The Leadership Falacy

Zen Digest

  • Not everyone is a leader.
  • You don’t have to be a leader – that is OK.
  • Leadership is a skill, but not one that necessarily makes you better.

The Whole Picture

Years ago I applied for a job that I figured I was a shoe-in for.  I was friendly with the founder of the company and had many friends who worked there as well.  Additionally, it was a role I was well qualified for.  I went through a few rounds of interviews with different people in the company when the founder finally told me that I didn’t have the job.  His words were “We already have too many chiefs, and need more Indians.”  It was another way of saying “too many cooks spoil the broth.”  You can’t simply have a company of leaders, it ends up being counter productive.

A few years ago, as part of my job, I had to convert (and ultimately read) over 50 motivational books from an amazing publisher.  A bulk of the books were self-help and business oriented.  Nearly all of them told you to be a leader.  Which is great advice if you want to be a leader, and for those driven to be a leader, can make you extremely successful, but being a leader isn’t for everyone, and that is completely OK!

American culture and education teaches us to idolize the individual.  Look up to Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, etc.  Not to say that these people didn’t have a big impact on the world, and that certain aspects of their accomplishments shouldn’t be admired, but what’s missing is the respect and attention that should be drawn to the people around those leaders that made greatness possible.  Michael Jordan had a team of players to help run plays, pass the ball, and score points.  Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had slews a great designers, programmers, and other employees to help them build wonderful and amazing products.  None of the above leaders would have been successful if it weren’t for those other individuals.

Imagine a large sailing vessel.  You can only have one person steering the ship.  For that person to be effective the rest of the crew workers need to do their jobs well.  The lookout needs to spot obstacles, the sail crew needs to adjust the sails, etc.  Just because the captain has control of the wheel doesn’t make them any better or more important than the other jobs, it simply gives them the power.  Additionally, some people’s skills are in being a lookout – spotting small details – and not in setting the course or direction of a ship.  Yet leadership books suggest you should always strive to drive the ship…

What’s most important is to figure out what you love to do, and how you can do it productively.  If you love managing people, or leading, great, but if not, you need not work on that skill to be successful.  Success is being a good, productive, and happy member of society.


Finding Your Way (Pathing)

Zen Digest

  • There is only one optimal path.
  • It may actually not be optimal to find the optimal path.
  • Having a methodology will keep you from going in circles.

The Whole Picture

There are no lack of quotes about how the journey is more important than the destination.  Life is the journey between the two fixed points of birth and death.  The true challenge lies in how to best get from point A to point B.  Whether it is an existential crisis, or a data-traversal problem, surprisingly the solutions and methodologies are extremely similar.

I was recently trying to solve a database issue where I had an extremely large volume of data that I needed to be able to sort through intelligently and quickly.  Thankfully for me, this is not a unique problem, and some of the best minds have been working on it since the dawn of computing.  A large portion of the issue was solved by creating a binary-tree index.  While those words may seem unrelated to you if you’re not familiar with databases, the concept is actually quite simple.  Data gets stored in a “tree” (it actually looks more like a triangle).  Whenever a new item is added, it compares itself to the top of the tree.  If it’s greater, it goes to the right, if less, it goes left until it finds and empty spot.  For a visual you can see below:

As you can see above, this allows you to store 25 items that are no more than 4 items away from the top.  So, if you wanted to find item 25, you only need to do 4 checks, instead of 25.  This snowballs quickly.  You can store over 1 million items while being only 20 away from the top, and over 1 billion items while only being 30 away from the top.

Without this tree (or index) you’d have to do 1 billion checks to find the item, but with it, only 30.  That’s efficiency.

When it comes to data comparison, this is pretty much the de-facto standard and what enables websites and software to run as quickly as they can.

But what about complex problems

A binary tree is great when you can easily compare two items – is one greater or not – but when you get more complex, you need more complex methodologies.  Take for example driving directions.  You have to factor in things like traffic, distance, speed limit, traffic lights, etc.  At this point you also need to ask yourself – what is considered “best.”  For example, is it better to take the long-flat drive around a mountain (which is longer but safer) or to drive up and down the mountain, which is shorter but more dangerous and demanding on a car.  If it’s raining, you’ll probably want to drive around the mountain!

Some problems and ultimately get too complex to optimize.  In math, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but if an insurmountable object stands in our way, we must be quick to find a new route.  It is very possible to spend too much time at your starting point waiting to find the optimal route.  In these cases, it’s best to look for a good direction to start and begin your journey.  Once on your journey, give yourself checkpoints to recalculate the route and ensure you’re on the best path.

The Corn Maze Solution

There is a well known algorithm for solving basic mazes (an corn mazes).  You pick a side – left or right, and follow the wall.  It isn’t the most efficient but it is guaranteed to get you to the end.  It was favored by early computer scientists because its logic was simple and computationally inexpensive.