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How Do You Measure Leadership? (ycombinator.com)
376 points by craigcannon on Jan 19, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 150 comments

Over the years a test I've often used is asking "how does this person respond to being challenged/questioned?" A great leader tends to embrace the fact that someone is asking "why" and uses it as an opportunity to learn and potentially convert the questioning party (if they're questioning something in the first place, then you haven't nailed it 100%). A weak leader who doesn't have confidence in their abilities sees the challenge as a personal attack and reacts in a knee-jerk fashion (often, though not always, resulting in a termination). If you can't reconcile differing opinions and convert those with opposing views to you then you're doomed as a leader and odds are your company/team will experience high turnover.

Obviously there's a whole range of other traits that make great leaders, but I've found people that fail this test are almost always terrible leaders who others don't want to work for.

I often see the opposite effect -- immature people who challenge leaders for the sake of challenging them (perhaps to perform this test, perhaps because they want to appear smarter than their managers, perhaps for other reasons). They ask irrelevant questions, slow everything down, and have little intuition about what's important to the business.

Most of these terminations I've seen haven't been about treating being challenged as a personal attack. They've been about getting smug weenies out of the organization so people can actually do their work.

There's a balance here. I had a manager at Google who once said the people who were terminated at Google were those who "question too much and code too little", i.e. you can always question your leaders, but you have to be willing to buckle down and do the work if their answers are reasonable.

I don't think there's anything wrong with questioning a leaders' decisions, but if you're doing it all the time, you really ought to consider whether you should be at that organization at all. It's like a therapist friend said about one of my (poor) dating choices once: "Look, either you trust her or you don't, but if you're constantly second-guessing her, you ought to evaluate whether this is a relationship you want to be in or not. It's not fair to her, and it's not fair to you." Same applies to corporations: ultimately you either trust your leaders or you don't, and if you don't you should do both yourself and the organization the favor of finding one you do trust.

Wow this is a really good comment. Great analogy with relationships and all.

Sometimes I think people naturally reflect who they are; i.e. a thief will naturally be aware/paranoid of other thieves snooping around his stuff. So I guess someone with trust issues probably sees himself as unfaithful?

I would be wary about blatant comments like this. One can be paranoid because they have had a history of being abused intimately within one's own personal life, or stolen from, or have grown up in a neighbourhood with a lot of crime, or have a mental illness such as PTSD, Schizophrenia, anxiety, etc. There are a variety of reasons someone has trust issues, and only one of them is "because they can't be trusted".

Sometimes I think people naturally reflect who they are; i.e. a thief will naturally be aware/paranoid of other thieves snooping around his stuff. So I guess someone with trust issues probably sees himself as unfaithful?

My paranoia comes from reading too many articles online about government spying and dishonest police/prosecutors. It's gotten a little better since I started markings a point of sticking my head or of our echo chamber occasionally.

I am friends with the CEO of a successful software company thats been around for ten years with a few hundred mil in funding (not just a wannabe) and a couple hundred devs. We are friends personally and don't overlap in work at all but he told me that in his company "I have an open door policy and I listen to everyone. It's ultimately beneficial to work that way. Some people come into my office every week, some once a year, and some come in about every 4 months to give feedback. I listen to the people who come in every 4 months and ignore everyone else."

and I am glad you brought up this point. To me, I'm a pretty introverted person and once was put in a leadership position a bit reluctantly. I didn't feel unconfident about the technical capabilities, just exuding the charisma and extroversion people expect from leaders. I got solid feedback, but the avalanche of horrible unconstructive criticism and just pushing me to my limits for no apparent reason except to try to frustrate me really made me have to draw the line between embracing conflict and standing up for yourself. Also interestingly enough, the most criticism came from people I did not work directly over or with or under, but other people surrounding the situation, but still with alot of influence. With so much dialogue about say for example leaders in Silicon Valley, and creating a public discussion amongst the tech industry about almost every decision a well known leader makes in their company, it makes me wonder who much of the criticism is perceived and created by the outside looking in versus the the actual team working under the leader, as I experienced a microcosm of this scenario myself.

It turns out when you stand up for yourself in cases where you really feel the feedback and composed conflict is out of line and destructive, that is when people begin to respect and trust you. Still, it was frustrating. It was also a very political role with non developers, and I have made sure if I ever go into a leadership position again, it won't be with no technical people. Yes, software developers can have the same mentality, but overall there's alot more objective ability to define and measure how much time someone is putting into creating constructive things versus composing destruction for the sake of challenging leadership or protecting their own entrenched interests.

Theres a fine line between embracing everyone's feedback and being a complete pushover and letting other people steamroll you based on their own motivations. Ultimately, I believe sometimes the best leaders make controversial decisions and stick to them regardless of what other people think, and ultimately the people who work under those people are people who have observed their decisions tend to lead to good outcomes, and they acknowledge the objective positive feedback loop from working under a person like this over the masses criticism of someone who does not please everybody.

We got a new junior developer about a year ago. He acted exactly as you described. I don't consider myself as a superstar dev but I do know a thing or two. So the guy questioned every thing I did for months. At first I welcomed the challenge because it forced me to look up things I haven't been 100% sure about. But when months went by the questions got more and more irrelevant to the work he was doing. He was asking questions for the sake of questioning me not for the answers.

Remind me of this quote from Meditations:

>If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.

