To the Heroes that Never Were

22 Nov

For all of our intelligence we human beings are hugely unfair. Worse still, we actually think that we are fair. Which means that we are also hugely ignorant. When combined these two facts set us up for some horrible injustices. One of our most obvious acts of  injustices is how we glorify the firefighters who rush into an apartment building to put out a fire, but we don’t even mention the landlord who replaced the batteries in the smoke detector – a device that prevented a manageable fire from growing so large that it needed the fire department. In short, we glorify the person who intervenes , but not the person who prevents and the obvious reason we do this is because we are never aware of the things that never happen. Our cultural myths around leaders and heroes are oriented around the person who dramatically saves the day, not the person who simply and cleverly manages the antecedents to the problem.


This has two effects. First, we are encouraged to create problems to solve so that we can be the hero. After all, if there is no way for me to get credit for preventing something that never happened, then the social incentives are for me to let things go. Let things get bad so that I can put on my cape and mask and come to the rescue. It is a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy that the more we see the world according to the drama triangle (i.e. the hero, the villain, and the victim) the more evidence we find to support it. The impact of this simple and fundamental error in judgement on the overall effectiveness of an organization is profound. If your performance management system and your culture is geared only toward problem-solving and not problem-prevention (or polarity management), then you better believe that your people are unconsciously creating a lot of their own problems. After all, every hero needs a villain. This is a problem for all individual people, but when it comes to thinking about people working together in organizations, it suddenly becomes a much more pernicious and profound issue.

The second issue is that we completely miss the qualities in leaders that are ACTUALLY important. We are so distracted by the dramatic story-telling of the latest and greatest feat of Inc. Magazine’s CEO of the Year that we completely ignore the subtlety of true leadership. Given our fundamental human ignorance that orients us to reward intervention more than prevention, true leadership requires a strong internal compass that is not dependent upon the recognition of others. That is the only way to offset this blatantly unjust system. And this is more than just simply calling something “servant leadership” or “humility;” it gets down to how individuals experience the world. I’d like to suggest that, by definition, if you are striving to be recognized for your accomplishments then you are not just “a realist” or “a good salesperson;” you are also likely to be a bad leader. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider others or manage your brand or anything like that. What I am saying is that it is a matter of priority. Those things are important, but the MOST important factor is that a leader is driven clearly and consistently by his or her own values.

In the end, everyone knows that “…a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” so why do we rarely reward acts of prevention? We don’t reward them because our minds are not set up to understand them. We simply cannot see something that did not happen and therefore, all of the subtle acts of preventative heroism go unnoticed. The philosopher+businessman Nassim Taleb describes the problem in his book The Black Swan

Who gets rewarded , the central banker who avoids a recession or the one who comes to “correct” his predecessors’ faults and happens to be there during some economic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politician who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one (and is lucky enough to win)? (Prologue xxviii).

So today I’d like to publicly recognize (in my own small way) all of the heroes that never were. I can’t give you a medal or a bonus. I can’t put your name in the paper or on the cover of Inc. Magazine, but I can acknowledge that the world has been unfair to you. We have been ignorant and unjust. I can’t know exactly what the world would be like without your small acts of everyday leadership, but I can assume that I’d be worse off without them.


Getting Back to the Basics of Instructional Design

20 Nov

When I’m asked to consult on program design, I bring with me a set of basic assumptions about how people learn. In this video I describe four ways to get back to the basics of instructional design by remembering that…

1) Role modeling is the most powerful way to teach people how to do something.

2) The medium is the message. The content and the way you teach the content must be aligned.

3) You must create a safe and supportive learning environment.

4) Be honest and address reality head-on.

Twelve Virtues of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky

10 Nov

I found this piece and loved it. It was written by Eliezer Yudkowsky who, despite having no formal education in computer science or artificial intelligence, founded the nonprofit Machine Intelligence Research Institute (formerly the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence) in 2000 and continues to be employed there as a full-time Research Fellow. He writes on “friendly” artificial intelligence and decision-making.


