Eagle Talk

My Three Leadership Lessons

Dear Friends,

This month’s leadership newsletter is written by a dear friend and client, Matt Fawcett, whose experience and wisdom are wide-ranging, and I believe, valuable to all of us as reminders of what constitutes effective leadership.  I know you will enjoy his insightful observations and wisdom.  With my best wishes to you,

— Bob

Matt Fawcett
Matthew Fawcett

As senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary for NetApp, Matthew Fawcett is responsible for all legal affairs worldwide, including corporate governance and securities law compliance, intellectual property matters, contracts, and mergers and acquisitions. He has overseen the development of NetApp Legal into a global high-performance organization with a unique commitment to innovation and transformation.  Matt can be found on LinkedIn

Is there any idea that gets more talk, energy, and focus in business than “leadership”? A quick search on Amazon shows over 10,000 books on personal leadership. It is a constant focus for business media and the most sought-after trait for executive hires. In our era of hyper-innovation and digital transformation, what the world seems to be saying is that it really needs more leaders.

I doubt I will write the next leadership manifesto. Indeed, I believe the era we are in — of global uncertainty and hyper-nationalism, stateless corporations, digital nomads, and “likes” mattering more than friends – will test traditional concepts of leadership and require new modes of thinking that defy simple rules and platitudes. But with those caveats, I have come to believe in three bedrock principles for all leaders.

1. Accept that it’s not about you.

We overvalue the role of the individual. We talk about wars in terms of great generals, companies in terms of visionary CEOs, nations in terms of charismatic prime ministers or presidents, and “the face of the franchise” in sports. These individuals are obviously important, but they play a smaller direct role in the performance of their organizations than we allow. They depend completely on the commitment and abilities of dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of others.

Leaders do matter. But what’s most important is the degree to which they enable, empower, and amplify the people around them. In other words, it’s not about you, the leader; it’s about your team. Your job is to chart the course, but the team readies, rigs, and sails the ship to success. 

I spend a lot of time thinking about the culture and setting in which my team comes to works. I would like to believe that we are clear and aligned about the values that matter to us, and that we encourage, reward, and publicly celebrate people who exhibit those values. I don’t “own” our culture, but I do influence it. Everything from how I work with colleagues, clients, and customers, to the way we design team meetings and offsites, to the trainings and company-sponsored activities we offer, contributes to that culture, and are designed to enable the success of our team as a whole.

The bottom line is simple. To be a better leader, take the focus off of yourself and put it on your team. Your job isn’t to be great; it’s to help them be great.

2. Embrace — don’t resist — constraints.

Here’s a management cliché that drives me crazy: “We have to do more with less.”

For me, hearing this conjures up a defeated-looking manager venting to his staff about budget cuts, barking about buckling down, and fretting about belt-tightening. I’ve yet to hear a leader say, “That’s it everyone, the time is right for us to loosen our belts again.”

This outmoded trope irritates me so much because it is a self-limiting excuse. I reject it because it locks everyone into a defensive position and victim’s mindset. It implies that you will keep running things the same way, just pushing harder in the hope of somehow generating incrementally better results with fewer resources. That isn’t leadership; it’s an abdication of responsibility.

Leadership means recognizing that ingenuity and creativity often come from limits. Call it “constraint-based innovation.” You see it in art, science, and yes, business and technology. Here’s the important point: constraint-based innovation is about significant change created by the fact that resource is not abundant. It starts with the recognition that radically new conditions require a radical and novel approach.

Instead of obsessing over what you don’t have, focus on how you can come up with a fresh approach to the problem from a completely new angle.  If you have to cut your budget and team in half, agonizing over which 50% to cut and which 50% to spare is probably not the right approach. Indeed, you may need to eliminate far more, and reorganize your resources in an entirely new way.

This is more important today than ever before.  Companies of every size, every industry, and every geography are rushing headlong into AI and ML fueled digital transformation, hoping to create new insights, revenue streams, and business models from their most valuable asset, data.  This requires new investments in human capital and technologies.  Some of the most sought-after jobs today – data scientists, SREs, cloud architects – did not even exist a decade ago.  Leaders will need to impose new constraints on their businesses to fund promising digital initiatives. 

If you focus on belt-tightening over constraint-based innovation you miss the real opportunity. The game shouldn’t be: How do we squeeze more out of our machine? The game should be: How do we build a new machine?

3. Don’t let success stop your progress.

Success carries its own special challenge to teams trying to become exceptional. Constantly pushing to get better is like rolling a rock up a hill. It’s hard work.  The higher you go, the greater the temptation to stop and admire the amazing progress already made.  And when you start receiving praise and validation for your hard work, it’s just human nature to wonder if it’s time to stop and rest on your laurels. 

Once an organization starts seeing results, it is all too easy to lose momentum and urgency. In technology especially, few companies can sustain excellence over long periods of time.  What happens next depends on the culture of the team and whether a “good enough” mentality becomes a weapon against extreme performance.

This is especially risky during mega transitions, like the Fourth Industrial Revolution we are now in.  Our DNA works against us: we are hard-wired to listen to confirmation bias, saliency bias, and other inherent biases that often blind us to the need to change or evolve, especially when dealing with big strategic questions.  Our customers and clients can even work against us in this context, preferring us to make continual incremental improvements to existing portfolios, when a more radical step is needed

One of the biggest responsibilities of a leader is to guard against complacency and consciously address our inherent biases. You have to realize that there are times when “good enough” is simply not good enough. Success masks looming risk and creates inertia. The most effective leaders understand where to draw that line and how to rally their teams to keep pushing and improving.

Seeking excellence is a journey with no shortcuts and no finish line. You need to find your own motivation and separate from what others expect of you.  You have to push, even when no one else is telling you to. You must persuade yourself and your team that good enough is a dangerous stopping point.  It is hard. But if you are doing it for the right reasons, and with the right people, it can lead to amazing and fulfilling results.

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