Since you're quoting from Meditations, I hope you will entertain me if I go on a tangent. I find Meditations too disorganized to learn from it, and contextualize what it says. Do you have any advice?

I think of Meditations like a daily journal or notebook. It's one of the few books I keep around my desk and occasionally just flip to a random page and read. Individual passages have a lot of meaning so often I'll isolate one and really think about it or talk to my wife about it for a while.

In general, though, I agree it's not very organized or easy to read. If you're looking for a better entry into stoicism I'd suggest A Guide to a Good Life[1]. It's a structured overview of stoicism with straight forward advice on actually using stoic ideas in your own life.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Guide-Good-Life-Ancient-Stoic/dp/0195...

Put differently: leaders are comfortable with conflict, and know how to resolve it when it arises. Silencing it doesn't resolve it.

This requires good management skills, good listening skills, and problem-solving skills.

Great leaders will make sure not only to be comfortable with conflict, but to make the their whole team knows this fact, so they come forward.

Funnily, in my experience the people that say "diversity results in better products and decision-making" (dominant view today) focus on the wrong thing, and don't realize how important conflict is, or that conflict is what leads to better decision-making. Maybe communication and leadership should be taught in schools? Certainly in universities. More great leaders probably means less need for bloated middle management too.

Great comment, only tweak I would suggest is replacing "conflict" with "peer review" in terms of language, as I think people are more comfortable with that.

I'm learning as a leader that I am reluctant to accept a proposal unless it has been thoroughly peer reviewed for gaps or weakness, and if there is some disagreement about the approach, then great let me hear that to. Rigorous peer review is very healthy, the trick is to get people to attack the proposal and not the proposer ;-)

I struggle with this. My reaction to being challenged, even before finding myself in a leadership role, is always the knee jerk that you describe. After some reflection, often quite quickly once I can stop and think about the matter, I revert to your other scenario.

I've been trying to get myself to a place where even if I'm reacting in a knee jerk fashion that at least I'm keeping it to myself but man, it's hard to overcome something that's effectively instinctual.

Sidenote: Mindfulness (AKA vipassana or insight) meditation can give you that gap between feeling something, an emotion in this case, and responding to it. It's potentially useful for a lot of usecases - the NHS have been offering mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for a while now - but what you're talking about sounds very relevant!

Thanks I will look into this

It might be a sign for you being too ego-centric in general. It could also be completely unrelated, though.

But there definitely seems to be some kind of fear at the root of that.

In my case I believe it's a little bit of both, or one of the two managing to manifest as the other.

The knee-jerk reaction you are talking about is what is consider by some scholars as an Ontological Functional Constraints [1].

The constraint is considered deadly for the effective exercise of leadership. The constrains can however be removed or at least relaxed in a reliable way. :)

1). https://ssrn.com/abstract=1392406

How do you measure a great car? There are three factors I've observed: great cars can accelerate, great cars are fun to drive, and great cars have steering wheels.

Sorry, but leadership cannot be reduced to these three factors. There are many excellent leadership frameworks out there which provide great insight into how different leaders operate, and what the great ones have in common. Look up topics like Spiral Dynamics, the Action Logic leadership framework, Kegan & Lahey, and the Integral framework, and you'll have some good starting points on models of adult development that correlate to effective leadership.

It's disappointing to see this comment downvoted. The blog post honestly feels kind of fluffy and is definitely far from scientific. A lot of smart people have spent a lot time thinking about this question. It seems foolish to not take the existing body of thought as a starting point.

Complete fluff. Thank you both. Even the leaders in this specific post had a model and influence, Ed Catmull saying specifically, "As we struggled to get Pixar off the ground, Deming’s work was like a beacon that lit my way." Deming's model of management was based on systems theory and psychology, and was and remains sound. There's a reason for their success other than trite personality traits.

The point is, if it can't accelerate, it probably isn't good :)

Those 3 are mandatory things to have, not a precise metric.

I've had 80 bosses. 77 of them sucked. I would march through hell to help the other 3 get something done. For me that pretty much sums it up. All the rest is fluff.

FWIW, OP's 3 metrics:

  1. Clarity of Thought and Communication
  2. Judgment about People
  3. Personal Integrity and Commitment
Those should be necessary but not sufficient characteristics of every person in your organization.

EDIT, response to walterbell & el_benharneen about what made the 3 different (in no particular order):

  - They always told the truth (to everybody).
  - They knew their stuff (tech, system, user domain).
  - They figured out the right thing to do.
  - They communicated often and flawlessly.
  - They did whatever it took to get the right thing done.
  - They smiled almost all the time.
  - They made each other person feel special.
  - They made work fun.
  - They were always teaching something.
  - They called bullshit instantly.
  - They protected their team.
  - They inspired us by showing how good things could be.

My three best managers all managed UP the org chart. The worst ones managed down.

Then there were a few in the middle who gave us too much autonomy, deferring to our best judgement on everything, but not doing much firefighting on our behalf.

The three worst ones were glorified secretaries. All they did was keep track of who made what decisions so they'd know who to throw under the bus. The sort of people who won't even break a tie on any important decision where the dev leads are deadlocked. Small, petty excuses for humans that I hope never to encounter again.

Anything in common among the three?

Thanks for this. It'd be great to see instances/examples/anecdotes of each item on the list.

