Leading the Dubs’ Steps

Lance Accountability, Communication, Integrity, Leadership Comments

Confession: I’m not really a fan of basketball, and even less so a fan of the NBA. I am, however, a fan of Leaders in any arena, and this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated had an NBA story that managed to grab my attention because of the powerful message about leadership it carried.

As the NBA season concludes with a Finals matchup of the Cleveland Cavaliers facing the Golden State Warriors for the third year in a row, a crucial member of the Warriors (aka “The Dubs”) will be missing: their head coach, Steve Kerr, who has been out indefinitely since very early in the playoffs due to health issues. That the Warriors haven’t lost a single game in the playoffs despite Kerr’s absense is even more amazing than the three-year run of dominance Kerr has guided the Warriors to since taking over as coach three years ago (his first professional coaching gig, BTW…).

This juxtaposition of a flawless playoff run with a team suffering the absence of its incredibly successful head coach is at the heart of the question that frames the entire SI article:

How can a coach be both essential and unnecessary?

There’s no online version to link to, unfortunately. To read the article, you’ll have to spring for the magazine like in the old days. But, here are a couple of the choice leadership nuggets that jumped off the page at me.

From Kerr’s own words:

Some people are just so tunnel vision all the time and “I’m going to succeed and kick ass in life,” and they just trample over everyone. The people to me who are the most powerful leaders are the ones who have great talent in whatever their field is, great conviction in their ability to teach it and act it, but an awareness and a humility and compassion for others.

And from the words of Chris Ballard, the article’s author:

You know the references to leadership rules and secrets mentioned earlier? Kerr would find them hilarious, invoking one of his favorite words: bull—-. The message is only good if you believe the messenger, right? And Kerr believes humans are adept at sniffing out bull—. So, no, he has no leadership secrets.

You want to lead like Kerr? Just be humble and grateful, curious and self-aware. Communicate, value family and empower others. When bad things happen, keep a broader perspective. Most of all, create something bigger than yourself, for as Keltner points out, the real test of a leader is what happens once they leave.

Which is to say that the reasons Kerr is so important to the Warriors are not all that complicated. They are the same reasons the team is doing fine without him.

When More Information = Less Informed

Lance Fear, Ideas, Simplicity Comments

This is a bit longer than my normal posts, but this is an important idea worth exploring. Grab a coffee and put your feet up. 

When I was a kid, proving I was sick enough to stay home from school required either a show of vomit or a fever. Back then, checking one’s temperature involved the use of a thin piece of hollow glass, filled with dangerous liquid mercury, and tiny degree markings that would be readable if the curved glass thermometer was held at just the right angle. My Mom would have to shake the thermometer vigorously (to wake up the mercury? did it solidify upon disuse?), stick it under my tongue, and I would have to hold it just so for what felt like an eternity.

By the time my oldest child was born, the vision-busting glass tube of poison had given way to the digital thermometer. Thanks to the advancement of technology, shaking or squinting was no longer required of parents. Now, a mere push of a button would make it ready, and the result was easily readable on the liquid crystal display. Despite this electronic advancement, actually getting a temperature reading still took about the same amount of time holding the thermometer under the tongue … but at least eyesight strain was no longer an issue, and dropping it on the floor no longer required a call to Poison Control.

Then, one day I was at the pediatrician’s office with my youngest child. In came the nurse to take his temperature, and out of her scrub pocket came a magic wand. I watched in dumbfounded amazement as the nurse ran this wonder across my son’s forehead down to his temple, turned it around to read the result, and recorded it on his chart … all in under three seconds! I asked how it worked and heard “something something temporal artery something something.”

I didn’t understand it, but that didn’t stop me from buying my own temporal thermometer while picking up my son’s prescription on the way home. Soon it was time to put this mystical piece of technological wizardry to work. The instructions for use were simple enough:

Time to show off my new technological find to my Wife: “Hon, come here and check this out.”

Press and hold button  … swipe … release button … Presto! Result: –.-°.

