95 - Practical leadership—lessons from…


leadership and org culture


  1. As a leader, it's ok to want to be on top of things. Don't let that make you anxious. Set up a system for fixing errors quickly.
  2. If you’re open to being told how to do your job better, you can earn the right to tell others how to do theirs.
  3. Most orgs do their first performance appraisal a year after hiring. The better ones do their first at hiring.
  4. If a team is not made of people with complementary skill sets, leaders will make every hire close the median. This breeds homogeneity. Reinforces weaknesses, not counterbalance it.
  5. Getting your team to do what’s right, not what’s easy to defend, means shielding them from the repercussions of bad optics. That means being willing to risk your own reputation.

Almost two years to the day, I had first heard Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen speak. Here was an astrophysicist who after having more than 200 articles published in peer-reviewed journals had ended up heading NASA’s science missions and entrusted with a budget upward of $7bn.

Business leaders at most S&P 500 companies don’t get to answer the demands of such a stratospheric level of responsibility, much less an academic. So what’s so special about him—this was the question that had always fascinated me. I had gone back and forth over his interview over on The Knowledge Project, read up his profiles pretty much anywhere, and known from his Wikipedia page that he had made at least 37 consequential-irreversible decisions (that’s 37 missions launched) in his career as a space administrator.

So when I got the chance to ask him a question as part of office hours for Farnam Street’s Decision by Design community, I made an honest effort:

Not many lead organizations that launch rockets. You do. I would imagine the stakes are much higher and different than other business decisions (life versus capital allocation questions. What would you say is different about decisions with low fault tolerance? Do you operate at a higher level of risk aversion? Do you have special protocols in place, like the US Navy has murder boards in place to select Top Gun instructors?

And as luck would have it my question made the cut. This is Dr. Z’s response. Italics are mine for emphasis.

‘So first of all, we do exactly, we have the processes in place to make those decisions. On a personal level, all I do is I make the decision backwards…I go backwards. It’s like, “Okay, something bad happened, I’m going to sit in front of that congressional committee. What am I telling them?” So in other words, I’m fixing things. Did I really look at the things or am I creating a fake kind of bad motivation for bad decisions? So that’s one. So that’s a personal one.

I mean for me, before I launch, I’m sitting down even before we ship to the launch vehicle, often I call 10 people. It’s like are we doing everything to maximize our chances for success? And of course I built the environment so I actually hear it, right? It’s like no, and we did not. So okay, let’s not launch. It’s going to be a bad story, but we want to make sure—Psyche, last year we did not launch. That was really important that that could be said. That [Psyche] was the first one we missed by the way, and we can talk about that. But the point is for the others we have that.

Then what I do in each one of the key decisions, we have kind of a murder board. So the way we’re doing it is we actually brought people who just look at specific aspects—only safety to people, only for radioactive systems, for example, because you don’t want to, if it blows up and people have radiation in Florida, you want to make sure you don’t kill anybody. So okay, so what are the likelihoods? Are we thinking about this the right way?

Only engineering—did we use the protocols the right way and we bring in other specialists and they all make their observations and at the end, it’s only me who makes the decision, right? But because we’re listening to all of these, the final thing we do is really important.

I don’t know what the analogs are in business, but I’ve seen some examples, but it will be highly specific. What actually happens, remember, I’m the most emotionally engaged person here. My reputation sits on that rocket right there. What’s really important that the actual launch decision that morning is not mine. So what I do is I turn over the spacecraft the evening before. There’s only one way I can interact which say there’s something wrong with the spacecraft, do not launch. But I’m not the person, my organization is no longer in charge. The launch itself, there is one group they’re the best at launching and I turn it over to them and frankly I’m going in the back seat. See, the reason that’s so important is like I’m on emotion, they’re unemotional, they’re only focused on getting the thing off the planet, that’s what they do. And for me, that kind of transition happens at the report. I mean my last time is the evening before and I basically say, “You got it now.” And of course full trust and again, something goes wrong with the spacecraft, I can shut it down, but I am not with my emotions making everybody crazy. I’m sitting in the back row and basically trust that they know what they’re doing.’

What’s this environment that Dr. Z is talking about where people can speak truth to power? What contributes to such an environment? How do you build one in your organization as a leader? Dr. Z’s thoughts over the years offer a prism through which to view such questions around leadership and building teams and cultures.

**How to fix things before they blow up **

Let’s imagine you’ve bankrolled a big bet at your organization. You eye a new vertical. You put together a team, set aside a budget, and appoint a leader to deliver the project.

Despite the early promise and the general excitement, you can’t be sure about how things really are. First you hear, It’s too soon to tell. There’s not enough data points, not enough leads, not enough customers. Then what trickles to you is, Oh we’re actually burning too little money. We paused such and such because of such and such and we’ll get that back up and things should improve again.

Now you don’t want to wait six months to find an empty wallet, a broken team, and a ton of questions. You want to fix things before they blow up. But your efforts at getting closer to the truth only lead you to dead ends. So despite you wanting to entrust your second line with decisions that matter, you add yourself to the core group’s mailing list and the Teams channel.

