The funny thing about leadership is that the more I speak/write about it, the more people become interested in the topic and the more questions (about it) I get. It's not necessarily a bad thing (well, but I'd rather not have this blog about the leadership only ...), especially if the questions are really good and thought-provoking.

Probably the most interesting ones are about how to distinguish an outstanding leader from the bad one. Of course apart from the obvious cases when it's crystal clear that someone is ineffective, non-credible and people literally flee from her/him. How to tell a great leader material from a charismatic bullshitter, egoistic maniac, or an inspiring sales(wo)man - the one who can sell the dream but isn't able to make it happen for real?

The golden criterion

Trying to answer that single question could provide enough material for the whole new book. I bet there are at least ten already written on this particular topic :) But no worries, I'll be brief as I'd like to mention just one criterion I've found one day either on the Internet or in one of the books I maniacally devour. Unfortunately, I've lost the source reference, so let me know if you recognize it. Here it goes:

Great leaders absorb chaos.

I love this one. It's so simple and yet so accurate.

Being a great leader:

  • doesn't mean you have to have the most ideas
  • or that you need to always be in the epicenter of things
  • or that your imprint has to be on everything the team creates
  • or that it's okay for you to intervene and override others' decisions whenever you feel like so

All of the "don'ts" above would make you the most visible and turn you into the star of the show. But they also create an unprecedented amount of chaos, impeding the team's effectiveness.

Managing by throwing balls

It's actually quite common in many organizations that the top-level management ignores all the arrangements, processes, established flows of work and runs the organization by "throwing balls" - giving special assignments, seeding "pet projects", asking the team members for some additional random work/research, etc.

It's so common that barely anyone is ever surprised. Well, it's the CXO after all, so just suck it up and be grateful that it's you who has the opportunity to score some "additional points". You're not going to ask her/him to create a JIRA ticket in your backlog, correct?

However, if you step back a bit to get a more holistic view, it starts to appear a little bit different. That CXO manages the organization by ignoring its rules. To get work effectively done, (s)he walks around the processes or procedures set (hopefully) with effectiveness in mind. By doing this, (s)he increases the organizational chaos - by multiplying workstreams, devaluating agreed priorities, and circumventing transparency.

And what would a good leader do (instead) in such a case?

  1. Make sure that the organization has mechanisms for all kinds of work-streams it needs (urgent, important, cyclical, etc.)
  2. Highlight and help fixing the mechanism(s) that do not work or work inefficiently
  3. Unequivocally support the non-conflicting, precise, common priorities and make them visible for everyone involved

Chaos != Energy

If your interpretation of the example above is that the leader's role is always to go by the book and make sure that no one ever leans out - that's not the case.

Chaos is the opposite of order. Order is a state of things where all the pieces have given roles to play, and their interactions are friction-less and fluent. Order is not given forever. In fact, to improve the state of order (escape the local optimum), one should introduce elements of chaos (shift some gears, add new talent, experiment and learn, etc.), but in a controlled manner. Order cannot be too rigid, too structured, too inert - that's why the order is not an extreme (polar) state, but rather some sort of a balance.

True leaders are the master acrobats who continuously maneuver to keep this balance (while juggling, swallowing knives, and pedaling the unicycle - all at the very same time), so the sh*t is getting done w/ minimal interruption.

How does it work in the wild? Do you recall any people:

  • ... who always know when to catalyze, suppress, or redirect the energy in a group? while staying in the 2nd row?
  • ... who can get a non-productive, derailed meeting back on track with a single, well-aimed question/remark?
  • ... who never miss the best moment to remind the (temporarily lost) team what's the common objective you're all supposed to be heading towards?
  • ... who are able to "read the room" (sense the uncertainty, misaligned priorities, passive-aggressive behaviors, unspoken disappointment & other non-verbal messages) & candidly address the issue
  • ... who are champions of clarity: strive to untangle the ambiguities, slice the incomprehensibilities, make complex things sound simple & digestible - not just by themselves, but by involving others and giving them space to contribute fairly

That's how you absorb chaos. That's how the great leaders act.