Twelve Virtues of Rationality

The first virtue is curiosity. A burning itch to know is higher than a solemn vow to pursue truth. To feel the burning itch of curiosity requires both that you be ignorant, and that you desire to relinquish your ignorance. If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction. Curiosity seeks to annihilate itself; there is no curiosity that does not want an answer. The glory of glorious mystery is to be solved, after which it ceases to be mystery. Be wary of those who speak of being open-minded and modestly confess their ignorance. There is a time to confess your ignorance and a time to relinquish your ignorance.

The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs. The thought you cannot think controls you more than thoughts you speak aloud. Submit yourself to ordeals and test yourself in fire. Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want.

The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own. Beware lest you fight a rearguard retreat against the evidence, grudgingly conceding each foot of ground only when forced, feeling cheated. Surrender to the truth as quickly as you can. Do this the instant you realize what you are resisting; the instant you can see from which quarter the winds of evidence are blowing against you. Be faithless to your cause and betray it to a stronger enemy. If you regard evidence as a constraint and seek to free yourself, you sell yourself into the chains of your whims. For you cannot make a true map of a city by sitting in your bedroom with your eyes shut and drawing lines upon paper according to impulse. You must walk through the city and draw lines on paper that correspond to what you see. If, seeing the city unclearly, you think that you can shift a line just a little to the right, just a little to the left, according to your caprice, this is just the same mistake.

The fourth virtue is evenness. One who wishes to believe says, “Does the evidence permit me to believe?” One who wishes to disbelieve asks, “Does the evidence force me to believe?” Beware lest you place huge burdens of proof only on propositions you dislike, and then defend yourself by saying: “But it is good to be skeptical.” If you attend only to favorable evidence, picking and choosing from your gathered data, then the more data you gather, the less you know. If you are selective about which arguments you inspect for flaws, or how hard you inspect for flaws, then every flaw you learn how to detect makes you that much stupider. If you first write at the bottom of a sheet of paper, “And therefore, the sky is green!”, it does not matter what arguments you write above it afterward; the conclusion is already written, and it is already correct or already wrong. To be clever in argument is not rationality but rationalization. Intelligence, to be useful, must be used for something other than defeating itself. Listen to hypotheses as they plead their cases before you, but remember that you are not a hypothesis, you are the judge. Therefore do not seek to argue for one side or another, for if you knew your destination, you would already be there.

The fifth virtue is argument. Those who wish to fail must first prevent their friends from helping them. Those who smile wisely and say: “I will not argue” remove themselves from help, and withdraw from the communal effort. In argument strive for exact honesty, for the sake of others and also yourself: The part of yourself that distorts what you say to others also distorts your own thoughts. Do not believe you do others a favor if you accept their arguments; the favor is to you. Do not think that fairness to all sides means balancing yourself evenly between positions; truth is not handed out in equal portions before the start of a debate. You cannot move forward on factual questions by fighting with fists or insults. Seek a test that lets reality judge between you.

The sixth virtue is empiricism. The roots of knowledge are in observation and its fruit is prediction. What tree grows without roots? What tree nourishes us without fruit? If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? One says, “Yes it does, for it makes vibrations in the air.” Another says, “No it does not, for there is no auditory processing in any brain.” Though they argue, one saying “Yes”, and one saying “No”, the two do not anticipate any different experience of the forest. Do not ask which beliefs to profess, but which experiences to anticipate. Always know which difference of experience you argue about. Do not let the argument wander and become about something else, such as someone’s virtue as a rationalist. Jerry Cleaver said: “What does you in is not failure to apply some high-level, intricate, complicated technique. It’s overlooking the basics. Not keeping your eye on the ball.” Do not be blinded by words. When words are subtracted, anticipation remains.

