Modern leadership can be a confusing minefield of topics. At the same time anyone can become good at it by paying attention to and mastering some basics.

What are these basics? Are there clues? Is there a signal in all the noise around leadership development?


A Dozen Favorite Problems

You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!

– Richard Feynman quoted in Design your Work by Tiago Forte [1]

Both my practice and articles have one overarching goal: How can clever, conscientious, practicing managers and aspiring leaders become more effective at the art, science, and practice of leadership?

Just as Feynman had 12 overarching themes he always kept on his radar, there are some primary themes that my practice is oriented around. Most of my articles address these themes in some form.

Over the years, I have practiced, stumbled upon, and experienced these through my own triumphs, mistakes, and tribulations in leading people within organizations.

The themes of Language, Human OS (operating system) and Self-Mastery form the core of my practice. Additionally, leaders today are operating in a VUCA environment with exponentially increasing complexity. They are also managing highly specialized technical teams or have a specialist/technical background themselves.

These themes can be thought of as lenses through which I look at leadership and management and that informs my approach when working with teams and individuals.

Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

The Three Pillars and Two Contexts of Modern Leadership
The Three Pillars and Two Contexts of Modern Leadership

The Three Pillars of Modern Leadership

Your leadership sits at the intersection of the mastery of three domains: language, the human os, and the self.

1. Mastery of the human OS – leading humans not resources

Understanding the human OS (operating system) is essential for leadership both in leading others and yourself. In our modern, fast-paced world of work, we as leaders tend to forget that both our teams and ourselves are human beings and not human doings or resources.

We are homo-sapiens not homo-economicus.

Too many executives treat their organizations as rational, rule-governed systems, perpetuating the illusion of the economic man as an optimizing machine of pleasures and pains, while ignoring the multifarious peculiarities that come with being human.

– Manfred Kets de Vries in CEO Whisperer [2]

This is obvious and yet easy to forget. It's also the very thing that can add the highest leverage and impact in our leadership.

Looking back at our own careers, we might notice that some of the most challenging and intractable problems could invariably be linked to ineffective leadership when working with people and teams or an inability to cope with the rising complexities of getting results through others.

The main challenge of leaders of organizations is talent and culture management—having an understanding of what makes people “tick” and giving them the opportunities to be the best that they can be. It will make you more effective in deciphering what motivates others. This approach is what differentiates run-of-the-mill from high-performing organizations.

– Manfred Kets de Vries in CEO Whisperer [2]

We are all unique and at the same time as humans we are all similar, we operate with the same OS . There are basic attributes of the human OS that we as leaders need to be intimate with. We can ignore that at our own peril.

As you go higher up the organizational ladder, two things become evident:

  1. First is the nature of challenges and problems that you tackle. They tend to be more complex and less technical in nature. Understanding the human OS is directly tied to working in complex environments where there are no straightforward, pre-existing technical solutions.
  2. Second, tied to the first, is that our ability to get things done through and with people gets increasingly critical as we go higher up in the organization. Getting better at skills in the human domain becomes more important with increasing responsibilities and leadership profile.

Here’s how Henry Mintzberg puts it,

[M]anagers get things done largely through other people—those in the unit who formally report to them as well as others around it who do not. […] But especially in large organizations and those concerned with “knowledge work,” the manager has to help bring out the best in other people, so that they can know better, decide better, and act better.

– Henry Mintzberg in Managing [3]

What is the Human OS?

Psychology pervades business literature and is often not as helpful. What is more helpful is studying how human beings actually are. What is their being?  In other words, the ontology of human beings.

This is what is common to all of us just by the sheer fact that we exist. To use a computer term, it is how our operating system (OS) is designed.

We are also different from other living creatures because we have language, we have consciousness, and we simultaneously live in the past, present and future.

We are free to choose and create our own meanings. But these superpowers also come packaged with a whole host of challenges.

We live in a world of meaning and purpose that is different from the world of machines. Trying to replicate and expecting the same standards of the machine domain to the human domain is an exercise in futility.

This is even more important in knowledge work where human creativity and ingenuity are paramount to success.

Nothing I am stating is new but most organizations are designed around ignoring these basics. Many of the prevailing HR paradigms are over 100 years old dating back to the early 20th century.

Even the ones that do claim to understand the human OS, do so at a superficial level without a deep understanding how human beings operate. Many of them bring the same ethos of machine like predictability and performance in their efforts to apply it to the human domain.

My argument for working with the human OS is not a normative one, ie whether it is good or bad. It is directly from the perspective of performance and results.

The more we work with our OS the better we are able to perform. The inverse is equally true.

Articles I have written on the human OS and leadership:

2. Mastery of language

Language is the all pervasive and yet paradoxically hidden medium of leadership

One prevailing zeitgeist of our times is an overload of information. Another prevailing but unexamined assumption is that the more information or knowledge you have the more effective you can be. But is this really true?

