Chapter 2 - What Can Leaders Do?

The growing importance for clever people is a "huge challenge" for organizations, whose traditional style of management was for one mind to control many hands, but for the hands themselves to be rather dumb and obedient. Some traditional leadership skills, such as authenticity and communication skills, still apply but other do not and can even be counterproductive. Managing clever people is less a matter of managing, and more one of guiding them, supporting them, and empowering them.

Traditional managers are uncomfortable with this relationship and seek to exert close control - and fail. At the same time, clever people need guidance. Left to their own devices, they will go their own way, which may not be very productive for the organization. It's a careful balance and if it is mismanaged the clever people will run amok or, on the other extreme, they will "switch off" until they can find an opportunity to go where they are wanted.

Leading with a Light Touch

Leading clever people requires a right touch - to support their efforts and give them enough slack to innovate, but avoid letting them know amok. Clever people know where the limits are, though they will test them sometimes; and leaders must know how where the limits are as to how far they can "push" clever people.

People who lead clever people well ad "not overly encumbered with hubris." Their work is like that of hospital administrators who know very little about surgery and yet must manage a staff of surgeons. That is to say that they must be humble about their own lack of expertise when managing experts. Leading clever people is not about knowing more than your staff, and those who revel in having power over others aren't effective leaders.

The task of the leader is not to browbeat their people into working hard, but to advocate for them within the company to give them the resources and authority they need to work smart. In managing clever people, you must constantly consider why you are doing things and consider the long-term benefits.

When leading clever people, you must think long and hard about what you contribute to the "clever party" and how you add value - and make sure that others know this as well. An leader of clever people may bring business acumen, knowledge of the firm and its mission, the ability to obtain resources and support, connections throughout the organization, or other qualities. What they do not bring to the party is creativity and technical ability - that is provided by the staff.

A common theme among leaders that the authors interviewed was that the leader sets the tone and adds some sort of discipline or structure to the organization. He provides guidance and direction but sets boundaries and makes sure the team stays within them. Aside of that, the rest of the job is about motivating people and supporting them.

Listen to the Silences

While some leaders were candid about the way they handled clever employees, others lacked a definitive answer or a systematic approach. These leaders are playing by ear, tuning into colleagues and feeling their way through situations based on what they hear. The authors suggest that this may be the most effective way to deliver leadership during a time of cultural change. Playing by ear isn't merely responding to what you hear, but being attentive to the silences. It's not always a good sign when things are quiet.

Particularly when it comes to clever people, a leader should listen before he speaks. One of the greatest strengths of a leader is empathy, which is not accomplished by telling others what you think and feel but listening to their thoughts and feelings.

Successfully leading clever people means viewing the world through their eyes and being "in tune" with their thoughts. Leaders must sense what's going on, interpret what they observe, and react appropriately. And because clever people can sequester themselves, leaders must be read between the lines and even pick up on nonverbal signals. A good leader can "sense" what's going on without needing to be told.

While soft skills have received a great deal of attention, most executives are still sorely lacking in that area. They are task-oriented and tuned into the metrics of performance, and don't relate well to people. Mundane people can be difficult enough, but clever people are even more subtle in their signals.

Random Stuff

The author presents a list of do/don't pairs for those who lead clever people:

Explain and Persuade

Clever people do not like being ordered around, and react badly when that happens. Such behavior is an affront to their capabilities and reduces them to drudges. Moreover, this style of management is "ancient history."

Even the US Army has abandoned the old military command-and-control model of leadership in favor of one that presents people with guidance and trusts them to achieve a positive outcome without micromanagement. (EN: the latest edition of the army's manual of leadership confirms this.)

Clever people want to be respected and trusted. They don't want to be told what to do without understanding why they are doing it, and do not tolerate a "no" without an explanation. Understanding the goals and boundaries gives them the latitude to achieve

Leverage Expertise

Clever people want to be challenged to use their minds, not just their hands. They are challenged to achieve outcomes, not meet requirements.

They also respond to expert leaders - those whose persuasive power is their own cleverness, not their formal authority. If they are not experts, they must accept that the people they manage are smarter than themselves, and act accordingly, leveraging their expertise rather than commanding them to perform tasks.

Leaders who do well generally impress on their employees the skills they offer that are needed by the team. One example is of a person who managed a brewery - he knew nothing of the beer-making process but was quite a marketing expert, and his team accepted him as such and took direction from him because he contributed that expertise: he didn't know how to brew, but knew what would sell, and the brew-masters respected him for that.

Leaders who regard themselves as experts are problematic. Bill Gates was a terrible leader, in spite of the success of his firm: he emphasized his genius as a computer programmer, he was infamous for meddling in the day-to-day work, and he was known for criticizing his people harshly when they didn't do things the way he would have done them. The result is that many of the most clever programmers have no interest in working for Microsoft and, as a result, the firm is better known for its vicious business practices than innovative products.