The seventh virtue is simplicity. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Simplicity is virtuous in belief, design, planning, and justification. When you profess a huge belief with many details, each additional detail is another chance for the belief to be wrong. Each specification adds to your burden; if you can lighten your burden you must do so. There is no straw that lacks the power to break your back. Of artifacts it is said: The most reliable gear is the one that is designed out of the machine. Of plans: A tangled web breaks. A chain of a thousand links will arrive at a correct conclusion if every step is correct, but if one step is wrong it may carry you anywhere. In mathematics a mountain of good deeds cannot atone for a single sin. Therefore, be careful on every step.

The eighth virtue is humility. To be humble is to take specific actions in anticipation of your own errors. To confess your fallibility and then do nothing about it is not humble; it is boasting of your modesty. Who are most humble? Those who most skillfully prepare for the deepest and most catastrophic errors in their own beliefs and plans. Because this world contains many whose grasp of rationality is abysmal, beginning students of rationality win arguments and acquire an exaggerated view of their own abilities. But it is useless to be superior: Life is not graded on a curve. The best physicist in ancient Greece could not calculate the path of a falling apple. There is no guarantee that adequacy is possible given your hardest effort; therefore spare no thought for whether others are doing worse. If you compare yourself to others you will not see the biases that all humans share. To be human is to make ten thousand errors. No one in this world achieves perfection.

The ninth virtue is perfectionism. The more errors you correct in yourself, the more you notice. As your mind becomes more silent, you hear more noise. When you notice an error in yourself, this signals your readiness to seek advancement to the next level. If you tolerate the error rather than correcting it, you will not advance to the next level and you will not gain the skill to notice new errors. In every art, if you do not seek perfection you will halt before taking your first steps. If perfection is impossible that is no excuse for not trying. Hold yourself to the highest standard you can imagine, and look for one still higher. Do not be content with the answer that is almost right; seek one that is exactly right.

The tenth virtue is precision. One comes and says: The quantity is between 1 and 100. Another says: the quantity is between 40 and 50. If the quantity is 42 they are both correct, but the second prediction was more useful and exposed itself to a stricter test. What is true of one apple may not be true of another apple; thus more can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world. The narrowest statements slice deepest, the cutting edge of the blade. As with the map, so too with the art of mapmaking: The Way is a precise Art. Do not walk to the truth, but dance. On each and every step of that dance your foot comes down in exactly the right spot. Each piece of evidence shifts your beliefs by exactly the right amount, neither more nor less. What is exactly the right amount? To calculate this you must study probability theory. Even if you cannot do the math, knowing that the math exists tells you that the dance step is precise and has no room in it for your whims.

The eleventh virtue is scholarship. Study many sciences and absorb their power as your own. Each field that you consume makes you larger. If you swallow enough sciences the gaps between them will diminish and your knowledge will become a unified whole. If you are gluttonous you will become vaster than mountains. It is especially important to eat math and science which impinges upon rationality: Evolutionary psychology, heuristics and biases, social psychology, probability theory, decision theory. But these cannot be the only fields you study. The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion.

Before these eleven virtues is a virtue which is nameless.

Miyamoto Musashi wrote, in The Book of Five Rings:

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him.”

Every step of your reasoning must cut through to the correct answer in the same movement. More than anything, you must think of carrying your map through to reflecting the territory.

If you fail to achieve a correct answer, it is futile to protest that you acted with propriety.

How can you improve your conception of rationality? Not by saying to yourself, “It is my duty to be rational.” By this you only enshrine your mistaken conception. Perhaps your conception of rationality is that it is rational to believe the words of the Great Teacher, and the Great Teacher says, “The sky is green,” and you look up at the sky and see blue. If you think: “It may look like the sky is blue, but rationality is to believe the words of the Great Teacher,” you lose a chance to discover your mistake.

Do not ask whether it is “the Way” to do this or that. Ask whether the sky is blue or green. If you speak overmuch of the Way you will not attain it.

