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Why Organizations Tear Themselves Apart

The recently released spy film A Most Wanted Man tells the story of a small German intelligence group. The group is headed up by Gunther Bachmann (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Bachmann is tasked with tracking and disrupting Islamic terrorist groups operating in Germany. Set in the gloomy city of Hamburg, the film’s opening explains that it was here that the 9/11 attacks were planned for years with virtually no interference from German or American intelligence agencies. Although there were many ... Read more

The Secret to Google’s Success

In interviews, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin come across as extremely intelligent, creative, open-minded, and unpretentious people. It is clear that both of them are passionate about using technology to make a positive difference in the world. Is it a coincidence that Page's and Brin's characteristics are also the characteristics of Google's corporate culture? Of course not. The single most significant determinant of a company’s culture is its leadership team. That’s why, if you are engaged in leadership development, you’re also engaged ... Read more

Getting the Order Right

Biochemists and civil engineers know that the order in which they do something matters. For the biochemist, combining substances in the correct order can can mean saving a life. Combining them in the wrong order can produce a deadly poison. Civil engineers understand the importance of order as well. If a civil engineer ignores the proper order of operations when solving an equation, it may result in a bridge collapsing. (more…) Read more

“Sir, you have something between your teeth”: Some Thoughts on Humility

The higher someone climbs in an organization, the less likely he is to have someone alert him to the fact that he has a piece of spinach stuck between his teeth. We all understand why no one wants to be the bearer of this unfortunate news. But why, after someone finally brings it to their boss’ attention, does the boss get a little bit irritated? Why does he secretly wish that everyone had pretended nothing was amiss? I would argue that it ... Read more

Don’t Kill the Messenger

“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus' coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him." There are many stories of ancient rulers who opted for short-term gratification by killing or maiming the messengers of unwanted news. It is probably no surprise that none of these ... Read more

You are More than a Machine

Could you craft an incentive structure for your employees that was so perfect you would never need to lead or manage them again? Some experts would have us believe that it is possible. They claim that a system of monetary incentives and disincentives can motivate and guide the decision-making process of an entire team, thus making leadership and management unnecessary. A successful organization, in this theory, is just a matter of choosing the right “carrots” and “sticks.” Apart from being depressing, this theory overlooks something ... Read more

How to Walk–Rather than Jump–to Conclusions

We would be better off it we approached our conclusions slowly instead of rushing to them. But we have a problem: we are uncomfortable living in the unknown. We would much prefer to have a simple story with a quick conclusion, even if that conclusion is wrong. Uncertainty disrupts our world and we need a conclusion to put it back in order. Similarly, when leaders detect problems or notice unmet goals, it is only natural that they will make a beeline to the nearest ... Read more

The Tragedy of the GM Nod

Leadership and culture can be a matter of life or death. For 11 years the failure of a substandard ignition switch vexed engineers at GM. Now the same switch is being implicated in the deaths of numerous drivers. Although an investigation revealed that a GM engineer was responsible for sourcing a component, which he knew to be substandard, the investigators also said the failure to identify and remedy the switch was caused by GM’s own cultural flaws. (more…) Read more

Our Beliefs will Change the World

Where are the flying cars we were promised? Are we really supposed to think that the creation of Twitter was a landmark human achievement? Will the future that Star Trek prophesied ever happen? These are the questions that Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal, is asking a lot these days. He’s disappointed with the deceleration of technological and human advancement and he suspects that at its core, this stagnation is being caused by leaders who are ensnared by a ... Read more

There Is No Second Place

The smaller your world is, the easier it is to be the best at something. Nassim Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, illustrates this point very well. Taleb describes how in the 1800s, there were thousands of opera singers in Italy who performed for weddings and community celebrations. Each region or town had an opera singer who made a good living entertaining their own community and took pride in being the “best” in the land. Then the gramophone was invented. ... Read more
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