Something along the lines of: "They called bullshit instantly: [example(s) of situations where managers called bullshit instantly, and how it had positive results/avoided negative results.. And an example of situations where bad managers didn't call bullshit instantly and what it led to].

Your list aligns almost perfectly with JJ DID TIE BUCKLE - the US Marine Corps acronym for leadership.

Judgement Justice Dependability Integrity Decisiveness Tact Initiative Endurance Bearing Unselfishness Courage Knowledge Loyalty Enthusiasm

Thank you for sharing this list. It's a great and clear checklist of what I also think makes a phenomenal leader.

I'm impressed that you've cataloged your bosses so precisely! I definitely couldn't tell you how many I've had without spending quite a bit of time thinking back through the list.

What separated the three from the 77?

Also a great read along these lines is "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership" by John Maxwell, which I'm close to finishing currently.

Maxwell claims that leadership is influence, not authority. When I became a co-founder, I thought that made me a leader. But as PG's excellent post and Maxwell affirm, leadership is quite distinct from positional authority -- and is much more difficult to attain.

Speaking directly to this post, I found that rating myself against Maxwell's "21 laws" was a sobering and likely accurate gauge of my leadership ability.

Years ago we had a board meeting, me being a youngish co-founder. We were talking about founder titles. I remember forever Esther Dyson as an investor and board member telling me then, that the titles do not mean much. You can be a great leader inside your company without any titles or official role - this is what you should aspire for. And you can be a CEO/CXO/VP without being a leader at all.

Variation of the same sentiment: ask a difficult question and see who everyone in the room looks towards for an answer. That person is the leader.

Higher title = ensure that people will listen to you for the first minute when you address the audience and/or ensure they'll come at all.

Higher title = better pay

It also has some drawbacks but that's a different topic.

If you have leadership skills, you can help lead your company, even from a low-end job title. However, it can take years to build up respect from management in that position.

If you have a high title, you get a level of respect immediately (whether you deserve it or not). It goes a lot quicker.

I think it's a bit more nuanced. If you have a high title, you get people's attention immediately, but it takes time to earn their respect, and the two are quite different.

Sure, but attention may be a prerequisite to respect. How can gain respect if others don't know who you are or what you are contributing?

Having the official authority to do something can just make things a lot faster. People may agree with you, but will want to check with their manager first anyway. If you have title authority, then they don't need to 'check with their manager' or equivalent.

That was something that really bugged me about this essay. It says it's for "leaders", but it's really addressed to CxOs. I was hoping to get some useful insight into becoming a better informal leader, but there was very little applicable.

I think that the attributes mentioned also scale down to fit any leadership role.

That said, it's really kind of "well, yeah, of course". Generally if you have integrity, vision, and the trust of the people you work with (or who work for you), you're going to be perceived as a leader among that group of people.

> Maxwell claims that leadership is influence, not authority.

When you're setting the raises, bonuses, and assignments, authority is (very blunt) influence. I've seen many coworkers do obviously dumb things because the boss wanted them to do it that way. They shrug their shoulders and say, "I just work here". It's not obedience out of respect or loyalty.

It is always interesting when someone who believes themselves to be a great leader, discovers that they are not. And since many of the traits that make great leaders, self awareness, humility, honesty, Etc. are missing in these folks, the world around them sort of explodes when that realization hits. In my experience it is a time when they are most likely to embrace 'leadership through politics.' It is always a strong signal that it is time to distance oneself from the faux leader's area of influence.

Is humility necessary for one to be a great leader? Steve Jobs and General George Patton spring to mind.

I agree that a plurality of those traits are commonly found, I've always wondered about causality and importance. Not disagreeing, genuinely curious about your opinion.

Edit: clarity and expansion

I think humility is essential for managing discord. General Patton is a good example where a lack of humility got him into trouble and probably limited his career. Steve Jobs is a bit different, humility is being able to hear a different opinion, and I think Steve could hear those opinions based on what I've read about him.

Leadership and career are not the same thing.

George Patton was confident with out a doubt; but he was humble enough to not be outwitted by his enemies...pretty much that is all the humility you need in his role.

I use Cynefin framework to put people into 4 styles of leadership. Steve Jobs was definitely one of those dudes that operate in chaos - the kind of asshole you need to have to be in charge and the new apple appears to be trying to move toward more complicated/complex and a softer tone. So from my perspective, the new CEO is a better "leader" of human beings and Steve Jobs was a better asshole.

Jobs became a much better leader after getting kicked out of Apple and facing near failure with Next.

> Is humility necessary for one to be a great leader? Steve Jobs and General George Patton spring to mind.

As does (starting tomorrow) the new leader of the free world.

> As does (starting tomorrow) the new leader of the free world.

I'm not a fan of Trump's, but it takes an exotic form of humility to sell gaudy things, have an off-the-wall hairstyle, and be a WWE performer. He's so over the top that there has to be a level of ironic self-awareness in there somewhere.

I don't think that's humility at all. It might take not caring about what other people think of you, but that's a totally separate dimension than humility.

Yeah, I'm open to a better vocabulary word for this, but the point is that it might overlap with "humility in leadership" somehow. Or not. Words are hard.

Why does there have to be? He's been a public figure for like 40 years, wouldn't someone have seen some evidence of self-awareness by now?

I'm saying I don't see how someone gets "slapped around" by Steve Austin without being at least a little meta and a little humble in some weird way.

The election was the evidence, he's very self aware. You just don't like the image he is purposefully projecting.

