On Leadership

Posted on Apr 23, 2011
On Leadership

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about management styles and the distinctions between “good” and “bad” leadership. Every moment in the life of a manager is highly scrutinized; in times of crisis, a team will always look to the governing entity in order to determine how they should respond emotionally and tactically.

As a conceptual baseline, I keep coming back to the late innovator and Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch. Pausch was 47 when he passed away, leaving behind a wife and three children. Most people know Pausch from his acclaimed Last Lecture in September 2007, a stirring message delivered to his students and colleagues just weeks after learning that pancreatic cancer would very soon take his life.

One of the most remarkable aspects about the speech is the humor and sincere gratification in which Pausch approached his condition. His appreciation for every waking moment was genuinely humbling to those of us who (rather selfishly) think we have “real problems” to deal with.

A brilliant instructor and much-loved colleague, Pausch is considered a pioneer in the field of computer science and virtual reality. He was a co-founder of the Entertainment Technology Center, served as a consultant for Walt Disney Imagineering’s Virtual Reality Studio, and developed a computer program called Alice that allowed novices to create 3D animations using a drag-and-drop interface.

One of Pausch’s unique gifts was to continuously bridge technical and artistic disciplines, often for the purpose of creating digital experiences that retained elements of storytelling:

“In an era of ever-increasing specialization, Randy promoted interdisciplinary teams based upon mutual respect, building bridges between fine arts and computer science,” said Dan Siewiorek, head of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute. “Randy’s legacy is his technology that made computer science accessible to the non-specialists.”

In the mid to late 90’s, I actually got to work on the Orlando implementation of DisneyQuest for Walt Disney Imagineering. All I remember is what an enormously huge undertaking that project was and how it absolutely encompassed my life, so I can’t say that I have fond memories of that time. Years later and much wiser, I now wish I had made more of an effort to truly appreciate what we were building. It was certainly ahead of its time, and I realize I should be thankful for the experience.

From a leadership standpoint, I continue to be amazed just how closely Pausch’s message mirrored some of the things my late grandfather used to say. The delivery was much different (Grandpa was a bit of a mumbler), but some of the lessons remain:

  • Experience is what you get when you don’t like the outcome.
  • When you run into a brick wall, it’s an opportunity to gauge how much you really want what’s behind it.
  • If you work hard, you can be good at something. If you’re good at something, you become valuable.
  • Complaining is useless. Get over it and work harder.
  • When you get feedback, listen to it. They might be right.
  • Luck resides at the intersection of opportunity and preparation.

Leadership is very much like this. The good leaders understand the subtleties of their responsibility, embrace these nuances with enthusiasm, and advance global imperatives as a motivating tactic to inspire their teams. Bad leaders blame others for their shortcomings, cause havoc among work groups, communicate poorly (or not at all) and lack vision for the “greater good.”

Good leaders understand that they’re not always right; they make the best decisions they can with the data they have at that time, and they’re willing to change if the team thinks something isn’t working. Bad leaders remain stubborn and inflexible, failing to sense when effort and intent have been irreversibly separated. Good leaders back it up; bad leaders cover their backs at the expense of others.

As a leader, I’ve been all of these at various times — often within the same day. I’d like to think I’m improving as I go, but you’d have to verify with my colleagues if that’s indeed the case. The lesson I think I’ve learned over my career is this: the moral compass of any leader is closely aligned with their priority structure, with the resulting outcome a mere manifestation of those value principles.