If information or knowledge is all we needed, all of us should have been geniuses by now as everything we could possibly need to know is available at the other end of a determined google search.

Instead of accumulating more knowledge, the question is how do we access more effectiveness in our leadership? One way is through language.

On first glance there is no obvious link between language and leadership. Language is taken for granted most of the time, or gets a cursory treatment rather than as one of the central pieces of leadership.

For example, some experts have written about conversations while others have focussed on being effective at speeches and so on.

But upon closer examination, language is the very medium of leadership. It is through language that managers and leaders make things happen. Their doing happens in  language.

The doing for engineers might be through designs, for architects it might be through blueprints, and for surgeons it might be through surgeries. For leaders and managers their primary medium of action is language.

Whether it is through conversations, presentations, speeches, meetings, performance appraisals, persuasion, phone calls or even how one listens, the work of a leader or manager is primarily done through language.

A non-psychological, accessible way to leadership and managerial effectiveness is through the mastery of language. It is based on how we already are, our being(ontology), rather than delving into our psychology.

As ubiquitous and obvious language is, it is hidden in plain sight and a vastly underutilized leadership tool. Most leaders are either unaware of its power or do not know how to leverage it.

“Strategic Listening” is arguably Core Competence/Competitive Advantage #1 for organizations of all flavors and sizes. I am deadly serious.

What do we— leaders— do? Talk. (Present.) Listen. (Question/ Interview.)

– Tom Peters [4]

Mastering the domain of conversations is one way to leverage language. Our effectiveness as leaders is directly tied to the effectiveness of our conversations.

An organization is fundamentally a network of conversations and commitments that are built in language.

Effective leaders are coaches who lead and coach by leveraging language and being masters of the conversational domain [2][4]

Communicating is not simply what managers spend a great deal of time doing but the medium through which managerial work is constituted.

Henry Mintzberg in Managing [3]
Traditional corporate communication must give way to a process that is more dynamic and more sophisticated. Most important, that process must be CONVERSATIONAL.

– Boris Groysberg & Michael Slind in Harvard Business Review [5]

Articles I have written on language and leadership:

3. Mastery of the self

Unlike other professions, the primary tool of leadership is the leader herself. This is different from that of engineering or medicine where you have a well-defined set of available tools & procedures.

This is why continuous learning and development while cliched is more important in leadership than perhaps any other profession.

Effective leaders lead themselves first. Leaders, if they want to stay ahead in the game, have to take responsibility for their own self-development.

To create best places to work, it is important that members of organizational teams are familiar with the mystery that is themselves. Only by studying human motivation from the inside will they be able to truly understand what is happening on the outside.

– Manfred Kets de Vries in CEO Whisperer [2]

As important as continued development of leaders is, they cannot rely on their organizations or on pure accident for that. Self-development is as much a core skill as any other. It is a meta-skill that underlies others.

Self-development of the effective executive is central to the development of the organization.

Development is always self-development. Nothing could be more absurd than for the enterprise to assume responsibility for the development of a person. The responsibility rests with individuals, their abilities, their efforts.

– Peter Drucker [7] [8]

Development cannot be relegated to an MBA program or a one-off course either. It is a never-ending, incremental process.

As a practicing manager myself for over 12 years and deciding not to pursue an MBA, my general take is that practicing managers do not need to do an MBA to lead effectively.

While they ostensibly purport to teach leadership, MBA programs primarily prepare their students to run businesses or at least understand businesses. MBA programs are businesses in and of themselves and the extent to which they actually create leaders is questionable.

Here’s Henry Mintzberg in Managers not MBAs :

Hill concludes from her own research that “the education many business schools provide does little to prepare managers for their day-to-day realities”. Asked for one improvement in the MBA, the respondents called for more teaching of the “soft skills.” They always do. These calls for soft skills seem well founded. After all, managing is mostly about the soft stuff—working with people, doing deals, processing vague information, and so forth.

– Henry Mintzberg in Managers, not MBAs [6]

Often our unwillingness to learn also stems from whether we know where and what to look for. Leadership can be a very hazy term with vague notions that are not actionable. It can also take on a normative, good vs bad tone.

What we do not have awareness or language for, it is almost impossible to get better at. But the more we increase our awareness and vocabulary in a given field, the more we are likely to naturally get better at it over time.

One of my aims with my articles and coaching is to increase this awareness and vocabulary by exposing you to frameworks and models that can help orient you in the right direction.

This is the first step towards mastery.

Articles I have written on self-mastery and leadership:

The Two Contexts of Modern Leadership

There are two overarching contexts in modern leadership that do not get enough attention : increasing complexity and managing knowledge work.

