Mónica Guzmán and Biz Stone on Leadership and The Picard School of Management

Mónica Guzmán was featured on the Mediashift podcast this week, and host Mark Glaser interviewed her about her time as a Nieman Fellow and the shifting media lansdcape. When the topic turned to leadership, Mónica invoked Ronald Heifetz of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and his notion of how leadership is distinct from that of authority (emphasis mine):

“Leadership and authority are not the same thing. So there actually is no such thing as a leadership position. Authority is no guarantee of leadership. The problems and the struggles that journalists are faced with are all problems and struggles that are new, and require new solutions. We don’t already know how to solve these problems. In those cases, the people in authority don’t necessarily have any more specialized knowledge about what those answers are than anybody else. So you’re faced with this dilemma. Leadership is mobilizing people to do the work to solve top problems they all share. So in my mind everyone in the newsroom owns a piece of these problems and so ideally you want everyone in the newsroom to be mobilized to work on those problems, but what I think that you end up seeing is that the reporters and the staff are looking to their authority figures expecting them to have the answers, and to offer salvation. Meanwhile the authority figures don’t actually have the answers, but feel pressured to kind of pretend that they do. And the only way to get them, is to get experimental. That requires having a very high failure rate. And the culture of most newsrooms cannot tolerate a high failure rate.”

On a related note, in the podcast, Glaser discusses how WIRED has decided to deal with Ad Blockers. WIRED has officially stated the options they are offering readers:

1. You can simply add WIRED.com to your ad blocker’s whitelist, so you view ads. When you do, we will keep the ads as “polite” as we can, and you will only see standard display advertising.

2. You can subscribe to a brand-new Ad-Free version of WIRED.com. For $1 a week, you will get complete access to our content, with no display advertising or ad tracking.

They don’t mention tine third option, and the one I predict will dominate in this era of peak content: Move on to another site and read what they offer ad-free and subscription-free. I am willing to bet the “confident” manager(s) at WIRED who understand what the reality likely is didn’t tell their team that the first two options will be what readers at-large will ignore.

The notion of “pretending” to have the answers reminded me of a passage from Twitter cofounder Biz Stone’s book “Things A Little Bird Told Me” about his experience in growing their platform during challenging times:

“With the shift in leadership and the tech issues, the team was fractured. We were a laughingstock in the tech world. Programmers were blaming each other. As always, when all else fails, turn to Star Trek. There is a Next Generation episode called “Attached.” It focuses mainly on Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher. In it they’re alone on the planet Kesprytt III. Some of its inhabitants capture them and implant them with “transceivers” that allow them to hear each other’s thoughts. At one point, while they’re walking, they lose their way. Captain Picard says, “This way.” But the doctor, reading his mind, says, “You don’t really know, do you?” The captain admits that sometimes being a leader means cultivating the appearance of confidence. That’s my leadership move. Saying “This is what we’re going to do. This is the right thing,” gives everyone the sense of a common mission. We needed to focus on something that felt bigger than our off-balance company. The 2008 presidential election was on the horizon, and both candidates had Twitter accounts. Election Night was going to be important for Twitter.”

The passage Stone refers to is below:

PICARD: What is it?
CRUSHER: I’m not sure whether we should go over this hill or that one. The topography on this map is a little vague.
PICARD: Let me see… This way.
CRUSHER: You don’t really know, do you?
CRUSHER: I mean, you’re acting like you know exactly which way to go, but you’re only guessing. Do you do this all the time?
PICARD: No, but there are times when it is necessary for a captain to give the appearance of confidence.

Jason Preston has also been immersed in the teaching of Heifetz and alerts me that this notion of leading by false confidence runs contra to what he’s seen Heifetz advocate. Glyn Vincent wrote about it here: “These contemporary concepts of leadership, developed by Heifetz, rely less on notions of a charismatic visionary and emphasize the need for leaders to correctly diagnose the situation at hand.” My argument is that when the situation can’t be diagnosed, false confidence can be a tool used (sparingly!) to maintain forward momentum and inspire a team. Consider that table salt is not a nutrient, and is in fact a poison, but in small amounts it can be used to enhance food greatly.

See the Star Trek video clip below:

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