You think, at least now I’ll hear it like it is. And what do you hear?

Cliches. With you in the mix, the air turns somber. Wherever you turn you meet with a cheerful front. You ask questions and you hear lots of reasons but never a ‘I don’t know.’ You ask for opinions and you get fence sitters. After a couple of weeks of this, you get it. No one tells you to your face but you just get it. You’re making people nervous.

Assuming this is not hard to imagine, the question to ask is, what do you do? How do you do your job as a leader? How do you stay on top of things without freaking your team out?

Here’s a story from Dr. Z. From a man in a position of such power that an inability to get his people to tell him the truth could have, as history has shown, disastrous consequences.

Dr. Z by his own admission is impatient. He likes to know things inside and out. When he started his six years at NASA in 2016 his impatience made his teams anxious. It made them wonder if he trusted them at all. This is him reflecting on what he did:

One of the things I did well in that sense, and it turned out to be much more important than I predicted when I came in, I asked everybody to critique me right away.

Seems simple enough but let this linger for a moment. Here’s a man who’s handling a budget upwards of a few billion dollars. He’s got layers of leadership under him. People’s careers depend on how they appraise themselves to him. Just issuing an invitation to people to tell him what he lacks most wasn’t going to cut it. He had to open his doors and sit on the patio with a ready-to-listen sign stuck to his torso. So, what did he do exactly?

Most of the decisions I make are not one way door decisions. Kind of, you make a decision and you really continually check whether or not, for example, a leadership team is performing to expectations and what’s really important is to actually not sit on the side and kind of be anxious but create that openness to really do that.

So instead of waiting for six months until you blew too much of the budget, literally after a week I’m like, “Okay, what’s the issue? Is everything going okay?” So I literally spent time not with all missions, but the ones who are betting the agency, I spent time with them to really make sure I found them and we corrected. Often the way we did it is by creating networks at different levels. So I talked to the senior VP or the CEO of the company, my manager below them. And so we brought in at various levels, brought in the relevant discussions and did it basically almost daily or weekly just to make sure, especially with high stakes things that we’re not drifting.

But most who have led teams know in their bones that they’ve got to walk the talk. Until you do that, your team isn’t going to open up to you. When then is it so hard to make it happen?

Look at yourself. Are you someone who mirrors your team’s emotions? Are you the kind of boss who loses it when you hear bad news? Have you been known to shoot the messenger? Perhaps you aren’t but such a personality is not unimaginable.

Dr. Z describes such leaders thus:

Some leaders don’t sleep well if they have problems, so they have pain aversion. It’s a big leadership weakness to not be able to carry worries with them, and those worries pull them down so that the whole organization behaves in a way that they never bring a worry to you.

Most of us land on the high end of the pain aversion spectrum. That’s not surprising. That’s natural. A dislike for bad news is natural. But look deeper and ask what effect does that have?

Charlie Munger writes in Psychology of Human Misjudgment about a behavior that is as common in modern organizations as it was in ancient Persia.

Another common bad effect from the mere association of a person and a hated outcome is displayed in “Persian Messenger Syndrome.” Ancient Persians actually killed some messengers whose sole fault was that they brought home truthful bad news, say, of a battle lost. It was actually safer for the messenger to run away and hide, instead of doing his job as a wiser boss would have wanted it done.

Does your urge for hunky dory news elicit false narratives from your team? Do they hide the red flags because they worry seeing one may drive you crazy and, worse, they don’t want to be seen as the one driving their boss crazy? And you may not see this, but continue turning a blind eye to bad news and chances are that your second line starts to mirror you. They start, just like you, building themselves a nice little cocoon and settling down for perpetuity.

You will find no better example of general counsel’s failure to hold a mirror to the CEO than in the behavior of Gerri Kellman toward media mogul Logan Roy in the HBO hit show Succession. But I digress…

How do you beat the Persian Messenger Syndrome? Flip the script. You cannot fix errors unless they are brought to light. But there’s no upside to your team pointing out errors. So you create an incentive. You tell your team, like Dr. Z did:

I need you to be worried more than me, then I’m feeling comfortable. I don’t want you to be calm. I need you to be worried. That’s what I want.

What Dr. Z is doing is flipping an unwritten rule at most organizations—don’t be the messenger who delivers bad news—into an explicit injunction: Good news can wait; bring me the bad news first.

I find that hard to believe. It is fine for such a message to travel unfiltered down the ranks in smaller organizations with flat structures. But for it to scale well in a behemoth like NASA, there’s got to be more in the recipe. I found signs of those ingredients in two other practices that Dr. Z put in place in his tenure at NASA.

How to build a team that offsets your weaknesses as a leader

Take the most successful teams from the last 100 years and you’ll see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The individual parts, in fact, are spiky but the system they make together runs tight.