1. Increasing complexity and information overload

We live and work in environments of increasing complexity where complex-adaptive problems cannot be solved with pre-existing technical approaches or approaches that worked in more predictable cause and effect environments. Leadership is not formulaic; it is as much art as science because being human is not formulaic. We are non-deterministic, open-ended systems and any method assuming otherwise is doomed to fail.

How do we stay effective and nimble in an environment of increasing complexity and information overload? How do we become better thinkers and build our muscle of thinking and reasoning in an environment of incomplete or competing/contradicting information?

[A]s managers advance to senior positions, they “deal increasingly with predicaments, not problems.” These “require interpretative thinking . . . [because of] paradoxical courses and consequences. Alas, predicaments cannot be handled smoothly.

– Henry Mintzberg in Managing [3]

Complex environments are also where simple, straight forward cause and effect based tools and techniques tend to stop working. This leaves us wondering as to what recourse we have in terms of learning.

The tools and techniques… are second order abstractions. [T]hey always have to be particularized in specific situations which are never exactly the same as other situations, and this means ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability in how the tools and techniques are used. The tools and techniques in practice do not, therefore, take the clear-cut simplicity of their presentation.

– Ralph Stacey in Tools & Techniques of Management and Leadership [9]

2. Knowledge Work- Technical leaders/teams have a distinct set of challenges

Leaders and managers who rose through the ranks on the strength of their technical prowess in their specialization, whether in finance, sales or engineering, have their own set of unique challenges that might not be obvious. Additionally, leading teams that are themselves technical has its own set of challenges. Are there helpful frameworks that underlie these unique situations?

One classic example is that of leaders with STEM backgrounds who struggle  with switching from technical to managerial roles because of the accompanying lack of depth and definition that is characteristic in managing.

It has been said that an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until finally he or she knows everything about nothing. The manager’s problem is the opposite: knowing less and less about more and more until finally he or she knows nothing about everything.

– Henry Mintzberg in Managing [6]

One particular challenge that is common in people with specialist backgrounds whether in engineering, technology or finance, is the inability to operate in the grey because managerial work sometimes can entirely be in the grey with no obvious start and finish lines.

The engineer completes the design of a bridge on a particular day; the lawyer wins or loses a case at some moment in time. The manager, in contrast, must always keep going, never sure when success is truly assured or that things might come crashing down . As a result, managing is a job with a perpetual preoccupation: the manager can never be free to forget the work, never has the pleasure of knowing, even temporarily, that there is nothing left to do

– Henry Mintzberg in Managing [6]

My articles on complexity and knowledge work:

Upstream principles & frameworks vs downstream techniques & tactics

I try to stay away from techniques and formulae as much as possible especially when it comes to people and leadership. Besides, it will be easy for you to find posts of that kind- 5 ways to do this, 7 ways to do that.

We humans have a remarkable ability to pick up BS and any of us who has tried techniques on people only to find later that it does not work anymore knows this very well. Unless we are working with underlying principles and frameworks, the effects tend to be short-lived and superficial.

Leadership is as much an art and practice as science, if it is even one. It is an emergent phenomenon very much tied to the particular and thus cannot be formulaic. Any attempt to make it formulaic needs to be questioned.

At the same time, there are frameworks lying further upstream that underlie everything like the basics of the human OS and language which are helpful to understand. You can then devise your own techniques and tactics based on what the particular situation dictates instead of trying to fit a generic technique onto your situation.

Fundamental principles and frameworks are more powerful, reliable, and long-lasting than techniques. They help you understand the lay of the land and navigate the terrain.

Frameworks and principles can be likened to a compass while prescriptive techniques and tactics can be likened to maps. For unknown, unexplored, or changing terrains, a compass tends to work better than inaccurate or incomplete maps.

There is also the theme of “somebody should have told us”. These are frameworks and practices that when I first came across irritated me as much as they were eye-opening and effective.

We were either not taught or were completely unaware of their existence because of the amount of noise, selection bias, and the lack of time that surrounds us.

Key Questions

Some of the questions that I try to address are,

  • Are there proven learning methods that can help us master leadership and ensure we adapt successfully to never-ending change and complexity?
  • How do we build ourselves to handle higher levels of complexity and uncertainty?
  • How do we go about developing the “Managerial Mind” and “Managerial Wisdom”?
  • How do we build our personal leadership philosophy and practice?
  • What does “leading yourself” mean and how do you go about it?
  • How can you use language to “lead yourself” and develop yourself?

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Footnotes/References

  1. Richard Feynman as quoted in Design your Work by Tiago Forte.
  2. The CEO Whisperer by Manfred Kets de Vries.
  3. Managing by Henry Mintzberg.
  4. Tom Peters in Presentation Excellence.
  5. Leadership is a Conversation by Boris Groysberg & Michael Slind.
  6. Managers, Not MBAs by Henry Mintzberg.
  7. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker.
  8. The Practice of Management by Peter Drucker.
  9. Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management by Ralph Stacey.

Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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