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Being A Follower Is Hard Work

follow the leader

Most organizations assume that leadership has to be taught but that everyone knows how to follow. This assumption is based on three faulty premises:
(1) that leaders are more important than followers,
(2) that following is simply doing what you are told to do, and
(3) that followers inevitably draw their energy and aims, even their talent, from the leader.

—Robert Kelly, “In Praise of Followers” (1988)

Life is a balance between doing and observing. Leaders generally preoccupy themselves with the former, while followers tend to err on the side of the latter. But whichever role we find ourselves, both taking action and stopping to listen are required for success. That being said, being a follower is hard work. Despite the common misconception that following is a passive, submissive process, effective following is an active and demanding challenge. In fact, being a good follower is arguably more difficult than being a good leader for at least three reasons:

1.) There is far less glory in the role of a follower. Take movie awards for instance: Each year the Academy Awards honors the best and brightest of film with twenty-four categories. An overwhelming emphasis is placed on individual participants—actors, directors, composers. And even second tier awards (categories like “Best Visual Effects”) are received by only a few people representing a team of hundreds. This is not to mention the financial disparity between follower roles like special effect teams and leader roles like individual directors.

Our culture celebrates the individual, the star, the hero, relegating the many hands behind the scenes to tiny, scrolling names after the audience has already left the theatre. However true the phrase, “Behind every great leader you will find a great team,” followers are not adequately recognized for their efforts. We must instead take pride in what was accomplish overall, not the acclaim we received in the process.

2.) Also, being an effective follower may require more energy than being a leader. In the world of unmanned flight, drone aircraft often fly in groups with one drone leading the rest. These unmanned aerial vehicles expend various amount of fuel (energy) depending on their position within the group. A problem with managing these groups is that follower drones burn more fuel, especially during quick maneuvering, than the aircraft they follow.

Not only do followers have to spend time and energy performing their own duties, they must be constantly monitoring their team and proactively assess what’s next. As followers, we must preempt and adapt to the changes our leaders make. The more influence someone else has on our lives, the more likely our efforts will be duplicated, changed mid-project, or scrapped altogether.

3.) Followers also run the risk of becoming overly dependent. Unlike leaders who often act independently, followers have the dangerous opportunity to abdicate responsibility and opinion. This can lead to unhealthy dependence on outside leadership. Unfortunately, lack of agency can cause feelings of apathy, resentment, powerlessness, and depression, which followers must mange accordingly.

Over-dependence can also leave us directionless in times of change—aimlessly wandering when we are without something to follow. There are times when who or what we follow (be it our children, spouse, career, religious leaders, etc.) disappear suddenly (empty nesters, widows, retirement, scandals, and so on). Some of these drastic changes are inevitable patterns of life, but some changes are unexpected. And whether we’re anticipating a change or taken by surprise, we need to have a plan. We need an opinion and a direction we’d like to take.

Followers must constantly fight the urge to defer our opinions and decisions to whoever’s in charge. Simply due to the nature of the role, it is more difficult as followers to take responsibility and decide the direction of our lives than it is for the leaders who influence them.

So why would anyone be a follower? If being a follower provides fewer rewards for our efforts, requires more energy, and puts us at risk of apathy, resentment, and aimlessness, then why would we choose to follow? Why not look to lead instead?

Well for one, we do it for love. We allow our children, our spouses, our desire to change the world outweigh our personal gain. We follow because we must, because there’s no other choice. No person has the capacity to lead every moment of every aspect of his life (nor would it be healthy). And most important, we follow, because when it comes down to it, there’s really no such thing as followers and leaders; there are only arbitrary labels and titles that we assign one another.

Each of us vacillates between following and leading, sometimes switching from one role to the next in an instant. A dirty diaper leads us to the changing table, after which we lead an infant to the park or the grocer or a bike ride. A boss gives us an assignment, in which hours later, we find ourselves “managing up”— guiding them through a proposal.

Every relationship we have, every goal we’re trying to accomplish, is a constant give and take. We must find a balance between totalitarian rule and total apathy, between doing and observing. We may not be the lead dancer at any given moment, but we also cannot go limp—dead weight for our partner to lug around the dance floor. No matter which role we find ourselves—whether leading or following—life is not a passive process.