To lead clever people requires respecting their expertise and using it to its fullest advantage.

Space and Resources

If a clever person can achieve an outcome without the support of an organization, he will do so. AS such one of the main reasons clever people work for companies is that they need lots of resources they can't afford. They need laboratories, equipment, specialized facilities, and support staff.

If executives regard their requests for resources as a demand for useless toys, it is taken as a sign that their work is not respected or valued. At the same time, clever people can be obsessed and demand more than they need - striking a good balance requires delicate negotiations rather than a curt dismissal.

(EN: What the author seems to be overlooking here is the value of negotiation. People who demand things can often explain the reason they need them, and will negotiate to getting something less than they demand that still meets those needs. Perhaps this will be explored later in the book, but for now it seems like the author has dumped a dilemma on the reader without a solution.)

Clever people also need space and time, to be left alone to think through solutions. Executives who demand visible results immediately are going to be frustrated, and will frustrate employees who tend to think for a long time before they take action.

The workplace environment has been much understood of late, and companies have the general sense that they need to provide an environment that's conducive to creative thinking. Unfortunately, many firms conclude that this means ping-pong tables and other frivolous things that turn the office into a playground rather than a functional work space - and in doing so they fail to provide the resources that really matter.

In many organization, resources are granted to those who "play politics" well, and clever people avoid the practice. If they decide to get involved, they can be quite adept and entirely Machiavellian, which does more harm than good. The ability to work the political machine is one talent that a leader can bring - and should bring, because it is a waste of their talent for clever employees to spend time dealing with the organization.

Provide Boundaries

While clever people want resources, time, and space, they also need structure and discipline to put these things to good use for their organization. They are prone to chasing butterflies and going off-track, chasing after things that are interesting but may not be the top priority for the organization.

The authors promise to return to the dilemma of freedom-vs-discipline later in the book.

Give People Time for Questioning

The culture of leadership was built in a time when the leader was superior and god-like, and to be godlike means being omniscient. In this tradition, ignorance was seen as weakness, and a leader could never admit that he didn't know something for fear of losing credibility. It was soon discovered that a leader who was caught pretending to know something he didn't suffered far more damage to his credibility, but the pretension of being all-knowing has nonetheless been preserved.

Clever people respect those who know their own boundaries, and feel more valued when they are asked than when they are told. One manager joked "Somebody's got to ask the dumb questions" and that it is often the leader's job to do so. In fact, asking dumb questions is a good way to get clever people to check their premises and either reaffirm or reconsider the ideas to which they are devoted.

Another vestige of old-school authority is the notion that a leader should be obeyed without question. The modern leader is open to questions, recognizing that clever people will not sign on if they do not understand, and having the humility to check his own premises from time to time.

One manger confesses that some people in the business avoid engagement with clever subordinates because they feel intellectually intimidated and recognize that these people are academically more astute. The solution he has found is to be clear on areas of expertise - to acknowledge subject-matter expertise and avoid confronting experts in their areas of strength, but insisting that the experts acknowledge the value of business acumen and that they lack it.

Another tip is to show curiosity about the clever people's areas of expertise - getting them to talk about things that they like to talk about. This also makes you more accessible and approachable to discussions on other matters. There is a careful balance to doing this without being intrusive, and the metaphor of uprooting a plant to see how its roots are growing (EN: which is clever but that seems a bit clumsy and off-target).

Give Recognition and Amplify Achievements

Clever people identify with their work, so recognizing their achievements is the sincerest complement and withholding recognition (or taking credit) for their work is the worst form of betrayal. In most organizations, they are starved of recognition and are seldom complimented on anything at all. They are praised so infrequently that they are often genuinely shocked to hear it.

However, clever people are also attuned to manipulation and revile false praise. To hand out compliments is ineffective and offensive. They have to be recognized for actually doing something, and recognized by someone whom they respect. The recognition of their (clever) peers is of greater value than that of a high-ranking executive who is wholly unaware of what they do.

In many instances, clever people work for a long period of time on complex tasks with unknowable outcomes, and may not be accepting of praise when their work is half-done. As a result there may not be many occasions on which they will feel it is appropriate - and all the more important to receive it when it's due.

Recognition along the way may be as simple as having an end-of-week beer with colleagues, or a lunch to celebrate minor milestones. Because clever people tend to be immersed in their work they are often mistaken for being unsociable, and while they scoff at "forced fun" they appreciate a structured social event.

Perks are also a form of recognition, but they are problematic because when finances are tight organizations often cut the extras. One example is given of a hospital that provided free sandwiches to surgeons, and when that perk was rolled back the surgeons were deeply offended. It wasn't that they could not afford to buy their own lunch, but that the sandwiches were "symbolic tokens of recognition" to the surgical team, the hospital's way of expressing appreciation for the long hours of work with few breaks. This example also illustrates how even something mundane and expensive can be valued as recognition.