What do you mean? Hasn't one of the stories of the election been people constantly saying "he doesn't mean it, it's an act, it's just for votes", and being proven wrong every time? Everyone around him, his kids, his biographers, his employees, all say this is who he really is. So he's obviously aware of the image he's projecting, but I don't think he's self-aware in the way that comment implied, which was that he's just playing a character, and he's certainly never shown any evidence of humility.

Just because someone is in a position of power doesn't mean they're a good leader. A good leader is someone who people want to actively follow and support.

Even though the majority voted against him, Trump did get a lot of votes, and he did draw people to his rallies. But that kind of support for a politician is more like celebrity fandom than wanting to follow a good leader. Much like the Kardashian family, Trump became famous for being famous. He's always been good at getting into the public spotlight. He's never had a reputation for brilliant business leadership.

Of course, he may well turn out to be a great leader. A lot of the same basic acting skills required to be a celebrity are helpful in leadership. And after all, other entertainers have turned out to be great leaders. It's just too soon to tell.

Even though the majority voted against him

I thought the majority DGAF, and those that did were - as always - within a handful of percent of 50-50?

I think parent post was referring to people who are generally considered to have been excellent leaders (and lack humility).

I was, although there was some selection bias in my choices; Hitler/Mussolini would certainly qualify for that category.

Sidebar: I do find myself biased in judging someones merit as a leader based off of my opinion of their goals. Someone can certainly be a very good leader and lead towards something very bad.

What does 'leadership through politics' mean?

I'll take a stab at this. To me, it means instead of leaning on trust to build respect/relationships, you use some more artificial or formal ladder. Maybe you act disingenuously, letting people fail when its avoidable, turning people against each other, thus allowing a space for yourself to succeed.

This, there are two ways to stand out in a group; one is to do excellent work, the other is to make everyone else appear worse than you. A "political" leader will use their skill at 'crafting the narrative' to establish a completely different reality for those who don't have the time to figure out what is really going on.

Perhaps another way to look at it would be how cult leaders get people locked into their way of thinking. It makes them very effective but by my definition it doesn't make them 'good leaders'.

One of the VP's at NetApp used to say "When your actions improve everyone's experience at the company it is leadership, when your actions improve your own experience at the company its politics."

You can use it for good though. I viewed one of my most important tasks as insulating my team from corporate politics. That often involved me using politics on other leaders in the organization to keep their (useless) agendas away from my team.

Or maybe understanding motivations, how people and groups will react not based on trust or relationships, but strictly on expected outcomes.

Wielding authority, AKA pulling rank.

Leadership is people development. So, how many people have you developed? How many times have you reproduced yourself?

If you want grow your company, you are going to have to reproduce yourself so that the new you is doing the old role so that you can step into the new one, or perhaps relieve yourself of excess roles. That role may or may not have the title you had when you were doing it, however. You might be titled "CEO" when you are leading a team of 5 people, but you will reproduce yourself as "Team Leader" as you start adding teams.

Merely having clarity of thought and integrity does not make you a leader, it makes you a great team member. Merely having good people judgement makes you a good manager, not necessarily a good leader. Developing people makes you a good leader. It's hard to do that without the other three, though.

“Leadership is intangible, hard to measure, and difficult to describe. It's quality would seem to stem from many factors. But certainly they must include a measure of inherent ability to control and direct, self-confidence based on expert knowledge, initiative, loyalty, pride and sense of responsibility. Inherent ability cannot be instilled, but that which is latent or dormant can be developed. Other ingredients can be acquired. They are not easily learned. But leaders can be and are made.” General C. B. Cates, 19th Commandant of the Marine Corps

Ingrained to my brain from my Marine Corps days is the acronym JJDIDTIEBUCKLE as the list of leadership traits, and it has served me well since, although in the civilian world I have had to lower my expectations of others around me in having even a fraction of such traits.

Relevant reading for those curious about how the Corps approaches leadership: http://www.tecom.marines.mil/Portals/120/Docs/Student%20Mate...

This is a hard question to answer, and my personal opinion is based on my experience in the Army over a while. The best leaders I encountered managed to somehow turn out the best in the people they led. That can manifest in a lot of ways. Improvements on subordinate performance, increases in technical proficiencies, a more disciplined approach to their work. Those are all good metrics, but the best leaders managed to get their subordinates to actually want to improve on their own, without sufficient goading from their leaders. Most of that, therefore, lands in the realm of understanding group dynamics, behavioral economics, and leadership psychology.

You should probably follow Nassim's idea of not trying to measure x (leadership) vs output of leadership f(x) and try to measure the exposure and how it impacts it. Since probably the most significant effort has been pulled into probability theory and trying to get a measure of x that's probably the place to look.

And you would NOT try to measure it as a point estimate as many have reminded us, you would try to set bounds lower&upper.

What about this study mentioned in Kahneman's Thinking fast and thinking slow according to which there was only a very slight correlation between the success of a company and the qualifications of a CEO?

Don't get me wrong, CEOs have my uttermost respect and I don't claim that it's an easy job. I just wanted to point out that there are reasons for believing (at least the possibility) that from the point of view of a realistic assessment the choice of a leader and his or her personality, qualifications and ambitions do not have much to do with the performance of a company and that the many apparent examples to the contrary are mostly based on selection bias and some biases towards oneself such as regarding one's own success more as an achievement rather than chance as those of others, estimating your own social status higher than those of others, believing your less biased than others, etc.

