Sunday, December 18, 2016

Leadership In Life

           Humans have had leaders since the beginning of time. There have always been people who have inspired and motivated others to follow them, and their names have been passed down through generations and millennia. Alexander the Great. Jesus. Gandhi. They all inspired groups of people to follow them, and they all made an impact on our world.
            In today’s life, leaders are almost everywhere. Bosses run their meetings. Teachers speak to their classrooms. Friends decide where and when they want to eat. Whenever there are two or more people together in a room, some form of leadership is happening. Decisions are made. Plans are formed. People are brought together and organized. We don’t always think about it, but leadership is everywhere.
            So, how can we make this leadership more effective? How can we make our groups as efficient as possible?  
            Much of the conversation about good leadership in today’s atmosphere is on the leader herself. Titles that pop up when I google ‘leadership’ include, “How you can talk like a leader” “How great leaders inspire action,” and “22 qualities that make a great leader.” All this focus on the person is important and can be really useful, but I feel like it can undervalue the most essential part of being a good leader: making sure your group as effective. That’s the most important job of any leader, and I feel as though it doesn’t get talked about enough.
            The idea that we need to create effective groups isn’t a new one. There are any number of effective group-theories in Psychology, and they can explain themselves better than I can. From reading about these theories – and from my experiences and conversations – I’ve come up with two theories of my own to help explore leadership and how to make it effective. These theories are new, so if you feel as though something is inaccurate or missing don’t hesitate to contact me.
            My first theory answers the question: what do these effective groups look like?
            The members in these groups are:
            1. Confident and not filled with damaging stress. Some level of stress is beneficial, but too much can damage group member’s willingness to participate and their effectiveness when they do participate.
            2. Engaged with the rest of the group. There’s a synergy between the members.
            3. Sparky: they’re engaged, focused, and motivated to do the task.
             Another way of saying this is that the best groups and teams walk with swagger. They’re confident with themselves and each other. They’re not afraid to express themselves, they feel valued, and they know that they can rely on their fellow members. A great example of this the Golden State Warriors (a basketball team for those who don’t follow sports). Every time they step onto the court, they’re always the most relaxed group in the arena. They laugh, play pranks on each other, and genuinely enjoy their time on-court. They also build off of each other, respect one-another, and value everyone’s contributions. In short, they’re the perfect example of my vision of an effective group.
            So, what do the Warriors have that make them effective? How can groups become as efficient as possible?
            First, I want to show what the Warriors don’t have. (If you don’t know basketball, feel free to skip this paragraph.) They don’t have anyone who would classically be considered The Leader. Yes, Steve Kerr is the one who organizes everything, but Steph Curry is the best player, the facilitator, and Draymond Green is the emotional heart of the team – shouldn’t that count for something? – And let’s not forget Andre Iguadala, Kevin Durant, or Clay Thompson. They all have some leadership role. In short, they’re not the Cleveland Cavilers. Lebron James is the leader of that particular team.
            Thus, a group doesn’t need a leader. In some cases, groups can even more effective when they don’t have A Leader! This is the main point I want to make with this piece: it doesn’t matter who the leader is as long as the group is successful, and it’s the leader’s job to make the group successful. It’s not the leader’s job to stay in charge. It’s not the leader’s job to talk the most or come up with the most ideas. It’s not the leader’s job to make every decision, and it’s certainly not the leader’s job to get everything the way she wants it to be.
            Too many groups have leaders who do these things when they don’t need to, and this causes the group as a whole to suffer. Of course, there will be times when a leader will have to do these things, but they should never be a leader’s primary goal. The leader’s primary goal should be the betterment of the group. Full stop. If this means stepping down from the leadership position, so be it. Good leaders put their group over themselves, and as long as you do that – and have the judgement to know what’s good for the group – you can be a leader. It’s that simple.
            Well…not quite. But that’s all you need to start out with. Everything else can be taught.
But what is that everything else? That’s in my second theory. (We’ll get there in like six paragraphs.)
