Great Quotes, Volume 7: On the Essential Trait of Strong Leaders

Great Quotes, Volume 7: On the Essential Trait of Strong Leaders

This week, David Gardner cleanses his podcasting palate from last week’s Rule Breaker Investing show about his worst losers by bringing us some of his favorite quotes.

In this segment, he quotes pioneering organizational psychologist and theorist Karl Weick, on the subjects of adaptability and why a good compass is better than a great map.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Jan. 17, 2018.

David Gardner: Great Quote No. 4: I first came across this one in the introduction to Warren Bennis’ wonderful book, On Becoming a Leader. I’ve mentioned that book a few times over the last couple of years. I highly recommend it to anybody who wants to become a leader, or think more and think better about leadership.

And in the introduction to his book, Bennis talks about, “But the one competence,” he says, “that I now realize is absolutely essential for leaders … the key competence is,” and that is a phrase he uses, “adaptive capacity.” He goes on to say, “Adaptive capacity is what allows leaders to respond quickly and intelligently to relentless change. A whole new decision-making process has evolved in the last 13 years” — he wrote this in 2003 — “in response to a changed context.” And now we’re getting close to my great quote, here. He’s going to be quoting the psychologist Karl Weick.

He writes, “As psychologist Karl Weick so eloquently writes, leaders of the old school could rely on maps. The leaders of today’s digital age, whose world is never still or quite in focus, must depend on compasses.” Weick explains, and here’s the quote, “Maps, by definition, can help only in known worlds — worlds that have been charted before. Compasses are helpful when you are not sure where you are and can get only a general sense of direction.” Compasses, not maps. Adaptive capacity.

All right. Ready to play the Potential to Kinetic Energy game once again? Well, let’s hail back to that first quote from this week’s podcast. Stewart Brand. “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.” That’s the potential energy as new technologies come along, but translating that into kinetic energy are leaders who, in Bennis’ terms, have that adaptive capacity. Who rely not on maps, which were generally created by somebody long ago — a backwards-looking, permanent view of something — but instead by a compass.

And whenever I think of the word compass, the phrase quickly comes to mind, “moral compass.” That’s a good example of a compass that I hope each of us is guided by. Nobody’s perfect, and the older you get I hope the more aware of your own faults you get, but I take great pleasure knowing, especially if I’m invested in a company and I have money backing the management team, that they would be guided by a moral compass. Now, certainly Warren Bennis is talking about a compass that might help you navigate the future, as a leader working in the digital age.

And this connects with one other concept that I want to share with you, which is the OODA loop. Do you know what the OODA loop is? Well, first of all, it’s an acronym, O-O-D-A. The OODA loop. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act. The OODA loop was developed by a military strategist and United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd. I first read about this in Alan Webber’s book, Rules of Thumb: How to Stay Productive and Inspired Even in the Most Turbulent Times. That was a 2009 read that I certainly prize. I would recommend that to anybody. Alan Webber, one of the founders of Fast Company. Webber is spelled with two Bs.

There he talked about John Boyd and his OODA loop. The OODA loop, according to Webber, was developed by Boyd as a way to teach up-and-coming Air Force pilots. Observe, orient, decide, and act. And what he says is that great pilots go through that loop — observe first, then orient, then decide and act — go through that loop rapidly. Go through many OODA loops in seconds’ worth of time. The best pilots will go through that loop much faster than the poor pilots, so you want to run that OODA loop.

In fact, Wikipedia says that Boyd was “dubbed ‘Forty Second Boyd’ for his standing bet as an instructor pilot that beginning from a position of disadvantage,” up there in the skies, “he could defeat any opposing pilot in air combat maneuvering in less than 40 seconds. According to biographer Robert Coram, Boyd was also known at different points of his career as ‘The Mad Major’ for the intensity of his passions, as ‘Genghis John’ for his confrontational style of interpersonal discussion, and as the ‘Ghetto Colonel’ for his spartan lifestyle.”

John Boyd was certainly a card, but that concept of the OODA loop just sounds like a synonym, doesn’t it, for the phrase “adaptive capacity.” I’m hoping to give you a tool, here, to hand you a little bit of kinetic energy to give you a way of thinking about what adaptive capacity is and encourage you to start running your own OODA loops. Much more likely to be run and run successfully, then, by those of us with compasses instead of maps.

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