A mathematician’s approach to leadership

Most of my clients are curious about how a mathematician ended up as a Leadership Sculptor. You can read the biographical answer on my About Me page. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Another aspect is how my life as a mathematician has influenced my approach to the art of leadership. In this article, I boil it down to three main ideas that shed light on my approach.

The first idea is, I reflect on my behavior and its impact on other people. I have written another article “observe first, judge later” that discusses the benefits that accrue from watching your behaviour. This helps in two ways: first, I get a clearer picture about my strengths and potential derailers. Second, it helps me to improve my ability to guesstimate – the brain’s neural nets appreciate high quality feedback.

One client had a problem with project planning – their projects were always way off. A quick session helped them identify that the planners were never involved in the final review, so they never saw what happened to their estimates in practice. After that small change, their ability to estimate project plans improved quickly and sharply.

The second idea is, use models to get a handle on what’s happening. Life is complicated and we are inundated with information. In theory, it is possible to process all this information and then respond. In practice, life has moved on long before we get that far. Therefore, it is helpful to have a way to filter out the noise. Judiciously selected models can do this quite well. As long as we keep George E.P. Box’s words in mind, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”. The trick is to have a wide range of simple models and select an appropriate one in any given situation. With practice and reflection, this becomes easier than you might think.

The third idea is, maintain an attitude of experimentation. When I was starting out in research, I naively hoped that leadership might turn out to be as deterministic as Newtonian physics. I got several quick wake-up calls! I quickly learned that it is helpful to treat leadership issues from a systems theory viewpoint. Thus, I learned to treat any steps I take as experiments, since the effect of an intervention in a complex system can often be surprising.

Two main reasons for that are: one, people are not as predictable as we might hope. Two, depending on where we draw the boundary on our system, we get a different idea about how to handle the problem. For example, I recently had a conversation with a client about how to solve a conflict between two group members. In the old days, I might have focused my attention on just those two and helped him figure out how to hold a conversation with them. However, by asking a few questions and helping him to sketch his system, it quickly crystallized that the source of tension was less between these two individuals, and lay more between their respective collaboration partners. Thus a whole new frame of reference for a solution opened up and he was quickly able to find a good path forward.

I’m curious to hear how your training in science or engineering influences your approach to leadership.


(Photo: Robert Scarth)

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