as reasonable?

3. Pathos (empathy): do I understand the meaning behind what we are doing? Have I communicated a purpose — do I give meaning to our actions and understand their full impact? “What is our “why?” Can I communicate what drives me and connect that to the meaning and purpose of our actions? Do I let people see the authentic me and my true motivations? I want my team to know who I am. When they see me, will they understand and share more of the focus and direction that I want?

A leader’s role is to define an organization’s “why.” Empathy (pathos) is most important — a leader must communicate why we do what we do — our purpose. Explaining what to do and how to do it follows from that. But, a set of actions without the context of purpose is meaningless and will never be genuinely effective.

Mark Twain is credited with saying “the two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you figure out why.” This is leadership — figuring out why.

An organization’s “why” must be consistent with the leader’s authentic self. Your authenticity as a leader will be challenged if you don’t understand your purpose, make it consistent with your company’s purpose, and communicate it effectively.

How do you determine your “why?” It is serving others by creating a shared purpose (from your inner narrative and actions) that determine the direction and achievements of your organization. That is the “why.”

The Pebble Effect

“Thoughts lead to words which lead to actions leading to behaviors and habits that define character and lead to destiny.” Small changes in beliefs can change destiny, much like the effect of a pebble on a pond. A leader is that pebble, inspiring the hard work needed to overcome obstacles and react to new circumstances and create a new destiny.