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Leadership and baby turtles


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Here is a point I want to make about attribution bias and survivor bias, with respect to leadership theory.

Attribution bias is when we assign causation to something incorrectly;

Survivorship bias is examining the survivors of an event or an era, to discover what they have in common so as to reverse engineer success.

We run that risk with leadership studies which seek to define leadership (either individual or org) and attribute success to qualities, traits, processes when it may be that the times themselves favor certain behaviors at a deep level and that the environment already determines who will succeed, and that leadership has a very small role to play when considering the powerful forces at work.

Example: 10,000 baby sea turtles with a number on their back dash from nest to the sea after hatching. Although they have slight differences in strength size and timing, they are all essentially little baby turtles. Its random chance which determines which survive to get to the sea and then later on mate.

A scientist who studies the survivors and trues to find the patterns in the numbers painted on their shells will be missing the essential nature of the turtle-predator-environment dynamic by looking at only the survivors.

In this idea, it makes a lot of sense to examine the nature of the environment. There are some which could be classified as transformative based on an intersection of many change waves developing at once. This is the sense I was trying to capture when i was describing the early 90s as a transformative period which not surprisingly featured the emergence of the transformative leader literature.

In the early 90s, the Cold War came to an end; massive demographic, political and economic  changes permitted an explosion in global connectedness in trade; digital technology had reached a tipping point in acceptance in design and efficiency of production. Communication was making the world smaller than ever.

American capital markets were awash in cash looking for opportunity; Peace dividends were being applied to the markets to bootstrap new technologies;

All of these conditions created an transformational opportunity for thousands of little start-up turtles to explode into business spaces which 10 years earlier had never existed

There’s nothing new in the business strategies of Gates and Jobs; They were applying, intentionally or not, the executive business techniques that had served others well in the past at moments when technology, transportation, printing, metallurgy etc created transformative moments. They didnt so much invent the new world, as they happened to be swept along with the wave and they were particularly adept swimmers

To be able to transform business models inside the storm waves to me seems transformative rather than transactional; however I also suggest that there can be profound competitive advantage in learning how to “cycle” transactions better, faster than others. Success has a transformative power all of its own

But, when those transformative times end, suddenly all of those new age, “this-time-its-different” leadership and management styles quickly fail when the cash dries up.

Companies with horrible business models and high burn rates and no real value add quickly disappear when the seasons change. Look at the companies with the enormous investments in their peoples comforts and happiness at work and see how fast they are changing their tunes lately. Those that are slow to adapt to the change in season fade away, even though they may still be trying to apply the fabulous transformational techniques that worked so well (apparently) in the boom years.

I believe we pay excessive attention to the acts of individuals and internal workings and not enough to the times and the context. I admire those who have an effective and far seeing sensory  system to stay alert to the changing times, coupled with a heightened sense of danger and risk management. Andy Grove of Intel, to me, is the prototype of these kinds of leaders.

I am not convinced that the success of these kinds of folks is so much “seeing what needs to be done”  but being able to steer clear of dangerous reefs and avoiding disaster.

the lesson from evolutionary biology is NOT that Nature favors the survival of the fittest, because the definition of “fittest” can change so quickly when the environment experiences a dramatic change. Rather, Nature vigorously punishes the unfit, immediately, while preserving as much variety as possible, in order to have an expansive gene pool, in order to “fund” the widest variety of next generation experiments as possible.

In retrospect, when we are seeking “leadership”, maybe we ought to be looking at “avoiding disastership”

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