First, I want to draw a distinction. So far, our definition of leader has been something similar to “the role the person in charge of the organization has.” That’s a good short-hand to get my points across, but it’s not quite nuanced enough for a deeper discussion. In reality, there are five different facets of that definition of ‘leader’: facilitator, organizer, motivator, decision-maker, and title. From this point on, we’ll use the word ‘leader’ to mean “the one responsible for the well-being of the group.”
Facilitator is what usually comes to mind when we think of our original definition of ‘leader.’ That’s the role that runs the meetings, keeps everyone engaged, and knows everyone’s names. (Knowing everyone’s name is so important for a leader! Write them down if you have to. Everyone’s going to know yours, and you’re so much more effective if you know theirs.) On the Warriors, the facilitator role is filled by Steph Curry.
Organizer is the role that calls the meetings, sets the agenda, figures out the strategy, and generally makes sure things get done. On the Warriors, this role is filled by the coach, Steve Kerr.  
            Motivator is the role that pays attention to the emotional dynamic of the group and fixes it if it’s off. This is the person who makes sure the group stays together and is motivated. They’re often the piece that’s missing in a non-functional group. On the Warriors, this role is filled by Draymond Green.
            Decision-maker is the role that decides what the group is going to do in any given moment. In some groups, like the Warriors, this role seems to be split amongst all the members. In other groups, like the President’s Cabinet, the weight of this role falls to one person: the President.
            Title is the role whose “name is on the door” as my mother likes to say. This is the one role that’s not necessary for a functional group to have, but I would consider it a role because it makes discussions around leadership easier. For instance, the phrase, “he was leader in name only” wouldn’t make sense if title wasn’t considered one of the roles of a leader.           
            A leader can fill one or all of these roles, but to be effective a group has to have all four of these roles filled in some capacity.
            So, how can we make our groups effective? What’s the ‘everything else’?
            There are 7 parts that create the relaxed swagger that the Warriors walk with:
            1. Glue-People: those who put the good of the group over themselves.    
            2. Humor: it relaxes group members and helps them work through stressful situations.
            3. Total member involvement: everyone is engaged.
            4. Shared goals: everyone has to know what we’re building towards
            5. Shared methods for achieving goals: everyone has to share the same philosophy.
            6. Reliance: it allows group members to focus on their own tasks (also known as ‘trust’)
            7. Winning: it validates everything
            . Listening and Communication: this one is so important it’s weaved into all the others.  
            Glue people, much like the motivator leadership role, are the ones who make the group as pro-social as possible. If you’ve ever heard someone say, “come on guys, we can do this,” then you’ve seen a glue person. They’re the type of people who make jokes at the right times, who make sure isolated people stay engaged, and who give out hugs when people look like they need them. They’re also the type of people who can help soften the edges of less pro-social people. Every group has one or two people who work hard, come up with a lot good ideas, and care about the group, but who will occasionally get defensive or confrontational when they don’t agree with another group member. Glue people can help manage these type A personalities by toning down the emotionality of the discussion and helping everyone understand what everyone else is saying. These people are especially important in high stress environments. When people are stressed, tired, or both, they tend to get nasty. To put it mildly, nasty groups are ineffective: everyone remembers words spoken in the heat of the moment.
            It’s not hard to be a glue person: just start watching other members of your group. If they look tired, do something to wake them up. You could poke them, mention their name, or play some music if the whole room looks that way. If they look confused, take some steps to make sure they understand what’s going on. Depending on the situation, it might not be best to stop the meeting and go back through material, but you can talk to them afterwards or ask if anyone has questions. If they look angry, you can do a number of things depending on your status and the situation. If you think they’ll listen and you have some power, you can tell them that anger isn’t useful for productive discussions. If you don’t think they’ll listen in the moment and you have some power, let them vent and then tell them afterwards that anger isn’t productive. If it’s a milder scenario, you could try speaking after the belligerent person and couching their ideas in less emotional language. Above all, it’s important to make sure the group’s mood isn’t unduly harmed by the episode or person.
