Test Leadership blog

Are humans like butterflies?

It’s spring here in southern California the butterflies are starting their annual emergence. What effect will the butterflies have on the weather remains to be seen. The so called “butterfly effect” is an often used phrase used to refer to a property of nonlinear systems where a small change in initial conditions can have large effects later on. The name derives from the notion that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas. Sometimes these conditions even create chaotic movements such as can be seen in this video of a double pendulum. Notice that if you don’t swing the double pendulum too far, it seems to act like a regular single pendulum.

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Everyday Matters in the Game of Organization

Why do you think that Dilbert cartoons are so funny? Perhaps because they represent the experience of so many in the everyday life of an organization. Yes, the pointy hair boss spewing management speak and disengaged from what is actually happening, while the individual contributor  (I just picked up that term somewhere and wanted to use it) like Wally is learning to play the game and respond in humorous ways that shed responsibility and hold commitment and power at bay. And how is it that the average contributor learns to play the game of organization?

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What we are not going to talk about


The leader, very facilitative by nature, welcomes everyone to the conference room. She reminds everyone how this meeting was proposed and that the topic at hand is to understand the “goods” and “bads” of something that has happened in order to learn. She then explains … “What we can talk about is what happened on project X. What we’re not going to talk about is Y and we’re also not going to do is critique the individual who has left the organization that was on project X. This isn’t about Mr. A.”


 Quizzical looks, a few tentatively raised hands.  She calls on one. “So just to be clear what can we talk about again?” 

“In general terms we can talk about X”, was the response. 

Another raised hand, “So we can’t talk directly about B then?” 

“Well yes if that applies we can talk about B, we just don’t want to bash A”, was the response.

Another raised hand, “So I’m not sure what I’m supposed to talk about now.”

Another comment, “I think we might need to talk about things more broadly than just X”.

Car Chases and Org Change

Why Did I Watch?

Last evening I sat down to watch TV and there was breaking live news story of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) chasing a white pickup truck. The suspect had been changing lanes erratically.  When the CHP attempted to pull the truck over on an LA freeway the driver had fled off to surface streets.  I invested 30 minutes in watching this play out live, what’s up with that?  I have to admit it was annoying and mesmerizing at the same time, I couldn’t bring myself to change the channel, I didn’t want to miss the ending.

For those of you interested in the result. Here is a 3 minute news video including the PIT maneuver being superbly executed by the CHP.

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My Grandmother’s Diary

I was going through some files right after the New Year and came across a few pages I had scanned from my Grandmother’s diary.  It included the exact same month and day as the day I was reading it, January 2.  And it was exactly 100 years earlier, 1912. My Grandmother was born in July 1894. This diary entry was written when she was 17 years old and living in South Dakota.

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VUCA and Strange Attractors

VUCA is a term borrowed from the military via the Army War College. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity and represents how military leaders see much of today’s world. I suggest that in our terms, VUCA are all attributes of complex adaptive systems. According to the National Defense University description, the “C” in VUCA sounds more like what we would call complicated since it stems from the interdependency of our choices (complicated) and not interdependency of actors (complexity). Nonetheless, I think they are on the right track toward leading in complexity. The caution is that some might incorrectly believe that we can reduce VUCA if we only had more accurate information. Complexity theory would tell us that no matter how much information we have, we still cannot reduce VUCA nor predict the future with increased accuracy.  Read More→

Leadership Lesson from High School Kids

Recently we had an opportunity to give a short leadership workshop to 2 high school engineering classes. The teacher wanted us to help the students understand how to work together since later in the year they will be working in teams. We learned an important lesson ourselves while observing the two groups. Read More→

The thick and thin of it

Clifford Geertz, the cultural anthropologist who influenced the practice of symbolic anthropology, wrote “analysis, then, is sorting out the structures of signification…and determining their social ground and import.” (Geertz, 1973, p. 9) Geertz was concerned that anthropological research was more interpretive than anthropologists admitted. To paraphrase, they were explicating other’s explications of explications. What Geertz was saying is that anthropological writing is fiction in the sense that they are made and fashioned but they are not false.

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Leadership Networks

The other day while working with a group of managers on succession planning and development, background stories emerged that hinted at the question: Are leaders born or made? Nature vs. nurture is a persistent debate regarding the source of leadership. Managers, academics, and consultants all have views about which contributes more to making good leaders — genes or experience. One study (Arvey et al, 2007) looked at twins and found that the split was 30% genetics and 70% experience. You don’t need to look too long before you find a study that concludes there is a different distribution. Most recent studies about the nature vs. nurture debate conclude that at least some degree of whatever they are studying (leadership, parenting, creativity, intelligence, etc.) is attributed to each nature and nurture. Ok, so let’s go with that and not worry about what percentage is which. We could agree that we need to work on both, get good people with good experience, treat them well, and allow them to continue to learn from experience. This is essentially the position the managers ended up with.

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