Kelley, Robert E. “In Praise of Followers.” Harvard Business Review. (November 1988) 142-148. (Source 1) (Source 2)

Dubner, Stephen J. “No Hollywood Ending for the Visual-Effects Industry.” Audio podcast. Freakanomics Radio. freakanomics.com, 22 February 2017. (Source)

Choi, Jongug, and Yudan Kim. “Fuel efficient three dimensional controller for leader-follower UAV formation flight.” International Conference on Control, Automation and Systems, Seoul, Korea, 2007. (Source)

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Uncategorized

If We Were Like Trees

Tree TabooIf trees could read, would they? Or would the fact that books have been printed on mulched up tree guts for centuries be a barrier to literary exploration? And while books may last for years, what would trees think of magazines? As silly as personification is, this line of questioning leads us to the real topic of today’s discussion: If we were like trees, would we live our lives differently?

Most of who we are is invisible. Humans are visual creatures with as much as two-thirds of our brains associated with vision. We use this ability to observe our three dimensional world, yet there’s a fourth dimension—time—that makes up the majority of who we are. Our experiences, our long years of life—the more diverse these are, the larger we “grow.” But it can be difficult to sense the enormity of a large life.

If we were like trees, we could stand in awe of the expansive lives of one another. We could marvel at the large trunks and broad canopies of our elders. We could see one another—our branching, our scars, our history carved into the physical embodiment of our years.

As much as we try, the material world does not provide an accurate representations of who we are. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the jobs we have, the photos we post—these are poor substitutions for the real thing. Even our bodies don’t tell the whole story. Wrinkles, blemishes, thinning hair—these might give away our age, but to accurately tell our life story? Impossible.

Unable to directly observe the experiences of others, we settle for sensing the shape of a person’s life through indirect measures—their demeanor, their stories, their stuff. Material wealth is often (mistakenly) used as a proxy for life worth. If we were like trees—if our bodies were a physical representation of our experiences—there would be less need for ancillary metrics. Just by looking, we would see the complexity and worthiness of even the poorest among us.

Also, unlike humans who reach a mature size a fifth of the way into our lives, trees continually grow larger over time. And not only that, they actually accelerate their growth as they age, meaning older trees are better at being trees (i.e. removing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). Imagine a life where your years of “peak performance” are always ahead of you, a life where you’re always getting better.

As humans age, our bodies become frail, small, and insignificant. There is no visual representation of all that a person has accomplished, all the people they’ve influenced, loved, and touched. The vastness of their experience is easily overlooked and under-appreciated. Yet the lives of our aged population are like the trees—enormous amounts of time and energy to be marveled.

We must be careful not to under-appreciate our elders—those people we call parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. We may not be able to see the immensity of their time here on earth, but we should be able to sense the scale of their lives and what they provide us.

When an old tree dies in the woods, it falls to the ground. It lies there like a giant among new growth, leaving a large space for smaller trees to fill. It decomposes providing nutrients for the next generation. That’s the circle of life. And the larger a tree’s life—the larger, physically, that tree was—the more it provides after death. To quote Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Perhaps humans too can embody the grand scale of a long life. We cannot see it directly, but it is still there, like the massive size of a fallen tree.

Many of us fear death, because it represents the end. We are afraid of regret, afraid of not having done or experienced enough. But what if we were like trees? Perhaps death would be seen as just the beginning—our large lives giving back to the small, the young, the future.

Stephenson, Nathan, et al. “Rate of Tree Carbon Accumulation Increases Continuously with Tree Size.” Nature 507.7490 (2014): 90-93. (Source)

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Uncategorized

Meditations

teva fashionista

Recently, personal matters have replaced doing research for my essays. But I’ve still been pondering about the world we live in and want to share those thoughts. Instead of a full essay this week, the following are four short musings/questions to get us thinking:

FASHION: Now that it’s summer, Teva sandals are everywhere. The terrible ’90s fashion statement is back in full force, but how are they still a thing? It’s like a hippie scourge on the community—an ancient fashion statement with modern velcro amenities. And don’t even get me started on wearing socks with sandals. It all begs the question: What’s the point of keeping up with fashion trends if nothing really changes for thousands of years?

