It’s another re-run this week, this time a missive on who’s leading whom, and how to tell.

Any value in interpreting current events is, as always, fortuitous.

– Bob

Years ago the Lewis household had a dog named Nicky. Nicky was a Shetland Sheepdog with an overactive pituitary – he’d grown nearly to collie size, with a snout to match.

Nicky used his snout to get affection, wedging it between the human arm he’d targeted as the desired petting instrument and the arm of whatever chair it rested on.

My ex-wife had raised Nicky, training him to respond to a snap of her fingers and the word “Git!” by departing instantly. It worked every time.

When I wasn’t in a petting mood I would also snap fingers and say, “Git!” Then I would repeat myself. Nicky, sensing a lack of commitment on my part, substituted the long, sad, soulful look only brown-eyed dogs can produce for the behavior I desired, and eventually I would cave in.

I’ve always been a sucker for a dog who wants petting.

But I always wondered if, deep down, Nicky wasn’t sneering at me, convinced he’d established dominance over his owner.

I’ve never been a successful leader of dogs. Whether I’m a good leader of employees I’ll leave to those who have had the experience. Having had the experience, though, I’ve spent quite some time pondering the question of leadership, and I think I’ve figured it out.

This week, we’ll begin a series on leadership. Let’s begin by asking the most basic question we can define: what is a leader?

Never mind what constitutes good leadership, indifferent leadership, bad leadership, visionary leadership, pragmatic leadership, or whatever other adjectives you think may be important. Future columns will deal with the adjectives.

We’re going to peel the onion further than that. This week, you’re going to ask yourself the absolute, bedrock question that more than any other question will define your success or failure as a manager (because a manager who can’t lead will eventually fall by the wayside): are you a leader at all, good, bad, or indifferent?

So here’s the basic measure of a leader: who looks to whom for approval?

That’s it. Do the employees in your organization look to you for approval, or do you seek theirs?
If you’re a manager, take a hard look at your interactions. Do you tell jokes because you want employees to like you or approve of you? Do you want to be the center of attention?

Here’s a red flag: when someone in your organization tells you about how they’ve accomplished some task or other and you’ve gone through the usual Q&A on the subject, they ask you, “Was that what you had in mind?” Employees will stop looking to you for approval if you don’t give it, unsolicited, when they succeed.

Here’s another bad sign: employees filing weekly status reports filled with braggadocio – sycophantic attempts to gain your attention. Yes, they want to notice them, but it’s because you ignore them completely or they think they can manipulate you, not because they value your genuine approval.

Here’s a worse symptom: employees don’t do what you ask until you yell at them, and then they do it halfheartedly. Employees who act out of fear won’t want your approval. They just want to stay out of your way.

How you interact with peers – who looks to whom for approval in these interactions? To the extent your peers look to you for approval, that’s the extent you’re viewed as ready for the next promotion. Every corporate executive has a mental list of who belongs on the executive track. You want to be on that list? Stop looking for approval, and start giving it to others.

Give enough approval, and the right kind, and others will seek it. Give too little and they’ll stop trying; too much too easily and they’ll take it for granted.

Does this all strike you as manipulative? Me too. Think of it this way, though: somebody will get the next promotion.

Not too long ago, some expert or other claimed that overcoming the market dominance of an initial entrant is virtually impossible. Interesting theory.

As I recall, at least a half-dozen colleagues quoted this “first mover” theory as an important business insight. It was pretty convincing. The only reason I’m skeptical is that I can’t think of a single example where the theory holds, while the entire history of our industry consists of ugly little facts that disprove it.

The early dominators – the Apple II computer, CP/M operating system, Macintosh GUI, Epson printer, WordStar word processor, VisiCalc spreadsheet, dBase II database – all have either vanished completely or have retreated to being niche players. Often, their immediate successors have fallen by the wayside as well. Only Netware has so far managed to maintain its early market dominance, and its continued success is far from a sure thing.

As my grandmother said in a different context, what you say is less important than how you say it. This explains the influence of many experts and self-anointed visionaries.

As your company’s technology leader, you’re supposed to be its technology visionary (in your spare time, when you’re done tuning network performance). Today, I’m going to reveal the secret to success: read some old science fiction. It doesn’t have to be good science fiction. It just has to be science fiction – not fantasy, or some other related genre. Want proof?

Wearable computers: I’ve read the occasional pundit sound tremendously visionary by describing these gadgets. The main unit may be flexible and adhere to the skin, or it may be a pouch on the belt. The user-interface is either a direct jack into the brain, or it’s a heads-up display built into a pair of glasses. Whatever the case, the pundit describes it as the Next Big Deal.

Big Deal. I first read about wearable computers sometime around 1966 in a short story whose plot was thoroughly forgettable. The human received output through bone conduction and input by subvocalizing – pretty good, practical ideas even now.

Wearable computers are, then, a 30-year-old idea.

Information Everywhere: We all know of at least one industry leader who presents this as a daring vision. Too bad Poul Anderson described the same notion over 20 years ago. In this case, the plot revolved around a society in which all but the dispossessed enjoyed the services of a portable, AI-based interface to a wireless ubiquitous information network. Society’s untouchables couldn’t afford the technology, and were forever relegated to poverty and the disdain of the higher classes.

The idea of information haves and have-nots isn’t, then, exactly new.

Replicators: About 30 years ago, I read a series of short stories about a space station run by some wizard-caliber engineers. One of their inventions was a replicator, similar to that shown on Star Trek around the same time.

What was remarkable was the author’s description of complete economic collapse resulting from the invention. Since a replicator could replicate replicators, the device itself cost next to nothing. And with replicators, once someone created anything of value, an infinite number of additional copies immediately spread through society without any compensation going to the inventor.

This, to me, sounds a lot like our information economy. Replication technology, in the form of the COPY command, is available to huge numbers of individuals beyond any realistic hope of copyright enforcement.

Why do you need to be a technology visionary? That’s a topic for a future column. For now, I’ll just present that as an opinion. If you agree and want help, you can get it from high-priced “experts”, or you can read the literature of the future … the literature in which Robert Heinlein, in the 1930s, predicted a post-world-war-two nuclear stalemate between the United States and Russia.

And science fiction generally has, as a fringe bonus, a plot.