Argentina’s 2022 FIFA world-cup winning football team owes its success not so much to the genius of Lionel Messi as it does to the fact that the rest of the squad stepped up to share extra defensive duties so that an aging Messi could orchestrate attacks without running himself to the ground. None of this happened by chance. It was formulated as a team strategy.

Now, the same thing at your workplace? Can you imagine colleagues openly discussing each other’s blind spots and preparing a strategy that leverages their complementary skill sets?

Yet, that is the precise thing that got Dr. Z to successfully launch the James Webb telescope, land Perseverance rover on Mars, and redirect an asteroid on a collision course toward earth. While offering a job letter to a leadership hire, he would say:

I have good and bad news for you. Good news is you’re the best candidate in this whole thing. We did a detailed assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and let me tell you all the things that were particularly important and defining why you’re the best person. Here’s the bad news though. You have weaknesses. Here’s the weaknesses we’ve found and we identified and they’re here. These are the things and I want you to know, first of all, we’re hiring you with all these weaknesses. You’re going to notice everybody has weaknesses here. You will be one of them. My full expectation is in the first year I want to see how you adjust your leadership team to offset your weaknesses.

A job offer that came with a list of strengths and weaknesses aired out—instead of a highlights reel of achievements—created psychological safety. New hires felt accepted for who they were and encouraged to do the best they could, together with their teams. No one was alone. The smallest agent of success was the team, not the individual.

Instead of being cagey about sharing information or spending precious energy keeping up appearances, people opened up. They asked for mentors who complemented them. They then built teams that dovetailed.

In Dr. Z’s words, the ritual announced:

So no, we don’t have superstars here. We have people with weaknesses and the only way we’re at our best is to be as a team because we’re all aware of who we are.

Now connect this with the mandate to critique your boss. Suddenly, you see a reinforcing loop in play. Everyone knows everyone’s blind spots and covers for each other. It becomes everyone’s job to make their team members successful, and they do that by pointing them to what they are not naturally inclined to see.

Dr. Z practiced this mantra himself. Only too aware of his own tendency to jump the gun, he tasked the job of saying no to him publicly to a deputy. She was supposed to stop him from jumping to conclusions, and once she did that others started following suit.

Even when a team knows what the right thing to do is, they may still steer clear of it. They may opt for something that’s easier to explain to the powers above. Something that doesn’t cost them the job, psychological safety or not. And no matter how high-ranking Dr. Z was at NASA, there were elected officials and their coteries who did not shy away from pulling the strings from up.

How then did Dr. Z hold his job as head of the science missions for a longer stretch than any of his predecessors while offering his team psychological safety and getting them to do the right thing?

How to get your team to do what’s right, not what’s defendable

Say your team has a habit of making rather safe choices. Perhaps they think, if we go by the book…

If it turns out right, we enjoy a small upside at no risk.

If it turns out wrong, we enjoy the benefit of the doubt. The outcome will be tagged an anomaly because we’ve followed best practice.

But if we go against the grain…

If it turns out right, we risked our jobs for a small upside.

If it turns out wrong, we could become the scapegoat because it is hard to explain our choice to others who’ll point at the book.

See how it makes sense why your team behaves the way it does? You want to change that though. Where do you start?

Reasonable to say that an organization the size of NASA is a good archetype for observing the effects of bureaucracy and politics. So, how did Dr. Z get his teams to deliver despite such friction?

I think as a leader your job is to create the field around for your team so they actually can make good decisions. That also happens in business by the way. The push for the next quarter can really turn decisions, poison decisions to a place like hey, we’re doing the wrong thing and take the eagle’s view, you’re doing the wrong thing. So as a leader, our job is to protect the team, I believe, and I really took a lot of pride in doing that actively.

As a leader do you maintain information or context asymmetry or are you radically transparent for things integral and incidental to good decision-making in your teams? And what do you tag as incidental and what as integral? I’ve known bosses to slip in a word or two about which way the big boss is leaning toward on a tricky issue. The burden of such information can be too much to bear for someone who just wants to make the right decision.

Dr. Z calls out this pressure teams feel to offer the right visuals and then outlines his own role as a leader.

I’m putting my body between the political side and the team and the simple reason for that is, what we’re doing is high stakes enough. I mean I cannot have a variable that I don’t control.

To me this is exactly as hard as it sounds. Dr. Z is putting his body between. Which means that should things go wrong—and they will go wrong sooner or later as even the best teams only control the process, not the outcome—only he will take the fall.

Most leaders aren’t willing to put themselves in such situations. But then, a number of them I suspect may also not fully acknowledge their role in such a situation. No wonder it is a cliche that lasting change starts with leadership. If you demand the best from your team, make sure you give them your best first. Dr. Z shows how.

And should you walk this path, what’s on the other side of it?

So as a leader, our job is to protect the team, I believe, and I really took a lot of pride in doing that actively.

This week I’ve outlined how you can as a leader earn the right to fix things quickly and build teams that offset each other’s weaknesses while shielding them from external influences that impair their ability to do the right thing.

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