The Punctuated Equilibrium of Leadership

Many of us have worked for someone and thought, I could do his job. What’s so great about that person? (These thoughts are probably more prevalent when that person is our boss and is driving us crazy.) I’m not trying to answer every question about how some people work their way into leadership positions. What I am going to do is suggest some thoughts about why a person, who still only has 24 hours in a day, who still has only one FTE of output, and who puts their pant on one leg at a time just like everybody else, might be able to create disproportionate value for a company.

I recently read Linchpin: Are You Indespensable? by Seth Godin. (I also recently gave this book a negative review on my LinkedIn reading list and now I’m quoting it, go figure.) On page 51 (of the hardcover first edition), he made a comment about Richard Branson as follows:

You could do Richard Branson’s job.

Most of the time, anyway.

… You could certainly do most of what he does, perhaps better than he does it. Except for what he does for about five minutes a day. In those five minutes, he creates billions of dollars’ worth of value every few years, and neither you nor I would have a prayer of doing what he does.

Now, if you are interested in what Godin says Branson does in those five minutes, you can read the book. What interested me is this idea that a leader was able to create that kind of leverage. That there really might be a quality time component to leadership, that made the economy of a company work, despite an ostensibly disproportionate amount of control and pay residing in one individual.

I have known CEOs who felt that the key to their leadership was to outwork, outsmart, and outperform everybody in the company in every function. This seems obviously foolish, but in their desire to lead by example, they view their company like a wolf pack where their position at the top is only secure as long as they can unseat any challenger to their superiority. If a leader’s true value is not created by putting in more hours than anybody else—hours are finite after all—but, instead leveraging a few critical moments of judgement, decision-making, insight, or charisma, then the economy of leadership within a company make sense.

I titled this post, The Punctuated Equilibrium of Leadership, because this narrow opportunity to exercise leadership that would be leveraged across other less-critical moments, reminded me of Stephen J. Gould‘s concept of punctuated equilibrium in evolutionary biology (something that opens up an extremely wide field of potential common ground with scientists who are also men of faith). This is the idea that things move along for a time with very little change, and that these times of relative equilibrium are punctuated by times of rapid change.

In support of this idea, I recently read the latest Jim Collins book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite Them All, which is a follow up to Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall. On page 120, he writes:

Not all time in life is equal. Life serves up some moments that count much more than other moments…. We will all face moments when the quality of our performance matters much more than other moments, moments that we can sieze or squander…. [We can] respond to unequal times with unequal intensity, when it matters most.

Having spent a few years of my career as a CEO, this is hyper-relevant to me as I strive to be equal to the critical moments that I will inevitably arise in the future of my company. But I think it has a broader application than that. It seems to me that whatever the endeavor, if we want to achieve our life’s goals, we need to dedicate ourselves to being prepared to be equal to the critical moments that present themselves. We can abdicate this quality on behalf of our company, if we aren’t the CEO—but we can’t abdicate it in our lives. There isn’t anyone else who is more invested in our success as individuals. In effect, we are all the CEOs of our own lives, and it isn’t a job we can be fired from, resign from, or otherwise give up to others. As Collins says, not all time in life is equal. We have time during the equilibrium to prepare to make the critical choices when they come.

Who are your influences?

“Who’re your influences?”

This was the question Jimmy Rabbitte posed to each prospect interviewing to join the “World’s hardest working band,” The Commitments, in the 1991 film adapted from Roddy Doyle‘s classic novel. The Commitments is a great (albeit profane) cultural snapshot of the pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland I first encountered as a missionary in January of 1992.

One of the reasons I love this line from the movie is that Jimmy is trying to do what everyone who has ever interviewed someone tries to do—ask questions that probe deep and in a few brief moments reveal a person’s character and future behavior, to peer into the soul of the interviewee and see what kind of person he or she is. The task of knowing for certain whether someone is going to be a good fit for the band, or the company, or the job by spending a few minutes (an hour tops) with them is of course impossible. But the question, Who’re your influences? opens the door for someone to reveal a lot about themselves.

So, I began thinking about my influences. Not just artistic influences, but life influences. Maybe it is right to talk about these people in terms of mentors. I made a list, and I have about a dozen major mentors in my life. These are men and women who had a profound effect on me. They taught me, set an example for me or opened my eyes in one way or another. Then, I realized that I have another cadre of minor mentors that also had an influence even though they may have only appeared once or twice in my life.

I’m not going to list the major mentors by name, but they include my parents, various teachers, supervisors, partners, and friends. Some of the “influence” they had was to teach me that work is a blessing; that knowing mythology, Shakespeare and the Bible were the keys to understanding English; how to recognize miracles and to feel the deep spiritual things of life; that you don’t have to compromise your principles in order to achieve success in business; about commitment and sacrifice; and about strength and gentleness.

Add to that the influence of minor mentors and a great deal of what I am and believe is owed to how I responded when presented these influences. I would guess that if you look at yourself, you will see that the same is true. The more I think about the men and women behind that influence, the more grateful I am.

One of my favorite lines from The Lord of the Rings, is the statement by Theoden as he lies dying on the Pellenor fields. He says, “I go now to my fathers, in whose mighty company, I will not now be ashamed.” In generations past, we built up courage in ourselves by telling stories of the honor won by our heroes, the men and women of valor from our more distant past. In modern times the tradition of venerating the good in our history, has unfortunately fallen out of favor and in its place, we seem wont to focus on the here and now. If I look to my own generation for those heroes, I have been fortunate enough to have them and they are my mentors.

Driving past the cemetery the other day, my daughter asked me what it was. I told her. She asked why we don’t go there more often. I told her that the older you get, the more people you have to see in the cemetery, so you tend to go more often. In truth, I believe we go through life and build a welcoming committee for the other side. So, when I exit this world and enter the next, I hope to stand in the company of many of my mentors. If I am able to stand in their mighty company without shame, I will be satisfied.