            Humor is a great tool for glue-people (and leaders!) to use. Laughter relaxes people and lets them bond with their fellow team members. It also relieves tension when a group member makes a small mistake. You know your team has reached a good place when someone who makes a small mistake is laughed at. If there is silence after someone makes these types of mistakes, the tension, stakes, and stress in the room will increase. Everyone will be thinking, “They screwed up; don’t let it happen to me,” which is not what effective group members think about. Effective group members are focused on the problem in front of them.
If someone makes a large mistake, humor usually isn’t the best response because it might be interpreted that you don’t care. But, at the same time, there usually needs to be some acknowledgment of the mistake and some way to reduce the natural tension the mistake causes. The type of response needed will differ depending on the situation, but I can give one example.
After the website for Obama’s health care plan failed, a team of Silicon Valley techs were hired to fix it. There were many, many problems with the site, and the team was on sharp time constraint. The man leading the operation knew that his team was going to make mistakes: the job was too just complicated, so he instituted a rule that there could be no blaming on the job. Blame wasn’t productive, and it didn’t lead to an effective work environment. One time, someone made a fairly large coding error that set the group’s progress back a week. When the person admitted the mistake was theirs, the leader had the group clap for the person.
This is just an example for how mistakes can be handled, but the most important take-home message from this section on humor is this: tension, stress, and blame don’t lead to creation of efficient groups. Humor relives stress and tension and is a way to resolve a mistake without blaming anyone.  
In effective groups, everyone is involved. Too many discussions only focus on the most engaged people in the room, and the quality of the discourse can lower because of it. If you’ve ever been to a meeting with twenty people but only five talk, then you know what I’m talking about. There are two ways that I’ve found to get everyone involved in group discussions: go around the table and ask for everyone’s thoughts and split the group into smaller parts.
A really simple way to get everyone involved is to ask for their opinion. Whenever there’s a question or a topic of discussion, go around the whole room and ask everyone for their input. This forces the whole group to think of an original idea or solution to the problem. It also limits the free-ranging discussion time that more dominant personalities will control. This seems simple, but it can be incredibly effective. When people are directly asked for their input – and when they know they’re going to be asked – their minds become engaged because now there are stakes to the discussion. They’re expected to contribute, so they end up contributing.
Another simple way to get group members involved is to limit the size of each discussion group. By shrinking the discussion group, each member of the group has to contribute more because now there are fewer people to keep the discussion moving. When splitting the groups, make sure that each group has a good mixture of experienced people and different ideas. There’s no point in having a discussion if no one knows what they’re talking about or if they all agree. Try to keep the groups between five and eight people. Any more and the discussion will usually get out of hand. There are usually too many contradictory statements, too much over-talk, and not enough oxygen in the room for everyone to speak. If there are any fewer, there are usually not enough different ideas to keep the conversation productive or enough people to practically solve the problem. At the end of the meeting, have the groups get together and talk through what they’ve found. Usually, groups will come to similar conclusions or at least discuss similar ideas, and any differences can be hashed out once everyone is back together.   
            Too-large group sizes are the curse of most organizations. For some reason, people feel as though everyone has to stay together during the entire discussion, but this isn’t usually the case. If there is actual disagreement within the association, there’s going to be more than one person who feels a certain way. Simply assign at least one person from each side of the argument to each of the smaller group and let the rest of the group members hear their arguments and come to a conclusion. That way, there’s less cross talk, and everyone will get to hear both sides of the argument. People may also feel as though the quiet ones will not contribute if they’re asked or if they’re put into a smaller group. To that, I say this: you might be surprised. It’s incredible the things people will do if you expect them to do it.
            Every organization has to have a shared set of goals. (Almost every piece on leadership has some form of this idea, so I won’t spend much time on it here.) Basically, everyone has to know what they’re working towards. If it’s a political campaign, everyone’s goal is to get more votes than the other guy. If it’s a more permanent group, like a hospital or school, there will be a mission statement that everyone agrees on. If you’re on a team, the goal is to win. It’s important to make sure everyone knows what the group is there to do, but this isn’t usually a problem for most groups.