A quick check revealed that “Step 1” wasn’t actually the first step. I had missed the vital instruction that was in tiny print and without the benefit of the eye-catching step number circle label: “Remember to remove protective cap …”

With a fuller understanding of how to operate this magical device, it was time to try it out for real.

Remove protective cap … press and hold button  … swipe … release button … Presto! Result: 99.2°.

Barely a fever worth concerning ourselves with. But then the newness of this device gave way to a seed of doubt. What if I didn’t do it correctly? After all, I had just tried to do it with the cap on, proving that operating this thing wasn’t as easy as advertised. Maybe I should double-check? Fortunately, because this thermometer is so simple to use and generates results in a second, a confirmatory swipe took no time at all.

Press and hold button  … swipe … release button … Presto! Result: 99.5°.

Uh oh. What’s up with that? Lemme try again:

Press and hold button  … swipe … release button … Presto! Result: 99.1°.

WTF? Again:

Press and hold button  … swipe … release button … Presto! Result: 98.9°.

Now my Wife is giving the side-eye to me and my $35 replacement for our perfectly capable digital thermometer. Once more with feeling:

Press and hold button  … swipe … release button … Presto! Result: 99.4°.

Thoroughly unimpressed with what is the clinically proven most accurate thermometer in the world, my Wife pulled out the trusty digital thermometer, pushed the button, stuck it into my son’s mouth, and waited.


Five readings and five different results for one; one reading with one result for the other. To this day, guess which thermometer’s results are viewed as reliable and which one’s are viewed with suspicion?

Our world is full of interesting paradoxes (paradoxi?). As we continue to accelerate up the ever-more-vertical curve of technological progress, we are now encountering with increasing regularity the following paradox: as access to information increases, the ability to make a good decision based upon being “well informed” can actually decrease.

Take my experience with the temporal thermometer. Compared to the thermometers of the past, the new one made it orders of magnitude easier to obtain a data point. It takes about 3 minutes of holding the glass/mercury thermometer under one’s tongue to get an accurate reading. For the temporal scanner wand, the result is available in 2 seconds … 90x faster. When getting data is that much easier and faster to obtain, getting more of it — lots more of it — is the natural result.

Rather than taking my son’s temperature once and making a decision based on the result like in the past, I measured it five times … but that didn’t make us better informed about his health. Instead, the extra data just made us confused. What to make of the four different readings? Did the variance among the different readings of the temporal thermometer reveal it to be inaccurate? No. The only thing those additional readings added was the noise of volatility.

There are times, of course, when viewing data through the zoomed-in focus of shorter and shorter periods of time is actually necessary — think of the continuous monitoring of a patient’s vital signs that takes place in any modern hospital room. Yet, that same approach of measuring data metrics often over short periods of time can work mischief in other contexts. Take the example from the world of stock trading described by Nassim Taleb in his book, Fooled by Randomness:

Imagine an experienced stock trader — Taleb proposes “a happily retired dentist, living in a pleasant, sunny town.”

We know a priori that he is an excellent investor, and that he will be expected to earn a return of 15% … with a 10% error rate per annum (what we call volatility). … He subscribes to a Web-based service that supplies him with continuous prices … He puts his inventory of his securities in his spreadsheet and can thus instantaneously monitor the value of his speculative portfolio.

So we have our Dentist-Trader — let’s call him “Tim.” Given those facts and the math of probabilities (spelled out in Table 3.1 of Fooled by Randomness), the chances that Tim will experience the happy feeling of seeing his portfolio’s growing performance in the green depends on the time period at which he opens that spreadsheet to check:

In other words, if Tim checks the numbers on his investment once a month, there’s a 2/3 chance he will see good news. On the other hand, if he obsessively checks it daily or hourly, his chance of seeing good news are little better than a coin flip.

Why does that matter?  Because even though the performance of Tim’s portfolio at the end of the year will be the same (+15% return with 10% volatility), the frequency with which Tim gathers information about his portfolio will radically alter how Tim subjectively experiences his investment’s year-long journey. The more often Tim checks, the more likely his experience will be guided by the impact of the volatility instead of the actual trajectory.