You may try to name the highest principle with names such as “the map that reflects the territory” or “experience of success and failure” or “Bayesian decision theory”. But perhaps you describe incorrectly the nameless virtue. How will you discover your mistake? Not by comparing your description to itself, but by comparing it to that which you did not name.

If for many years you practice the techniques and submit yourself to strict constraints, it may be that you will glimpse the center. Then you will see how all techniques are one technique, and you will move correctly without feeling constrained. Musashi wrote: “When you appreciate the power of nature, knowing the rhythm of any situation, you will be able to hit the enemy naturally and strike naturally. All this is the Way of the Void.”

These then are twelve virtues of rationality:

Curiosity, relinquishment, lightness, evenness, argument, empiricism, simplicity, humility, perfectionism, precision, scholarship, and the void.


Sometimes the Choice is This Simple

31 Oct


The Big Man Complex

25 Oct


We are all familiar with the “Little Man Complex,” a term used to describe a short man who is overly aggressive or ambitious to compensate for his height. But you don’t hear a lot about the “Big Man Complex,” which is just as prevalent and can teach us a lot about how and why we put limits on ourselves. Let me start with an example.

Wilt chamberlain is considered one of the most dominant athletes of the modern era. He was over 7 feet tall and, when he was playing with the Lakers, was over 300 pounds of muscle and agility. Yet, despite his enormous size and power, he consistently lost to his rival, Bill Russell, who was significantly smaller. Why? Well, obviously the teams around them had something to do with it, but I’d like to suggest that one of Wilt’s primary weaknesses as a player was simply that he was afraid of his own power.

Here is what Wilt had to say in this candid 1997 interview (feel free to watch the first two minutes, but I’ve got the important part below).


Bob Costas: They used to say about you, though you were by far the biggest and strongest man in the league, uncommonly skilled for a Center, that you did not have a “killer instinct.” And I don’t mean that competitively…you could have hurt guys. You could have slammed guys to the floor. You could have looked to pick fights. You didn’t do that.

Bill Russell: That was one of the saving things about playing against the guy that physically imposing… is that I cannot recall even hearing anything about him trying to hurt anybody.

Wilt Chamberlain: That’s good and bad though. You know what I mean?

Bill: You know you could wrap him up and he wasn’t going to hurt you.

Wilt: That’s good and bad though.

Bob: Did you need more killer instinct?

Wilt: Yeah, you know….it could be said (nods)…it could be said…but also remember that when you’re my size, you know, and you try and figure out…also there was a little bit of emotional stuff going on there…because I knew I was bigger and stronger than everybody else, I wanted to also show them that I was skillful. I wasn’t out there to really try to show that I could just knock people over and whatever…

Bob: And you didn’t just want to play into the image of brute strength.

Wilt: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

The takeaway message is….who can’t relate to what Wilt is saying here!? He doesn’t want to get pigeon-holed. He doesn’t want to play into the stereotype of this dominant physical player. Sure, in his given profession, he can completely dominate everyone around him, but that doesn’t make them feel very good. And it isn’t in keeping with the true spirit of the game. And yet, from a basketball perspective, you have to use every advantage you have. He had a huge advantage that he didn’t exploit. He had put a speed limit on himself. He couldn’t beat Bill because he felt like his power was a liability.

Now, you might be thinking, “why in the world would someone do that?” (or you’re thinking, “oh, I see where you’re going here…”), but either way, I’m going to share a little story of my own that hints at an answer. When I was growing up, me and my friends were really into fighting games. Street Fighter 2 was our game of choice and we enjoyed countless hours competing against each other.


There was a problem though. I started practicing more and more and eventually I got to be really good. I quickly learned that this wasn’t a good thing. At least not if I wanted to hang out with my friends. If I won too many matches or if I won too convincingly, they would complain and eventually quit playing all together. So, I learned that if I was too good at something, then I needed to find a way to hide it…or at least balance it just enough so that I wouldn’t disrupt the relationships around me. I learned that being good at something can make other people feel bad. And when you make other people feel bad, they don’t want to spend time with you. I have a hunch that Wilt experienced the same thing in basketball.

