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.

Back when I was studying electric fish, I learned a bit (no pun intended) about information theory. The math isn’t too difficult and has wide and surprising applicability.

Information resolves uncertainty. If someone flips a coin, you’re uncertain as to how it landed. With a fair coin (one that lands on each 50% of the time) the information needed to resolve your uncertainty regarding the outcome is called a “bit” (short for “binary digit”).

Toss two coins. 50% of the time they deliver a heads/tails combination (one bit again); two heads and two tails each happen 25% of the time – two bits each, because those events are twice as unlikely. Which, I suppose, is why we call a quarter “two bits”.

The weighted average of all outcomes – the probability of each outcome times the bits in each outcome – is the average information content in the event. In our double coin-toss, it’s .25*2 bits + .5*1 bit + .25*2 bits = 1.5 bits, or more generally, -SUM(p(i)*log2p(i)), if you care.

Try this: take some function and rate every application used by the employees that accomplish it. 5 means it’s critical, 3 means it’s important, and 1 means it’s used somehow. Add the ratings together and make each application’s rating a proportion of the total (“p” in the formula). Compute the formula – call it “application complexity” (more complex environments need more information to describe them). Fewer, better-integrated applications will reduce the complexity – and improve the end-user environment.

In English, the information formula means the more obvious the statement, the less information it contains. That’s why “dog bites man” isn’t news (low information content) – while “man bites dog” is.

I’m afraid this column will have no information content for many readers, as it may seem pretty obvious. It wraps up our series on interacting with end-users, though, and the series would be incomplete without it, so I’m going to press on.

Most Information Systems organizations have some form of executive steering committee to make sure its priorities and initiatives stay in line with the company’s strategic objectives and critical success factors. If yours doesn’t, you should form one right away.

A surprising number of IS departments have no corresponding feedback channel to help with the nitty-gritty day-to-day crud. If you haven’t organized a PC users group or something along those lines, your life is much harder than it needs to be.

If you support PCs and networks in an organization of any size, your chance of understanding the concerns and priorities of the end-user community are pretty dismal. It’s a diverse group of individuals, with widely varying priorities, levels of expertise, work habits, and deadlines. This constituency has no organizational clout, no easy consensus, and a large ability to create demand for your services.

A solution that’s worked well for me is to create an internal advisory group. Call it a PC Users Group, Network Advisory Council, or make it a Mentor Group function. The specifics are less important than how you position it. Your goal is to make this staff-level group a surrogate for the whole end-user community. Its consensus defines a lot of your requirements, and you, of course, set its agenda and facilitate its meetings.

Keep this group in the loop regarding server upgrades, software changes, training schedules, standard workstation configurations, PC delivery schedules, and every other aspect of your operation. Make sure its members understand your constraints and what you’re doing about them. Publicize it, give it a strong, clear advisory role, and also make sure its members understand their role in getting the word out to their coworkers. It’s a great way to transform fragmented demands into coherent requirements.