Maybe the best qualification for leadership is being at the right place at the right time, and nobody else really wants to do it?

If that sounds too negative, let me stress again that I think CEOs and people in certain kinds of leadership positions often (though not always) do some difficult work that I generally respect. I just don't buy the claim that the successful ones are little geniuses. A decent amount of intelligence (smartness), some generic business knowledge and being good with social relations seem to suffice.

RE: "Clarity of Thought and Communication" — I have worked at a couple of places that put a lot of effort into internal communications, selling employees on upcoming product changes they'll be working on, but failed to acknowledge the existing significant problems that everyone saw and that were repeatedly punted on. Being able to give a slick pitch is not sufficient for this leadership criterion; the narrative must be "credible" (as mentioned rather briefly in the article). Is it just me, or do other people find themselves frustrated at internal messaging that is self-consistent but not grounded in reality?

I would say that a leader who doesn't have a credible plan has failed to have clarity of thought because if they did they would have seen that the plan wasn't credible in the first place.

Two words that weren't repeated enough in this essay, especially one with a focus on trust.


Great leaders have empathy towards their customers, their employees, and above all, to their cause, which is what is contagious.

This is an emotional connection that garners an emotional response. The person that initiates the connection is leading. The person responding is following. When this pattern repeats itself, it strengthens the form and function of the relationship.


Taking responsibility is not to be confused with taking blame, because they are opposites.

Responsibility is taken before the mistake, and doesn't go away after the mistake. When the mistake happens, you apologize, then fix it, because you're still responsible. Blame is only taken after the mistake. It ends with an apology or a legal defense, possibly an acceptance of punishment, and afterwards we forget it all happened. One is progressive. The other is regressive.

There was also one word that wasn't even mentioned.


A leader makes promises, and delivers on them, until everyone succeeds. They make promises to clients, to customers, to partners, to investors, and to employees.

You cannot be a liar and keep promises. You cannot be incompetent and keep promises. You cannot make excuses and keep promises. You have to be aware, proactive, and capable to even know which promises to make.

And with every promise you keep, you've just given everyone another excuse to trust you, depend on you, and follow you.

In a nutshell, if they can promise to be responsible for delivering on a cause they deeply believe in, they're a leader.

For leadership principles & qualities, I am biased towards the list that the Marine Corps has put out: http://www.tcsnc.org/cms/lib010/NC01910389/Centricity/Domain... .

The Marine Corps may not be a paragon in efficiency in some ways, but I have found that these qualities hold strikingly well for good leaders in the civilian world as well.

Great read but did Steve Jobs really have personal integrity? He was famously double faced, manipulative and as petulant and petty as a child, often settling personal scores with business decisions.

You bring up a good point that illustrates an important distinction. There are two aspects people look at when they evaluate a leader's integrity:

1. Are they true to their values?

2. Are their values my values?

Steve Jobs was remarkably true to his core values, which consisted of building great products for the masses to use. His values did not include being kind to people, coddling peoples' feelings, telling the truth (except insofar as it helped great products get built & distributed), promoting social justice or equality, or many other things that people care about. If your primary mission in life is to build great products, Apple was an excellent place to be. If you cared about work/life balance, free exchange of information, building products for the underprivileged, or any number of other causes, Steve Jobs was probably not the right leader for you.

Sometimes it's possible for a person to score really well on #1 but not make the cut on #2. Antonin Scalia, for example, is someone who IMHO had great personal integrity, and yet I still detest because that integrity stood for causes that I find reprehensible. Or for a more extreme example, Adolph Hitler - he totally believed in what he said and did, but what he said and did was atrocious.

No, because personal integrity is a fairly unimportant concept to leadership, besides being a made-up trait that has almost no meaning.

Leadership is about the ability to understand and manipulate reality. To do that, you need to know about systems, psychology, variation, and knowledge. None of the rest matters. People didn't have to like Jobs, nor even look to him for integrity. Rather they trusted him because he was effective at moving a whole organizational system in one direction toward an incredible result.

It's not integrity that matters—but reality. Are you bringing the company, through your model of reality, closer to a result? If not, your model is wrong, not your personality.

Why is this downvoted? It brings a very interesting (maybe controversial for some) perspective on leadership.

We should ask ourselves if people who we perceive as leaders are indeed capable of and actively manipulating reality?

I'd like calinet6 to elabore a lot more on his/her points.

Thanks. It's difficult to maintain composure in the face of almost comical wrongness throughout the business world, and saying things like that tends to get you shunned. My fault, I need to improve my tact.

I wrote more about it here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13441946

Basically, the Pixar crew followed W. Edwards Deming's model of organizations, which is one fairly accurate and useful model. By doing that they were able to bring all the pieces together and lead. Heck, Catmull even wrote a book about it, detailing how he thought about managing and leading a company that works for creative minds. But I guess the important part is his integrity and hiring abilities. :)

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

- Lao Tzu quote opening 'Becoming a Technical Leader' by Jerry Weinberg

I think this quote has one particularly important implication (among many): A major mismatch between responsibility and authority is a huge morale killer. If you have to constantly ask for permission, you will feel much less personally invested in success because you don't feel like it was your doing.

Being a boss and being a leader are two very different things.