So, what does all of this mean? Well, I think the “big man complex” is simply when you hide your natural gifts because its makes other people uncomfortable. You downplay who you are and what you can do because you’re smart enough to recognize that while the world may recognize and reward greatness in general, when it’s someone they know, the world is much more likely to get pissed off and walk away.


So, what can we do about this big man complex? Well, I can share my experience. I think there are two things you can do. First, get some new friends. Seriously. No, really. I’m being completely serious. Get some friends who will genuinely take pride in your accomplishments and will support you when you are struggling. Families aren’t always great at that, but it’s easier to change your social group than it is your family, so I would start there. How, you ask? Go to, facebook, linkedin, etc. and go to some meetings and events. Meet some new people who are into the same things and have the same passion. Trust me, if you’re passionate about being awesome at something, then it won’t take long to find others who are too.


Second, I would stop buying into your own bullshit. I mean seriously. We can be amazing if we want to be. And I’m not pushing that same old generation Y BS that says “you’re already amazing no matter what you do,” I’m saying that if you dedicate yourself to something then the only limits on you will be your own. Sure people won’t like it. That’s natural, but that’s not your business. That is their business. Those are just their own limits and fears bubbling to the surface and being thrown at you. If you really want to stop this cycle, then make a conscious effort to take pride in what others accomplish. How many compliments or congratulations did you give out this week? It doesn’t matter. Do it more. And don’t forget to include yourself.

I think that the big man complex is actually something we all struggle with. Obviously, the little man complex is there too. We are just as likely to hide our insecurities with bold claims and aggression, but we need to remember the subtle forces that work against us as well. Sure there are people out there who will read this and think, “yeah, see everyone is just a hater. I’m going to make it!!” even though they have done absolutely nothing and still haven’t realized that it’s the process not the outcome. But I’m hoping there are at least a few people who can relate to this. I’ll leave you with a far more eloquent version of my thesis. If you know this quote, then I hope it’s a good reminder. If you’ve never heard it before, I hope it’s a wake-up call.


– Marianne Williamson

Beware False Decisions!

21 Oct


In July of 2009 I was driving home from Rockville, Maryland and I was seriously stressed out. I was wrestling with a very big decision; should I leave my current job? It’s a question that a lot of us will ask. In my case, I had just seen an interesting job post and I was already sensing that it was time for me to move on. A lot of questions bounced around. Should I even be looking for a new job right now? What would the commute be like? Would I jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire? Would the culture be any better? Would I have more or less opportunity? Should I pivot a bit and go for a smaller agency in which I could have more influence? And since I really didn’t know the answer to any of these questions and I started feeling really stressed out.

After about an hour of this agonizing thinking, something very profound occurred to me. I was not actually making a decision. In that moment, there was actually no job offer to accept. I hadn’t even applied! Here I was stressing out about a decision that literally did not exist. It was all a fantasy…and it was a fantasy that was stressing me out! 

The only decisions I actually had to make were about my immediate next actions. Not any potential issues way down the road. In that moment I realized that all of this stuff about my career….these deep internal questions…had suddenly emerged in the guise of a decision. That is what was stressing me out. What seemed like a decision was actually just a trigger telling me that I needed to take action. When I realized this, it was very clear what I needed to do….apply for the job, talk to my boss, buy a book on decision making. Suddenly, within about 15 seconds, I had three practical steps that I could take. No stress. No decision. Just action.

Now, obviously at some point down the road I had to make that decision, but when I did, I had all the information I needed. My priorities were clear and the right choice was actually pretty clear. So, my advice is that anytime you ask yourself, “should I…” and that questions feels stressful, it’s probably because you’ve set up a false decision. It’s quite possible that you’ve fallen into the trap of believing, “I should have control over something that I can’t control.” It’s no wonder that we stress ourselves out.