BUSINESS: “…but how do they monetize it?” This was the only piece of a conversation I heard between two gentlemen in suits walking downtown. And what a question—a question that sums up so much of our current age. First, there’s how the question is asked. It’s at once a valid question and concocted jargon. Using the word “monetize” feels like contemporary boasting, like spitting out questions on ROI, A/B testing, or running lean—valid yet trite buzzwords to show that we “get” it, that we’re business savvy, that we ask the right questions in the right ways. In a strange way, it has become trendy to use pretentious business-speak. Second, there’s the economic dilemma of the question. In a world of “free” online content—a digital sharing glut—there seems to be this underlying (maybe unconscious) feeling that if we get enough users or followers, tap into the network effect like Zuckerberg did, then we make it rich. Simple. Except there’s still that nagging detail of how to grow a money tree from a foundation of nonpaying consumers. Google, a company notorious for asking tough interview questions, is cited as asking interviewees, “If ads were removed from YouTube, how would you monetize it?” And that’s really hitting the nail on the head, isn’t it? The business challenge of our era is that we, as customers, expect things to be free, but we, as businesspeople, do not know how “free” can sustainably make money (sorry, “be monetized”).

LANGUAGE: Horny is the word for feeling sexual arousal, but it’s hormones that cause the feeling. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say “hormy”?

HISTORY: Let’s assume Elon Musk’s vision of technologically-advanced humans plays out in the way he wants. We all become enhanced cyborgs living in a world of robots and super intelligent A.I. Who then will be the legends of today—the heroes that go down in the history books? If “history is written by the victors,” as Winston Churchill allegedly said, then will the superstars of our current era be remembered not as the Steve Jobs and the Elon Musks, but as the digital tools they created? It is not the climbing gear that gets the glory of being the first to climb Mt. Everest; it is the climber (but only because we are the victors—the tellers of the story). In Elon’s future, are modern humans merely the tools that machines will use to accomplish their historic feats? Will it be the implanted Neuralink brain chips of influential people that are remembered as the important historic figures rather than the people themselves?

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Business & Biology

Between Growth & Maintenance

time_to_drankImagine a city with an infrastructure problem (I know, it’s hard to imagine). The problem is this: Roads are breaking down faster than they can be repaired. As the city’s population grows, road workers cannot work fast enough to compensate for the additional traffic. Each road closure for repairs means more traffic on alternative routes and, therefore, even faster decline. Eventually, the few alternative routes that are open no longer connect to one another; construction crews can no longer get to the roads that need to be repaired; and ultimately, the system shuts down. Death by growth.

This is the basic idea behind the classic S-curve of growth (below), which is said to be so ubiquitous. From cities to cellular biology to Fortune 500 companies, most systems follow a similar pattern. They must balance between growth and maintenance.

Understanding which phase we’re in—whether high-growth, high-maintenance, or transition—can be advantageous. It can help extend the life cycle of our products, businesses, bodies, personal lives, and relationships. But when we refuse to acknowledge this shift, that’s when problems arise.

In business, this refusal is called the denial phase. As one Harvard Business Review article puts it, “[R]etailers often go through a long, painful period of denial before they acknowledge that growth has ended and it’s time to switch strategies. […] Consequently, they keep expanding until their chains begin to collapse under their own weight.” The article is referring to a study of 37 U.S. retailers—all with over $1 billion in revenue, all with top-line growth rates slowed to single digits. But while several of these historic giants were collapsing “under their own weight,” many had found a solution to the stagnation.

Companies like Macy’s, Home Depot, and McDonald’s have extended their lifespans by focusing on the maintenance phase. They thrive by creating efficiencies in their existing stores rather than opening new ones. In other words, they transitioned from a strategy for rapid growth to one of maintaining their large size.

This is not to say that growth is negative. Pure growth and pure maintenance are not what creates life. It is the in-between where we exist. As the Harvard Business Review authors explain, “this is a low-growth, not a no-growth, strategy.” Where the successful companies grew was in bottom-line revenue rather than top—shifting their focus, in order to achieve life-bringing growth.

But when growth goes unchecked, it can be devastating. We call it cancer in the body. And before we can prescribe treatment, we must have a diagnosis. Whether we label it a midlife crisis, a corporate denial phase, or an infrastructure problem, we must acknowledge mismatched reality, in order to move forward. Otherwise, misalignment can accelerate decline.

