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08.11.17

Leadership Lessons from a 19th Century Genius

William James

W
ILLIAM JAMES, one of the great thinkers of the late 19th century and the father of modern American psychology, has much to offer the modern executive. Here is just a small sample of how James’s insights have helped me in my career:

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

Much of the time we should spend listening is spent preparing a response instead. As we progress through our careers, keeping a truly open mind becomes increasingly difficult. Real problem solving comes when we allow the experience of others room to inform our thinking.

I know that my own obstinacy has sometimes prevented me from seeing a better way forward. Some years ago, I was presented with the opportunity to hire an exceptionally talented individual. There was no open position that aligned with the individual. But make no mistake, this was a true talent and a good person. Rather than crafting a role that made sense, I tried to force a fit. At the time it seemed like the right approach – we had an opening that this person could fill, and over time we could have expanded the role. Instead, I let short-term tactical thinking cloud my execution.

I have also found that remembering your own frustration when others are not open to your input helps you put aside your own prejudged ideas aside to allow others to contribute.

“When you [decide] to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.”

Some may be more familiar with the more recent formulation of Rush’s Neil Peart: “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.” The point is that putting off decisions, no matter how big or small, has impact. This is not to suggest that all decisions should be made on the spot without properly assessing data and input. But too often the trap of always seeking more, or letting the quixotic quest for perfection prevent the implementation of the good, turns a “no” decision into the decision. Rarely is the no decision the right decision.

I can think of a time when I allowed myself to delay making a decision that I knew needed to be made. I had done the needed analysis and knew what the right call was, but because it was an exceptionally tough – and impactful – call to make I put it off longer than I should have. I needed to make a staffing change that would significantly shift responsibilities away from one person. This was someone who had made a positive impact but who had, over time, become less effective in his role. The change would be difficult for him personally and financially, and carried with it some risk of fallout in other areas of the organization. Ultimately the call got made and proved to be the right one, but the delay had a cost.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”

I think most people wrestle with the question of whether what they are doing is truly meaningful. Call it the legacy question.

I have been blessed with the ability to provide for my family, and am proud of the hard work I have done in my career. But I am most proud of the times I have been able to assist someone else in their development – both professionally and at times personally. I’m particularly proud of the success of one person whom I “inherited” when I took over an established team some years ago. It became clear to me that he was not realizing his full potential – mainly because he had not received enough guidance or support in order to be successful. He was very responsive to being challenged, to see beyond the tactical aspects of his role and embrace a more strategic one. As a result, he transitioned from being a capable contributor to a leader. He needed strong backing initially to help counter some very strong personalities who carried more senior titles. But he prevailed.

“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”

As the demands on our time increase, the temptation to multi-task grows. One of the basic tenets of product management is that it is better to solve one problem completely than address multiple ones partially. This holds true beyond the realm of the product manager. Multi-tasking sounds positive. It conveys business, which is often equated to importance, and suggests competence. Time slicing does not sound nearly so positive. It communicates that only a fraction of our time and attention is being devoted to a task. Multi-tasking and time slicing are, in fact, one and the same.

There are so many approaches to task prioritization. Find the one that works best for you. Resisting multi-tasking is an everyday challenge. Don’t give in. This is a lesson I need to relearn whenever I catch myself giving in to the temptation to time slice.

“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

Not everything requires your attention. There are decisions we must make and problems we must address. But teams exist to share that workload. Trust your teams to execute.

One of the most self-aware people I have worked with builds teams with people who are strong in areas he is not. One of the benefits of this approach is that he knows he can rely on his team to address challenges and attack opportunities that he cannot. An honest accounting of our own strengths and weaknesses is a difficult, but beneficial task. Getting input from others we trust can be of great value.

Knowing what to overlook also means knowing what not to overlook. I have learned that the number one thing not to overlook is attitude. The presence of a negative attitude has persistent harmful effects. Understanding and addressing the causes of a poor attitude can work wonders to overcome this. But there are times when negativity outweighs whatever contributions a person makes—and he has to be removed in order to preserve the organization.

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Leading Forum
This post is by Mike Tierney. He is CEO of Veriato, which provides employee monitoring and behavior analytics software for companies of all sizes and industries in more that 110 countries around the world. Mike leads the execution of Veriato’s strategic direction, and heads up the Marketing group. He has a diverse background covering sales, operations, marketing, and product management. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikejtierney

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 05:14 AM
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