The experience of riding the roller-coaster of short-term volatility will be an emotional net-negative over time thanks to our psychological propensity for “loss aversion.” According to this theory of behavioral economics first proposed by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we experience loss roughly twice as intensely as we do gains, even when they are similarly proportional. In short, we generally all feel as Jimmy Connors famously put it: “I hate to lose more than I love to win.”

The explanation for why we experience gains and losses asymetrically lies deep within the evolutionary wiring of our brains. Over the millennia, the harsh lessons of survival realities taught us that avoiding losses was more critical than securing gains. As one writer describes it,

Imagine being a hominid in Africa a million years ago, living in a small band. To pass on your genes, you’ve got to find food, have sex, and cooperate with others to help the band’s children (particularly yours) to have children of their own: these are big carrots in the Serengeti. Additionally, you’ve got to hide from predators, steer clear of Alpha males and females looking for trouble, and not let other hunter-gatherer bands kill you: these are significant sticks.

But here’s the key difference between carrots and sticks. If you miss out on a carrot today, you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever. Compared to carrots, sticks usually have more urgency and impact.

Even though finding opportunities and avoiding threats are both key to survival, they were experiences with a distinct heirarchy: being wrong about opportunities resulted in a range of experience from mere postponement of enjoyment to prolonged misery. On the other hand, as recently as a couple hundred years ago, being wrong about dangers usually meant “game over.”

Somewhere along the Oregon Trail …

More information — more data, more measurement, more analysis — does not always lead to more insights. Such is the noise effect that excess information can have: when this flood of data continually washes over us minute-by-minute and distorts perspective, it can cause the informative messages — the signal — to be lost. Even when we find information that actually matters, correctly understanding its importance becomes quite difficult without a proper sense of context. When our view is zoomed in to a microscopic level of focus on the minutiae in high-resolution, even the most insignificant of cracks in a piece of smooth steel can appear as massive canyons.

Everything at this level of magnification looks like a big deal.

The solution to this conundrum isn’t to make like a salmon and try to swim upstream against the currents taking us into the Big Data Age. Hiding from new information isn’t the answer, both because it is backwards-looking and because it will continue to become more impossible as time marches forward.

Context, rather than avoidance, is the prescription. By consciously seeking out the proper context for the information before us, we can avoid falling into the evolutionary trap of reacting to the feelings of fear and loss that can be stimulated by the rapid influx of new information. Remember that —

  • Some random day in February ….

    just because CNN.com has now taken to displaying a minute-by-minute political news ticker doesn’t mean that suddenly “being an informed citizen” requires a constant focus on political news. In fact, it probably means the opposite;

  • just because you just learned how many germs are on your cell phone or other household item, that doesn’t mean that you are suddenly under a microbial assault and need to immediately adopt cleanroom standards for your home;
  • just because your work group’s monthly performance dipped a bit as compared to last year doesn’t mean that suddenly changes need to be made and that “something must be done!”

Discussing at length the counter-intuitive downside to having more information isn’t a call to plug our ears. Instead, it is a call to better open our eyes and see things with a wiser sense of purpose and perspective … to seek out information that informs and set aside the trivia that merely interests … to focus on connecting the newly uncovered details to the much more important big picture … to recognize that more and more information is not, by itself, always an unalloyed good. It is a call to recognize that the more information we have at our disposal, the more intention thought we must bring to bear to focus it, understand it, and make better decisions with it.


Lance Communication, Integrity, People Comments

(Whizz-EEE-Wig): What You See Is What You Get

It’s an acronym for a computing concept that is no longer very remarkable. “Back in the day,” a simple task like typing a document on a word processor required a level of technical knowledge beyond that of simply writing and typing. The formatting of document attributes such as margins, line-spacing, and font characteristics (bold/underline/italics) was handled via a series of technical control codes, and the results did not appear on the screen. You wouldn’t know if everything was formatted correctly until you sent your document to the printer.

With the advent of WYSIWYG word processing, users were no longer in the dark: formatting changes became visible on-screen in a way that accurately reflected how they would appear on the printed page. Suddenly, writers could just write and still produce error-free documents with modern aesthetics and formatting without any additional technical expertise.