That may seem obvious to those that understand it, those that don't will think I'm nuts. As a scrum master I have been a leader at every company where I have worked. I have never had anyone report to me in those same companies, aka not a boss.

I usually don't consider scrum masters leaders. Facilitators of process, and reporting are the two biggest things they are responsible for usually.

No offense to your personal positions though, I know many places confuse the term with project manager too.

I wasn't a Project Manager at all. Scrum Masters need to enforce the team rules and do so without being a boss. If they aren't leaders, if they aren't coaches, you're not getting as much out of your Scrum Masters as you can.

Before we can measure leadership. Maybe we ought to first figure out what we mean by leadership.

Often there has being a mix up between leadership, management, and a bunch of other stuff that has nothing to do with leadership.

If people are interested in how and leadership is effectively exercised and what it is. Take a look at this paper: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1392406

There's kind of a difference between a manager and a leader.

Manager - Makes sure things get done. If someone quits, finds a replacement, etc. We should all be managers of ourselves.

Leader - A person that employees are willing to follow. Makes the group into a team, working together. Actually cares about the members in his team, protects and defends them. Fights to get them raises, etc.

I remember a nice analogy:

The workers are cutting down trees. The managers make sure the saws are sharp and the workers do a good job. The leader climbs up a tree and shouts "We are cutting down the wrong forest!".

All the qualities they identify, here, are, in my mind, absolutely necessary (though not sufficient) for someone to be a good leader.

But, despite the title of the article, none of them are objectively quantifiable.

Agreed, constructs like integrity and commitment are notoriously abstract and hard to rigorously define, let alone quantify.

If one truly wants to quantify leadership, one would need an operational definition that is concrete. "Leadership" is probably too nebulous a term, so we'd need to break it down. I'd suggest that one goes after the parts that are the most quantifiable: employee morale, productivity, confidence in said leader. Company culture might be quantifiable (does it have a clear one, is it intentional?)

Optimize for more than immediate profits. Don't consider themselves detached from common population, and act in the interest of the greater good. It's a case of game theory - we need to cooperate even at the cost of a personal loss for the greater good, otherwise we all lose.

You're quite sure it isn't a Prisoner's Dilemma, instead? Ever?

Leadership can be measured by simply stripping away all external factors that could distort the ability to quantify the Individual Leadership Quotient. A few such elements would include, but are not limited to: A) Talent and Aptitude of Followers, B) Macro Economic Conditions, C) Luck, D) The Weather...basically I think the notion of Leadership is very elastic and, more often than not, highly circumstantial.

What is good Leadership for a bunch of grunts storming a beach in combat isn't objectively comparable to good Leadership for a bunch of teenagers in a classroom environment. There are some "Characteristics" I think that can be described and discussed as a useful musing on the concept, but it has to be qualitative not quantitative from my perspective.

Good article by someone who is obviously well-informed on concentrated startups, and whose efforts I can easily respect.

I agree that these are some of the universal features that have always functioned best when combined they yield the trust that is so essential.

Plus some of the best leaders will actually earn enough respect to exceed that which would be expected by their position alone, earning every bit of it, rather than imposing it from above (from a naturally lower ceiling).

In most cultures, it does seem, that situations will always arise where better leadership is needed in ways that can not be measured.

Sometimes only a type of natural leadership will do, the kind that can not be acquired. Interestingly, this can also be the kind that does not fade even during periods without a team to lead.

And, some of the time when it really counts most, the need to recognize the optimum or required type of leadership will not be met without defying metrics completely.

So I then ask the question "Why would I want to measure leadership?" qualitatively or quantitatively - in some way other than based on my own abilities and intuition developed over a long lifetime of influence by those who have gained the most respect for their superior leadership

And I get the expert answer; "In a startup culture that is obsessed with management by metrics".

Well, there are others factors at play today. Here are a couple of videos that discuss the general topic:



I have seen and continue to see some of the behaviors described in these two videos and it is deeply disturbing.

Attempting to lead people with deep social challenges is an exercise in frustration and futility. Leadership, in this context, is a very different thing than in what I'll call more traditional settings. It almost has to be reduced to appeasement and coddling. Latte's and ice cream.

We have a generation of adults who behave as petulant children half their age did in prior generations. Except they are in a 25 year old body. Some of these 25 year olds today would be slapped out of the building by 25 year olds a generation or two ago. They are weak, oversensitive, self-serving, entitled, delicate and disconnected from reality.

This is how you end-up with some of the crazy stuff coming out of outfits like Facebook and Google. They are completely devoid of real world social and business skills yet interact and affect the personal and business lives of millions.

One example that comes to mind are account suspensions and cancellations without even a shadow of customer care or service offered. If you can't swipe or click a problem away the option to actually engage with a real human being and exercise the ability to resolve problems simply isn't there.

How do you lead these people? Well, first they have to grow up. I suspect that will happen once they get to 35 or 40 years of age and finally understand reality. What will the consequences of such dysfunction be a few decades from now? Not sure.

I think you can overcomplicate this question but a leader is someone that, over time, people follow. Why they follow is up to the individual.

Gandhi was a leader, but then conversely, Hitler was also a leader. There is no morality in leadership, but I would say a common trait would be charisma.

These all seem like good things in a leader, but it does miss a vital quality, which is being able to guide those around the leader to perform at an elevated level, usually because the leader has the ability to both convey the importance of the mission and to be a good "whisperer," i.e. someone who listens to their team, understands what makes them tick, and supports them in performing at their best.