Encourage Failure

Entrepreneurs are familiar with the relationship between risk and reward, but established companies tend to forget this - or worse, they want all of the rewards of innovation without the risks. In an environment where mistakes are punished, clever people become risk-averse and slow to act because they wish to test, socialize, gather data, and undertake all manner of activities to assess the risk.

As such, any organization that earnestly wants to foster innovation and creativity must first accept the inevitability of failure. Not all innovative ideas work and there are hundreds of "duds" for every success. Such an organization should not merely tolerate failure, but encourage it - and accept that failures are evidence of effort to succeed.

There are extreme examples of companies that hold "failure parties" to thank employees for the effort they put into an effort that didn't work out and, at the same time, to see what lessons can be learned. Another example is the pharmaceutical company whose chairman sent letters thanking team leaders for stopping a project that had failed in clinical trials and encouraging them to move on to the next challenge. (EN: I recall someone else using that example as a way to encourage people to know when to stop fighting a losing battle, which is likely also important for clever people to learn.)

Mitigate Bureaucracy

Clever people produce the greatest value when doing innovative work, and dealing with bureaucracies and red tape is not innovative. So another valuable duty of their management is to deal with the "organizational detritus" so that they can focus on their work.

Going back to the healthcare industry: cardiac surgeons do the most good and generate the most income for hospitals when they are in the operating room (which, incidentally, is where they are the most happy), not when they are filling out paperwork. That should be very obvious, but for whatever reason they are often burdened with administrative tasks such as that.

Another quote comes from the manager of a research lab, who says "it's by job to set up the relationships and guard the playground."

Real-World Challenges with Constraints

There is a place where clever people can gather and explore ideas for the sake of satisfying their intellectual curiosity - and that is academia. In the commercial world, clever people must apply their minds to a specific purpose, and the only way to do this is to give them real challenges and make them operate within real constraints.

(EN: I recall someone mentioning that constraints don't ruin the "fun" of innovation - even children's games have rules that define what's in or out of bounds and part of the challenge is working within these constraints.)

Some firms have formed "think tanks" and "innovation departments" which become an ivory tower within the corporate world - completely aloof, divorced from reality, and entirely useless. Few such departments provide anything worthwhile because they are too far divorced from the front lines and the inconvenient realities of business.

One suggestion is to pull small teams of people off the front lines to have them work on specific challenges for a limited period of times. This produces results that are not so far "out there" that they cannot be implemented, and gives the people a break from the mundane to think.

Another anecdote comes from the manager of a software firm, who suggest that clever people are most motivated by the suggestion that something can't be done. The opportunity to tackle a difficult puzzle and succeed at doing what seems impossible is very alluring to clever types.

Talk Straight

Clever people are not easily deceived, and they are very adept at identifying "bull." Any attempt to misinform or manipulate them will likely be detected, and they will be doubly insulted not only by the lie but in the lack of respect in thinking they would fall for it. It's important to be honest and to be yourself, particularly when dealing with people who can tell when you're faking it.

As mentioned earlier, leaders lack subject-matter expertise but bring other skills to the table such as business acumen and political savvy. Clever people recognize the value of those skills, or can be convinced that they are valuable. If nothing else they will be grateful for a manager who takes care of the administrative work and leaves them to do things they'd rather.

This also applies to shielding people from bad news. Clever people can tolerate a lot, if they know about it. They panic more from not-knowing than from knowing.

Create a Galaxy

Clever people are most productive in a peer-group of other clever people. The first implication is that managers should be highly selective about whom they recruit. To introduce a dullard to the pack will put a damper on their creativity. The second implication is that the arrangement of staff should be in the nature of a galaxy of stars rather than a rank-and-file hierarchy.

A good hire will also attract other people. In the academic world, it's often be observed that hiring a "star" professor adds to the prestige of the institution, attracts other scholars, and attracts a better class of students. The same is true in the business world.

Great people also inspire others to do better. They are a catalyst and a role model within the organization, and their impact is significant.

However, a few great people create only pockets of greatness, and to transform an organization means looking for star talent across the board, not just in a few areas. A star player can't carry a bad team, and cannot compete with an all-star team (or even a team of strong players who aren't quite star-quality).

Conduct and Connect

The authors explore some of the various metaphors for good leadership: A compass that gives direction to the organization A magnet that attracts greatness to the organization. A bridge that enables skilled people to cross the chasms between organizational silos. A power cord that conducts current to an appliance to enable it to run. A conductor who keeps the musicians playing together but doesn't play an instrument. And so on.

The author suggests that these and other metaphors are somewhat incongruous, and no-one seems to have a firm handle on what leadership means in the modern age. The only thing that everyone seems to be agreed upon is that the traditional model of a leader as the "brain" of the organization is no longer applicable.