The Golden Axiom of Learning Leadership

Since I started leading projects back in the 80's, I've learned one golden axiom that has proven true in all cases. In the past I have generally only shared this with my closest peers:
  • You only learn to succeed from your mistakes, and others' successes.

The first part, learning from your mistakes, is well know.

The second part of the axiom, learning from others' successes, is less well appreciated, but I find it to be just as true. People learn from watching and mimicing behavior. If you watch a person performing well, succeeding, handling problems calmly and analytically, then you will learn those behaviors yourself. If it weren't true, then we would have no hope of learning except through mistakes, and I'm pretty sure that would have meant the end of the human race a long time ago (and Harvard wouldn't be able to charge $35K per year tuition). Clearly we must be capable of learning from good examples.

In addition to the golden axiom, there are a couple of subtleties that most people overlook. I call them corollaries:

  • Corollary #1: You don't learn to succeed from your own successes.
  • Corollary #2: You don't learn to succeed from others' failures.

Corollary #2 goes hand-in-hand with the second half of the golden rule. Humans learn from watching others. We can learn to succeed from successful people, and we can learn to fail from failures. But we don't learn to be smart by watching fools.

Studying a child can be a good way to learn about adult behavior. Children do things naturally, in an uninhibited fashion; adults often try to obfuscate their actions and motives, but they really behave in much the same was as children.

To demonstrate corollary #2, consider Caillou. Caillou is a cartoon on PBS, about a four-year-old boy of the same name. My 3 1/2 year old daughter loves the show. When Caillou is good, she mimics his behavior and she is good; when Caillou is bad, she still mimics his behavior. As an example, my daughter likes baths. But one day Caillou didn't want to take a bath. He cried and whined, but once he got in the tub, he loved it. Clearly the message was supposed to be, "Don't cry at bath time because baths are a lot of fun." But for a week after watching that show, my daughter would cry and whine at bath time. She had observed the poor behavior of Caillou on TV, saw that it was wrong, but still she modeled her own behavior on what she observed in others.

I've seen this same sort of thing in adults as well, sometimes even in myself. When I was a new college grad I had one manager who would pass out a list of tasks that each engineer should be working on that day. My peers and I just hated the micromanaging -- we used to work on low priority tasks first just to tick off our manager, and we set up a dart board in the lab where we posted the daily task lists and took aim. A few years later, I was the leader of a fairly large project, and was having trouble keeping all the work straight, when I found myself writing up daily task lists for my team members, and was met with a small mutiny. When I was faced with a challenging situation, I mimiced a behavior I was familiar with, despite knowing how poorly the approach worked. But that was the "training" I was given, the only "tool" I had. I only learned the lesson once I had made the mistake myself.

[Corollary #2 poses a unique problem when writing about leadership. An author, in fact any mentor, and even a parent, wants to share their mistakes, desparately hoping others will avoid making the same mistake. But it's a futile goal, and in fact, it can backfire quite badly as the observer may be drawn to make the same mistakes. Ever tell a child, "Don't touch that!" Odds are, their little hand will immediately start to reach out for it. I suspect at this very moment there are a few managers out there who read this blog and are thinking, "Hmm. Daily prioritized task lists? Maybe I should try that with my team." And probably at least one engineer is going to whine tomorrow morning when he has to take a shower. In the future I will try to avoid dwelling on mistakes, and concetrate on successful behaviors.]

Knowing the golden axiom and its corollaries, we can develop a set of personal principles we can take with us:

  • Don't kick yourself when you make a mistake; you're now smarter than you were yesterday.
  • Don't brag when you succeed; you got lucky and you're just going to screw up again sometime soon. Success should be more humbling than failure.
  • Watch those around you who are successful; their success can rub off on you.
  • Ignore failures; their failures can rub off on you, too.
  • Don't gloat at others' failures; they just got smarter, and you just might have gotten dumber.
  • And leaders, mentors, and parents should always teach how to be successful, but let people make the same mistakes that you and everyone else have already made. Those mistakes are part of what make you successful.

There's also a couple of rules that organizations need to internalize:

  • If you employ poor or even mediocre leaders, not only will your projects suffer today, but your junior engineers will learn poor leadership habits. Poor leadership is infectious and can destroy the health of any organization.
  • On the other hand, if you employ excellent leaders, it will help junior engineers grow up to be good leaders themselves.

Copyright 2006, Robert J. Hueston. All rights reserved

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Bob Hueston


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