            However, there will often be differences about how the group should achieve that goal. This is bad, and it’s not too overdramatic to say this is the alter most groups have bleed out on. When a group’s methods are not shared, there’s friction between team members. Friction which usually comes from the most engaged, experienced, and valuable members. These are the members that have the strongest opinions about how the group should operate, and when there’s a fundamental, philosophical disagreement on how to proceed, they’re usually the ones leading the opposing camps. Both sides know they have the right way to proceed, and in most cases both sides are right according to their framework of thought.
            A good example of this is from one of the campaigns I worked on last summer. I disagreed with my coworker about the most effective way of getting votes. Very basically, I thought we should reach out to as many people as possible. He thought we should target our approach to only certain people. Because we had differing philosophies, we kept giving our candidate conflicting advice, and we continually disagreed with each other. There was no group-wide acknowledgement of one particular strategy over another, so we both tried to make our philosophy the dominate one. Eventually, the tension became too great, and I was asked to leave the team. I was rather distraught at the time, but looking back, it was the right decision for the group. One of us had to go. It just happened to be me.   
            This leads us to two solutions to the problem: one prevention and one cure. The prevention is to make sure everyone knows how the group is going to achieve its goal. This can be in writing, or it can be verbal, but it needs to be in place so everyone knows the type of strategy the team will be using. For instance, in my case the campaign should have sat down and agreed upon a set way for getting votes. Everyone on the team should have been given an opportunity for input. Then, the campaign should have made sure that everyone was on board with the group’s decisions. Everyone might not agree, but they should at least be brought to the point where they say, “I don’t agree with it, but I understand it, and know what I’m supposed to do.”  Like most preventions, this method is preferable.
            The cure is to cull one of the opposing philosophies. This isn’t the most elegant solution, but it’s better than the alternative. The team is never going to be effective if it’s being dragged in two different directions at once, and it’s better to adopt a bad philosophy than to be bogged down by two good ones. The groups with bad philosophies will at least get something done. The groups with two good ones will never stop arguing.
Effective organizations are reliant upon one another. When team members trust one another, a whole new street of possibilities and confidence opens up. The best example of a reliant team in my experience has been my Ethics Bowl debate team. Because of our team philosophy - everyone is expected to be involved in the team’s argument - we’re naturally forced to rely on one another. This gives our team an incredible amount of flexibility during competitions. While one person lays the groundwork for our argument, everyone else can be thinking about the next argument to make. This allows us to be much more creative and nuanced with our presentations because we have four or five different minds all focused on the same problem.
            However, this reliance can be hard to instill in an organization that doesn’t require it. In order to build reliance, every member of the team has to be involved in the group’s process without stepping over one another. In Ethics Bowl, this is fairly easy because the team is so small, but in a larger organization roles would have to be assigned. Political campaigns do this all the time. The social media person creates Facebook and Twitter posts. The fundraiser works on raising money. The messaging team writes all the language the campaign puts out, and is generally the most important, coolest, and essential part of any campaign (I’m not biased at all). But problems arise when people don’t stay in their role. If a member of the group isn’t perceived to be doing his job well, others on the campaign team will begin doing aspects of his job. This leads to jobs being done two different ways. Which is bad.
            The easiest way to solve this problem is to avoid hiring people who are bad at their job, but that isn’t always possible. If at all possible, there should be effective dialogue, communication, and oversight between group members, which can mitigate some of these problems. Clearly defining roles can also help this problem, but there isn’t a magic bullet for fixing a dead-weight group member other than hiring a new one.
              Finally, effective groups are winning groups. When a group accomplishes something together, they bond. They value their fellow group members, view their leader as successful, and generally think their time in the group was worthwhile. This seems obvious, but this can be an effective tool for any leader to use.