Hmm, do we distinguish leadership from management?

A leader is not a position, but a role anyone can play at any given time.

Yes, a very important aspect. You even have to lead your manager/boss sometimes.

yup! Leadership, Leadership position and leadership authority are distinct!

See scholars and practioners who have contributed to building a scientific foundation for leadership:

1). https://ssrn.com/abstract=1392406

Here's my short list:

1. Listen to your people and look after them. 2. Delegate work because your people can do it better than you. 3. Make sure your team is working on the right things

Having integrity, being able to judge people, and being a smart thinker? That's how you measure the leaders of an organization which was heavily influenced by the management principles of W. Edwards Deming? Have you even read Creativity Inc? Ed Catmull himself said, "As we struggled to get Pixar off the ground, Deming’s work was like a beacon that lit my way."

Get a used copy of this book and read it cover to cover: https://www.amazon.com/Leaders-Handbook-Making-Things-Gettin...

Chapter 2: The New Leadership Competencies:

- Competency 1: The Ability to Think in Terms of Systems and Knowing How to Lead Systems

- Competency 2: The Ability to Understand the Variability of Work in Planning and Problem Solving

- Competency 3. Understanding How We Learn, Develop, and Improve; Leading True Learning and Improvement

- Competency 4. Understanding People and Why They Behave as They Do

Those sound a tad more concrete and believable, don't they? That's an understanding of reality that might help you be a better leader to an organization that actually works. Dismiss the surface-level personality games and get yourself into the scientific reality of organizations, and you have a hope of leading one well. There are no missing parts—the whole system is important. That's the leadership secret.

My bet is that the leaders described in this post are better described by the above characteristics, and they more reliably predict leadership success, than any of their individual traits or abilities. Certainly Ed Catmull, who was himself a big believer in Deming's way of managing companies, fits that model, and Steve Jobs was heavily influenced by Deming and Juran in creating a system able to produce extraordinary quality. In fact, the whole Pixar team this post is about was more heavily influenced by Deming's concepts than any trite personality fluke, yet that influence is entirely ignored here.

This is forgivable: it's attribution bias. We instinctually want to attribute to the greatness of the individual that which was actually more nuanced, the outside factor in this case being a great body of knowledge about management and leadership that led them to be extraordinary.

Now you know. Read Peter Scholtes' Leader's Handbook, read Creativity Inc., and keep thinking about it. There's way more to it than just having integrity, being able to judge people, and being a smart thinker. If excelling at those were all it took, we'd be up to our necks in extraordinary leaders. Must be something else, then.

Proof is in the pudding. Measure leaders by how many follow them, giving greater weight to leaders who are followed by other leaders.

You don't. You experience it.

Two things:

By the profesional/personal growth of each team member and by the harmony of the group.

This is insanely valuable post, helped me a lot with understanding leadership.

Look behind them and see who is following (following.... not just obeying)

Getting people to do things they don't want to do.

I believe from Jack Welch

This is manipulation. Leadership is inspiring people to believe what you believe so that they motivate themselves to fight alongside you.

And aligning incentives. It's far easier to get someone to follow you if it benefits them directly. Good leaders understand this and keep their incentives aligned with those of their subordinates.

They didn't want to do it, they were motivated by good leadership, now they do it. See how that's not different than what OP said?

Because one is scalable (using motivation) and the other (directive) is not.

You simply can't pretend that "getting someone to do what they don't want to do" is motivation unless there is some changing of heart/mind there - now that's the leadership part.

Like my former boss said: I'm not a team leader.

I'm a motivator.

"Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way." --Daniele Varè

That describes manipulation at the root; I think persuasiveness is an element of leadership but it has, uh, a moral compass maybe?

Parents get children to do things they don't want to do using lots of techniques which I would not call manipulation (autocratic leadership, for instance). Personal trainers similarly, also drill sergeants.

Edit: clarity

By the output of the employees that are lead/managed?

How many people that follow him/her literally

I'm sad not to see an emphasis on giving a shit about the lives of those people you're leading. Personal development, career development, family, fun, etc. These are all hugely important to people outside of whatever widgets they are contributing to. A good leader should care about helping the people they lead achieve their goals, and not just in the sense of finding people who are willing to pretend their goals align with the widgets.

Would you rate this attribute higher than the 4 listed (clarity, judgement, integrity & trust)?

I, personally, would not.

And honestly, when I think back to the best leaders I have worked with they didn't necessarily have an enormous focus on the sort of individual development that you talk about. They were focused on the mission. To the extent that individual development furthered the mission it was vital, but the mission was always #1.

Having the clarity of thought to recognize this was clearly helpful to them.

I once had an excellent manager. He told me that he would never think about my career development unless I asked him to. He would never promote me unless I asked for a promotion. If I never said anything, then he would assume I'm happy. But if I came to him and wanted to change something, he would do everything in his power to help me.

One day I came into his office and said, "I really just want to code for a while. I'm finding these meetings to be getting in my way". True to his word, he replied, "What if I went to those meetings for you and sent you a summary? Would that help?"

Although he did actually promote me without me asking -- apologising all the way ;-).

I was at a workshop recently and we had this exercise where participants were to list the attributes that their all time favorite boss had. We then clustered the results and "giving a shit about you" was by far the #1 answer.