The impact of WYSIWYG was even more pronounced when it came to web publishing. Back in 1995 when I started with my very first website, html coding was mostly done in a simple text editor and looked like this:

Note how the code is setting the background to aqua and the text color to red, but that isn’t what appears.  Neither is the image file “matt.jpg” visible despite the coding language calling for it.

(For the record, my first website was for an online Star Wars gaming/fan club, which is amazingly still around (the club, not my site). And yes, I’m still a bit of a Star Wars nerd at heart, but no, I’m not still an active member.)

Now, thanks to WYSIWYG html editors, user-friendly platforms like WordPress (which I use for this site) have made website construction and publishing as easy as using a word processor. It’s a lot easier to build a website when you can see the results of your design choices rather than just the code.

Editing this post with WYSIWYG…

… and without WYSIWYG.

What you see is what you get.

It’s more than a way to describe easy-to-use software. It also describes a couple of fundamental aspects of living and leading:

1) Integrity as a WYSIWYG tool

To paraphrase the quote often attributed to Steven Covey: Honesty is making sure your words accurately describe Reality; Integrity is that process in reverse — doing what is necessary to make Reality conform to the words you said. More than just the corporate buzzwordy concept of “transparency,” real Integrity is muscular. When a leader leads with Integrity, the people who follow have the ability to perform their responsibilities with the confidence that comes from being able to trust the words of those in charge.

What you see (and hear) is what you will get.

Uncertainty is a potent demoralizer and organizational speed killer. Integrity is the WYSIWYG tool that provides clarity instead.

2) Focus as a WYSIWYG tool

While the circumstances of life and how they unfold are often beyond the reach of our control, our experience of those circumstances is more controllable than most realize.

  • If you look for opportunities, you will find them even in the darkest of circumstances;
  • If you look for problems, you will find them even in the brightest of circumstances;
  • If you are constantly on guard against people taking advantage of you, trustworthy people will prove to be very hard to find;
  • If you lead in a way that furthers your own personal benefit, you will find yourself surrounded by selfish self-preservationists;
  • If you focus on people’s shortcomings, you will consistently get the frustration of being surrounded by people around you coming up short.

WYSIWYG: What you see is what you get … and even more importantly:

What you look for is what you see.

This principle isn’t limited to the arena of leading others. It is true with equal force on the personal level:

  • If you focus on consuming only political news, you will experience life as a never-ending array of political problems;
  • If you focus on your insecurities, you will experience life as a hostile place full of things and people who continually wound your tender place;
  • If you focus on changing the behaviors of others, you will experience the perpetual frustration of a life lived among people who are always doing things that irritate and infuriate you.

What you look for is what you see, and what you see is what you get.

Shape the reality of others with your integrity, and shape your own reality by being attuned to what you are looking for.

You Ate Your Pizza With WHAT?

Lance Communication, Leadership Comments

I recently got to attend a conference in which software engineers and product developers discussed the technical ins-and-outs of cognitive computing and all the sub-topics that fall under that umbrella term (AI, deep learning, machine learning, natural language processing, etc). As I am neither a software engineer nor a product developer, my presence in the room was purely in the form of curious learner/technophile/groupie.

What struck me the most was the fundamental challenge facing the programmers and how similar it is to the challenge faced by my reading-teacher Wife: parsing out how meaning is understood, which is so far beyond mere text recognition.

For example:

  • We ate the pizza with anchovies.
  • We ate the pizza with forks.
  • We ate the pizza with Joe.

Forget the words ate – pizza – anchovies – forks – Joe. The key to your brain drawing the correct picture of meaning for each sentence requires deciphering the malleable meaning of the word with, which is different in each instance.

Because, just as “sounding out” a word isn’t the same as reading it, neither is knowing the mere definitions of words the same thing as understanding the meaning they are intending to convey. Context is a powerful shaper of meaning, able to bend the by-the-book definitions of words into something either rich and deep or nonsensical and contradictory.