            Have you ever been to a team-building exercise at work? I bet you probably played a game during it. I bet you probably achieved something with your fellow work-buddies too. You might have even won a silly prize or gotten to wear a fun hat. Afterwards, you might have felt a warm, fuzzy feeling for your fellow team members. That’s the power of accomplishing something together. Nothing can replicate it, and it does wonders for any group.
            Anyone can be a leader. All you have to do is care about your group and have a good enough judgment to know what is best for your group. From there, all of these different ideas or theories should come naturally. It’s not going to be that simple when you apply it to the real world, but nothing ever is. Life is messy. You’re going to make mistakes, and people are going to have questions you don’t know the answer to. That’s okay. It’s part of being a leader. At the end of the day, you don’t have to do everything in your group. Hell, it’s not a group if you’re doing everything. So, don’t be afraid to delegate a little more, or to ask your group members to contribute a little more to discussions. You might be surprised. People do amazing things when you ask them the right way.

What I Learned From Lecturing

Last time I posted on here, I talked a lot about lecturing: how ineffective it was if done wrong, how boring it could be, how it was, “a red, hairy demon that ought to be banished from our school’s curriculum. It saps student engagement! Destroys curiosity! It’s just a vehicle for teachers to show the rest of the world how much smarter they are.”
             Well, I led a lecture in class a month ago, and it turns out I was right about one thing: you do have to be smart to stand in front of a class for an hour and not make a fool of yourself. It’s not as easy as it looks. Like, at all. Granted, I was mostly kidding when I wrote the above lines, but I definitely didn’t understand how difficult talking for an hour actually was.
Now, my eyes have been opened. I have a whole new perspective on the world. I’ve seen the light, man! I will now rescind everything bad I’ve ever said about my teachers. Every last thought, phrase, and whispered curse late at night. Or at least most of them.
The first - and most important thing - I didn’t understand about lecturing was how long an hour actually is. When you’re sitting at your desk (either taking notes, doodling, or imagining your next story) the time seems like it goes by fairly regularly. Depending on the class, it might feel like forever. You might be hungry or have to go to the bathroom, and the minutes will feel like they’re covered in molasses. Or, if you’re in a good class, you’ll sit at your desk, ten or so seconds will pass and then you’ll be standing up again to leave at the end of the“hour.”
But when you’re standing up there in front of everyone with twenty pairs of eyes watching you, waiting for you to make a mistake, wondering exactly what you’re going to talk about...time does some pretty strange things.
For me, the first five minutes of my lecture went pretty quickly. I knew how I was going to open the lesson, (which was a Neuroscience take on the body’s motor control) knew where I was going to go after that, and knew the first two questions I was going to ask. From there, I figured I could tie in everything else I had planned. I was a smart kid, right? Had given presentations before, was familiar with the material I was going to cover. I could figure it out, right?
To be fair, it didn’t go as badly as you might be expecting. I only stumbled over myself a couple times - mostly between the five and fifteen minute mark. - Those were the longest minutes. I started talking about the different building blocks of the muscle system (myosin, actin, muscle fibers, the like), but I didn’t have much of a frame for the information. Looking back, it would have been easy to build the information into the structure I had established at the beginning (which had been a short story about Little Eric, the creature from the primordial ooze - our professor’s name is Eric -) but, for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me during my prep time. In the end, the information got through, but it could have gotten through better.
After that, the next half hour went fairly quickly. I worked my way through the different muscle units and then talked the class through the different units of the nervous system that controlled them. From there, we took a trip up the spinal cord and discussed how the sensory information travels to the brain for processing. There were a couple hiccups around the thirty minute mark (getting to the spinal cord was a little rough), and those two or three minutes felt closer to ten, but the last half hour went well except for one mistake.