Eliminate all of the potential decisions and focus on the next immediate action. That’s all you can do anyway. No matter how much you stress out about it, no amount of stress, deliberation, or agonizing will give you control over the future. So the only decision that actually matters is…what can I do right now?


Do Wild New Shit

16 Oct


“Lewis and Clark were lost most of the time. If your idea of exploration is to always know where you are and to be inside your zone of competence, you don’t do wild new shit. You have to be confused, upset, think you’re stupid. If you’re not willing to do that, you can’t go outside the box.”     -Nathan Myhrvold

We could all use a little encouragement…

14 Oct


The following letter was written by Albert Einstein’s father.


13 April 1901

Professor Wilhelm Ostwald
University of Leipzig
Leipzig, Germany

Esteemed Herr Professor!

Please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the interest of his son.

I shall start by telling you that my son Albert is 22 years old, that … he feels profoundly unhappy with his present lack of position, and his idea that he has gone off the tracks with his career & is now out of touch gets more and more entrenched each day. In addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means….

I have taken the liberty of turning [to you] with the humble request to … write him, if possible, a few words of encouragement, so that he might recover his joy in living and working.

If, in addition, you could secure him an Assistant’s position for now or the next autumn, my gratitude would know no bounds….

I am also taking the liberty of mentioning that my son does not know anything about my unusual step.

I remain, highly esteemed Herr Professor,
your devoted

Hermann Einstein


From The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume I. No answer from Professor Ostwald was ever received. Who in your life could use “a few words of encouragement?”


The Problem with the Leadership Industry

10 Oct


I wanted to share some thoughts on why I think the leadership industry is heading in the wrong direction. We focus too much on the individual leader and not the social system within which individuals operate. In my view, “leadership” is most appropriately understood as a function or role of influence within a social system (or game). It is NOT an individual character trait or skill or ability.

The Leadership Development Outcomes of Action Learning

9 Oct


After many years, I’ve finally submitted my doctoral dissertation. I thought I’d share the abstract of my research. 


An Exploration of Significant Leadership Development Factors in Action Learning: A Comparison of Three Action Learning Programs

 As the need for new leaders has increased, so has the need for better forms of leadership development (Hamel, 2007; Lojeski, 2010; Gratton, 2011). Action learning has been popularized as one of these better forms of leadership development (Peters & Smith, 1998; Byrnes, 2005; ASTD, 2008; Trehan & Pedler, 2011). However, empirical research on the relationship between action learning and leadership development is only just beginning (Marquardt, et. al., 2009; Leonard & Marquardt, 2010). Given that action learning theory evolved out of practice, researchers are now trying to uncover governing variables that account for the observed practice effect (Leonard & Marquardt, 2010). In an effort to systematize the action learning methodology with consistent professional standards, the World Institute of Action Learning (WIAL) has provided a six-component model of action learning for program coaches and designers (Marquardt, 2004; 2011; WIAL, 2013). However, action learning, by definition, is based on the real and timely problems of an organization (Marquardt, 2011; WIAL, 2013) and therefore there is significant variety in how these programs are implemented.

Given these complexities, it is unclear which specific program factors may significantly impact the leadership development of participants. This study attempts to identify those factors by using an exploratory qualitative methodology informed by Moustakas (1994), Patton (2002), and Creswell (2012). Twelve action learning participants in three action learning programs were interviewed and their responses were analyzed by using a reductive thematic analysis.

This study found that two programs were effective in stimulating leadership development outcomes in participants. Participants in the third program showed less certainty and consistency in their responses. Across all three action learning programs, participants showed improvements in self-confidence, problem-solving, expanded professional network, coaching skills, and listening. The most significant program factors leading to these outcomes were the program coach, program maturity, problem type, intended program outcome, a supportive and safe group culture, group diversity, and the group questioning process. Implications for theory and practice and recommendations for future research are included.