This is an important concept to grasp, for leaders as much as for AI programmers and reading teachers. The context in which leaders communicate matters equally if not more than the words used. As the executives of Wells Fargo have since learned, telling your sales teams to behave ethically is insufficient when those messages are delivered within a broader context of unreasonable goals coupled with the constant pressure to perform or be fired. The message said “sell ethically” but the context said “do so at your own peril.”

Image credit: lincolnmurphy.com

Consider the confused meaning between fairly common intended messages leaders often give and the contradictory context in which they are delivered:

  • “We need to be bold and take risks to succeed!” … but project failure is punished either overtly (demoted or fired) or covertly (pushed to the side, seen unfavorably by leadership) — Should your people take risks or avoid failure?
  • “Tell me what’s working and what’s not.” … but the delivery of bad news is met with anger and intense scrutiny while good news is accepted at face value  — Should your people plainly say what needs to be said, or leave it to somebody else?
  • “I need you to focus on this and make it a priority” … but it is simply one more “priority,” added to the already long list of “priorities” that are somehow all “critical” — Should your people go deep on a few things and leave others untouched, or spread themselves thinly across the many things so that no one thing is ignored?

Guess which one people pay attention to?



Lance Excellence, Integrity Comments

Recently our family spent the weekend in a cabin in the woods of Hocking Hills in south-central Ohio. As we hiked through the 150-foot-deep gorge that houses Old Man’s Cave, we came across a massive tree. Actually, it was a pair of trees, growing closely together. The height of the trees was enormous, so much so that the only way to capture their entirety was to use the panorama feature on my phone’s camera. They were so tall that to an observer standing on the surface away from the gorge, they would’ve appeared as normally tall trees … nevermind that they had to grow some 75-100 feet just to reach the surface.

What was most striking about these trees, however, was their base. For all the majesty of these trees’ reach into the sky out of the gorge, the most impressive thing about them was that they grew to any height at all because of where they got their start: on a rock. The enormity of these trees growing out of their rocky start was a compelling sight, and a reminder:

You don’t have to be limited by where you started.

Too often in our culture we are told that the fortuitous advantages and tragic disadvantages of the circumstances of one’s birth play a disproportionately heavy role in the shape of one’s life. We tend to look at origins and prejudge future success and failure … and we also tend to look at a person’s current situation and judge what the beginnings of their story must have been like.

My first job assignment as a prosecutor coming out of law school was representing the county child welfare agency in its efforts to intervene on behalf of abused, neglected, or otherwise dependent children. I will never forget one hearing in which a public defender was representing a mother whose addictions and struggles had resulted in her kids being placed into foster care. In the heat of the legal arguments over what the agency was requiring the mother to do in order to be reunited with her kids, the public defender lashed out at me: “It’s easy for you, sitting there as a lawyer in your nice suit! You have no idea what it’s like to be poor and struggle!”

Taken aback, my emotions pushed me to respond before my brand new legal brain could stop me: “You don’t know me! You don’t know where I come from! Yeah, you see me as a lawyer in a suit now, but you don’t know the road I had to take to get here.” What that public defender had seen was the top of my tree; she didn’t have a clue about the rocks where I had started. She didn’t know that my childhood was largely defined by the dynamics of drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and domestic violence. She didn’t know that I knew what it was like to have to put items back at the grocery store because they weren’t eligible for purchase with food stamps. Nor did she know that while the suit I was wearing in court was nice and new, my first ever suit jacket was a thrift store purchase for my 6th grade graduation. (I would’ve gladly repeated 6th grade instead of wearing that brown corduroy jacket with elbow patches if I had been given the choice.)

The temptation is to believe that the circumstances of one’s roots dictate the limitations of one’s tree. That just isn’t the case. The critical factor in life isn’t where the seed of your beginnings originally fell; it is simply that you grew and kept growing, on whatever soil or boulder you happen to have been placed. Instead, aim for the air beyond the rim of the gorge, and grow to a place that passers-by see your height and wrongfully conclude that you must have had roots in the best of soil.