That Vision Thing

Writing process for this month: daily, write 100 words of notes or summaries. Flesh out over the weekend and in spurts during the week. Release a few of the more complete posts once per weekday until material empties.


A half-thought about running large things using vocabulary I’ve been flinging around.


Procedural decision patterns are not driven consciously, but are instead the result of either completely learned behaviors (and thus requires almost no attention) or completely externalized behaviors to the environment (and thus requires almost no attention).

leader is a person who changes procedural patterns in order to simplify decisions for others, by installing their principles and inclinations into people’s heads and/or into the environment. While a strong feedback loop to their tribe/institution and the outside world is good for creating smart mental models, leadership is fundamentally authoritative: the objective is to seed everything with a single broad mental model in order for the organization to be able to row in relative sync. Good leadership generates elegant (ie, cheap+useful) heuristics for decision making.

In large organizations, there is too much information and too many decisions to be made for a leader to keep up in-person. A leader who depends more on installing ideas into people wants to exist as a homunculus that followers can consult internally, to ask “what would Leader say”? A leader who depends more on encoding his inclinations into the organization’s environment will make certain kinds of actions easier or more incentivized to do than others. Both people and environments interact with each other, and it’s not clear to me that one method is more powerful than another, although I think we know which one is more highly visible and praised.

Sometimes I think this idea of leadership gets distorted in the public imagination in ways that almost makes sense (but don’t really). The caricature of former President Bush (II) was that he struggled to present himself as ‘unwavering’ to a fault, an idea that almost makes sense for wannabe transformational/charismatic figures who want to be seen as embodying some principle to their followers. On the other end, the more transactional/’pragmatic’ President Bush (I) was derided for dismissing “that vision thing”. Bush (I) was an institution man who was evidently more adept with systems than people; Bush II wanted to win hearts and minds primarily, perhaps relying more heavily on his staff for system details.

This is something that struck me about that Chris Matthew’s interview I caught, about how different people transform the how of their jobs through their water talent. Reagan and JFK are more remembered by how they made people feel than when the nation’s emotions were riding high. It’s what they were good at, and they were seen as being there at the right time. 

In general, “transformational” leaders get too much credit, I think. They stick out narratively. When people are demoralized or when an organization is in dire trouble, they will go out of their way to change tracks. So while transactional, usually ‘insider’ leaders steward organizations effectively much of the time, when things get bad and institutions try the risky option of bringing in fresh blood, that new leader is more likely to be “transformational” by definition. In most stable organizations, when leaders transition, the system and people farther than directly beneath them are not significantly purged.

This was a general idea I first had when I was writing up the Founder/Champion/Historian archetypes. The Founder’s main role, outside of some establishment story, is to exist as a symbol, a mythical figure that embodies some principles. The Champion of that orthodoxy is actually more ‘compromised’ and less principled while doing his duty, getting the dirty work done to get the organization from 1 (which the Founder incremented from 0) to 100. If their organization survives them, they can be beatified into saints later, as new leaders, Champions and Historians, try to take the organization from 100 to 1000, compromising and rationalizing principles in order to scale the organization and achieve local goals and power.