I was inaccurate about one concept in the last fifteen minutes (I mixed up the specific names of the different descending spinal tracts) but I managed to catch myself and fix it before the end of class. In the end, I hope it didn’t end up mattering too much. A couple kids in the class gave me grief about it, and my professor mentioned it in his review, but that’s life, right? Sometimes you confuse the techtospinal tract, lateral reticulospinal tract, medial corticospinal tract, medial reticulospinal tract, and vestibulospinal tract by thinking they’re all part of the ventromedial group of descending motor tracks. It happens. You just gotta remember that the techtospinal tract, lateral reticulospinal tract, medial reticulospinal tract, and vestibulospinal tract are actually the parts of the ventromedial group. The medial corticospinal tract doesn’t actually exist. You’re thinking of the lateral corticospinal tract, which is actually a part of the lateral group of descending motor tracts. It’s simple, right?
            During my lecture, the professor who usually talks in front of the class, Eric, took notes on my performance. When I finished, we debriefed about the things I had done right and wrong. Like any good workshop, he started with the things he had liked: he opened by saying that I was a ‘natural’ in front of the class. I didn’t talk straight from my PowerPoint, I had a good stage presence, and I generally kept the kids on their toes by asking questions and making them think. Hearing that made me feel good. My whole goal had been, “don’t let them be bored,” and it was nice to hear I had mostly succeeded.
            However, there were a number of things I could have improved on. The first was that I hadn’t gone in-depth enough with the stories and examples I gave. One of the biggest benefits students get from lecture is the story behind all the information they’re reading about. Any teacher can go through the material and teach the definitions given in the book. It takes a good teacher to tie the concepts in the book together to create a memorable narrative. This gives students a hook to hang lesson material on, and these stories are usually the things students remember after the class.
            In my particular case, I could have gone more in-depth with the story of Little Eric and done a better job tying it into the material at the beginning of the lecture. I also could have done a little more with the baseball and CCR analogies that I brought up. (What do baseball and CCR have to do with Neuroscience? Well, someone pitching a baseball is a good example of the functionality of the ventrolateral spinal tract. That spinal tract carries the signals for full-body movements. Pitching, like walking, is a full body movement. In contrast, the lateral spinal tract carries information relating to fine motor control movement, like playing musical instruments. CCR is the name of a famous band, and it’s also a handy acronym for the three parts of the lateral spinal tract: the lateral Corticospinal tract, the Corticobulbar tract, and the Rubrospinal tract.)  
            There were also a couple times during my presentation where I could have better defined the terms I was using and been more concise in my language. This is especially important in science classes where students are being asked to learn and remember large numbers of different concepts. There have to be clear distinctions and differences drawn between similar ideas. Without these clear lines, important ideas can become muddled together. From a teacher’s perspective, this means it’s vital to be 100% confident in the material you’re teaching. I wasn’t. I was only about 93% confident in my knowledge of concepts, and this showed on a couple of occasions: there were questions I didn’t word clearly enough, there were a couple phrases that didn’t quite make sense, and there were a couple of pauses when I tried to figure out where the hell I was going to go next. But, like anything, this gets better with practice. The more you do something, the better you are at it…usually.
            There were also a couple practical issues during my lecture: I spelled some words wrong on the board, and I stood in front of my PowerPoint too much. The first one made me look like an idiot. The second made it difficult for the kids to figure out what I was trying to point to. To fix the first, Eric said I could write some of these words in my notebook. I’ll feel a little silly writing words like ‘exercise’ at the top of my notes in the future, but at least I won’t look foolish. To fix the second, I just need to watch where I’m standing while I’m on-stage, which is fairly easy once you’re paying attention to it.
            All in all, I really enjoyed my time preparing and giving my lecture. It was a new experience, and I learned a lot about how to make lectures and presentations interesting to my audience. I also spent an entire hour on-stage, which is more than I ever have before. And, you know? It’s difficult to fill an hour of time! And some professors make it look so easy that it’s boring to watch, which takes real talent, skill, and preparation.
            In seriousness, though, being a teacher is difficult. You always have to be on your toes, you have to know your material better than the back of your hand, and you have to be engaging while you do it. That’s not easy, and the people who do it have a more difficult job than we give them credit for.