With our imaginary city, it’s a balance between population growth and infrastructure maintenance; with our bodies, it’s a balance between biologic insults and cellular repair; in life, we shift from a growth-heavy childhood to a maintenance-heavy adulthood, including more doctors visits, taxes, and responsibility. It’s this transition from growth to maintenance that creates the S-shape of life, and it’s a delicate balance—easily misunderstood and mismanaged.

It may seem simplistic to minimize the life cycle of so many different topics into only two sides of the same coin. In fact, it is simplistic. While simple sometimes means limited understanding, it also can serve as a practical model for an exceedingly complex world. So take a moment and think: Am I spending too much time in growth phase? What about maintenance? Is this a transition? Where are we?

growth-maintenance graph

Fisher, Marshall, Vishal Gaur, and Herb Kleinberger. “Curing the Addiction to Growth.” Harvard Business Review 95.1 (2017): 66-74. (Source)

Evans, David S. “Tests of Alternative Theories of Firm Growth.” Journal of Political Economy 95.4 (1987): 657-674. (Source)

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Uncategorized

The Cliff of Care

too muchImportance is the worst thing to put on art, comedy—creativity of any kind. […] If you think this is important, you’re screwed before you write the first word.

—Jerry Seinfeld, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee with Lewis Black

What is the difference between caring too much and not enough? Sometimes it’s just one last straw—one final incident that pushes us over the edge. We see this at our workplaces, contrasting an excited intern with the embattled veteran clocking in and out like a robot. We see it with new parents who trade fashion for durability. And we see it in politics when the news creates such a piercing noise that we simply go deaf to the din.

Like eating or drinking too much, our care has a breaking point. A gluttonous night out can force our stomach from too full to completely empty in an instant, and it is this momentary purge that exemplifies the Cliff of Care. With so many names—outrage fatigue, clarity, burnout, calm, apathy, patience—it can be difficult to know whether the valley beyond the cliff is a safe place to be. As with any journey, it depends on how we got there and our attitude along the way.

Once we reach the cliff’s edge, we can either walk off gracefully, landing softly on the ground below, or get pushed, kicking and screaming, breaking bones on the way down. This is the difference between coming to peace with our situation or becoming apathetic in our resentment. The graceful among us land on their feet through the power of perspective. These are the people who after battling illness, divorce, violence, bankruptcy, discrimination, and many other hardships, still find the positive in each challenge, putting them into perspective. They are calm and kind despite every reason not to be. And they serve as inspiration to “get over” whatever small annoyances we face in life.

Unfortunately, the less gracious cliff jumpers—the ones who bitterly or hopelessly give up the will to care—also exist. Fortunately, the Cliff of Care is not a standalone phenomenon. We may tumble off the cliff and become apathetic to the politics of our world but safely detached at work, no longer wrapping our self-worth in what our boss thinks. This is where awareness can be helpful. Just by knowing about the difference between being on the cliff and being in the valley can help us safely navigate our way.

Detaching emotionally is not something we can will ourselves to do (at least, not immediately). Stepping off the cliff allows us to leave behind our emotional baggage, but first it requires a gradual climb of frustration. This is why telling someone they need to just “get over it” rarely works. Seeing the cliff for what it is can make us come across as callous or cold-hearted when dealing with those who have not yet moved on. Brushing off their emotional concerns as unimportant is seen as dismissive. Rather than pushing them off the cliff to a painful, bitter landing, we must try to remember what it was like to be atop the cliff, empathize, and help guide them down safely.

Conversely, when we’re stranded on the peak of care, pulling our hair out, and wondering why no one else gives a shit, it is difficult to see our position for what it is. We don’t have the perspective. Holding on to what feels important can be blinding. Whether it’s the cleanliness of the kitchen, quarterly sales at work, or death of a loved one, not everyone is going to understand our level of care. And while intense care can motivate us to act, we shouldn’t expect others to follow. When we find ourselves in isolation in a sea of seeming apathy, it may be time for self-reflection. It is immodest to think that we are the only sane people in a world full of crazies.

cliff of care_graph

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