I wouldn't have expected it myself but once I thought about it there was a nearly perfect correlation in my own history.

I would put it at number 1, to be completely honest. My life goal isn't to optimize widgets, it's to be happy. That's number 1. Widgets happen to further that goal. If I'm responsible for other people's livelihoods, that's a really important responsibility. That doesn't mean to override business decisions, because better business should help us all, but you shouldn't lose sight of the original goal or how significant the responsibility is.

I'd rather have a trustworthy, honest (integrity), and fair (judgment) boss that doesn't give a shit about my happiness than one who wants me to be happy but will lie or play office politics.

Would you be happy working for someone who lies and plays office politics? If not, doesn't that rather prove the point?

That is ridiciulous. Emploeyee is like any other asset, its just way more important.

If you have a powerfull server you need to tend to its needs - supply it good UPS, do regular maintenance, replace broken stuff, provide good ventilation etc.

What makes you think that human doesn't have any of that and that you can simply ignore its own needs just becuase it doesn't come with the manual ? There is no mission without humans and good humans doing particular stuff are hard to find.

"To the extent that individual development furthered the mission it was vital."

Caring about the people who work for you is a crucial part of integrity. Not all people are the same, and not all days are the same. An employee whose father just died needs to be managed/led in a different way than an employee who just got a nice raise.

If you are indifferent to the burdens and emotional states of your staff, people will notice, and it will harm your ability to hire and retain the best employees. This is a failure of leadership, because the #1 job of a leader is to build a great team.

I would challenge you to consider if job #1 of a leader is really to build a great team. I can think of a lot of great teams working on bad problems (not bad = hard, but bad = not useful). That sucks.

On the other hand if a leader can figure out what problems are important to work on and clearly communicate why this is true it becomes easy to attract a great team.

A great team can pivot to a new goal and still do great work. A not-great team will do not-great work even if the goal is ideal.

> if a leader can figure out what problems are important to work on and clearly communicate why this is true it becomes easy to attract a great team.

Great goals help attract a great team--true--but I believe that the essential limiting factor is the team.

I think some of this might be on purpose. There used to be a fair amount of talk about loyalty both directions...employer to employee, and vice versa. Companies that would, for example, suffer what might be temporary bad times without laying anyone off. Or employees that might accept a pay cut to bridge a similar temporary situation.

That seems to be largely gone now. There's no loyalty either direction. Companies layoff without remorse, and employees leave whenever they want as well.

So, with that environment, company level discussion about family and fun just tend to ring hollow. The employer/employee relationship is transactional...we pay you to do what you do.

I do think those things matter at a "direct supervisor" level...the person you work for should give a shit about you, know about your family, and so on. It just doesn't seems to scale up beyond that one direct relationship without seeming fake.

> So, with that environment, company level discussion about family and fun just tend to ring hollow. The employer/employee relationship is transactional...we pay you to do what you do.

The most accurate way I've heard the employer/employee relationship described is by Reid Hoffman, who likens it to a tour of duty [1][2]. I think that lets both sides of the table set much more realistic expectations than the "we're a big family" ethos you mention.

[1] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141023153633-1213-tours-of-...

[2] https://hbr.org/2013/06/tours-of-duty-the-new-employer-emplo...

I think that's an accurate take on how things currently are, but disagree that it doesn't scale up. The company I'm at now does a great job, and there are 5 tiers between me and the CEO. I think certain priorities scale pretty well.

I see what you mean. But, in the end, I don't expect a company to show me much loyalty when the rubber meets the road financially. So, it's just not a "family" in that way..and platitudes that make that comparison sound corny to me. I do expect leaders to be nice people, just not to the point where it sets some expectation that caring goes beyond that.

It is a top 3. And a good one imo

I'd say a leader's responsibility involves finding people who's life goals align with the goals of the organization. If this happens, then it is easier to show good judgement, easier to build trust, and communication is clearer because everyone is on the same page.

If you want to align people around a mission, you will have to hold this equation true: Mission > Team > Individual

With a ruler.

  It is based on observations I made when working closely 
  with four leaders that I consider extraordinary: Ed 
  Catmull (Pixar’s founder), Steve Jobs (Pixar’s CEO), John 
  Lasseter (Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer), and Bob Iger 
  (Disney’s CEO).
All four of these guys were involved in wage-fixing, which cost their companies $415 million. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-Tech_Employee_Antitrust_L...

So, "extraordinary" in the sense of being extraordinarily unprofitable.

The value of the labor managed by those leaders was over 100X greater than $415 million. Unprofitable is not the right term here (something ethical instead?).

Exactly, Apple alone is one of the most profitable businesses of all time.

That's irrelevant.

The question is if the money those companies saved by illegally depressing wages was greater than the $415 million cost of the settlement, plus the bad press of the criminal investigation by the DOJ.

No, it is completely relevant: ethics do have a place in leadership.

I don't think it is as clear cut as this comment makes out. What they did was come to an illegal agreement not to poach employees from each other. There are multiple reasons why that could be good for a company, and I doubt 'reducing wages' is close to the top of that list.

But ethics are important in leadership - I just think the case here isn't as simple as it is made out.

I was replying to "the value of the labor managed by those leaders was over 100X greater than $415 million", not the second sentence.

I have no idea what you think is irrelevant.

Both parts of the thing you were replying to seem relevant to me.

Extraordinarily unscrupulous.

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