Beware the “Tom Peters Fallacy.” As identified in this space back in 2007, it goes like this:

  1. Find a great organization.
  2. Identify a trait in that organization you like.
  3. Decide that this trait is what makes that organization great.
  4. Declare that this trait is the panacea for all other organizations.

This week’s perpetrator is the estimable Jeff Bezos. Mr. Bezos started with the dream of selling books online and turned it into the … that’s the, not a … retailing behemoth and the most important cloud computing platform.

And so disagreeing with Bezos about part of his success formula calls for caution.

No, this isn’t a commentary on how Amazon treats its employees. That’s well-plowed turf. It’s about Bezos’s approach to organizational decision-making.

In a wide-ranging interview on the Lex Fridman Podcast, reported by Business Insider’s Sawdah Bhaimiya, Bezos asserts that compromise is a bad way to resolve disagreements. It’s bad, he says, because it takes little energy, but “doesn’t lead to truth.”

Start here: Leaders have five ways to make a decision in their toolkit: They can (1) make it (authoritarianism); (2) make it after talking it over with folks worth talking it over with (consultation); (3) persuade and influence everyone involved to agree to a solution (consensus); (4) give up on consensus and let stakeholders vote on their preferred alternative (voting); or (5) ask someone or other to make the decision for you (delegation).

When Bezos talks about compromise, he’s talking about doing what’s needed to get to consensus. He starts out wrong because if there’s one universal truth about consensus decision-making it’s that consensus takes far more time and effort than any way to get to a decision.

But how about the getting-to-the-truth part?

To be fair, when it comes to his strawman case – deciding how high a room’s ceiling is, he’s right on target: A tape measure yields results superior to compromise. But then, it’s superior to any of the five listed decision styles because, also to be fair, direct observation doesn’t count as a decision, unless you live in a space-time continuum in which alternative facts hold sway.

More significantly, delve into the branch of philosophical inquiry known as epistemology, or just review Plato’s cave allegory, and, in addition to acquiring a migraine you’ll figure out that none of us has access to “the truth.” We can approach it asymptotically (add Karl Popper to your reading list), but so far as the truth is concerned, knowing the answer to a question with confidence is the best we can aspire to. Certainty? Even knowing the height of your ceiling depends on you trusting your measuring tape’s manufacturer.

All of which might strike you as philosophical dithering. But when it comes to organizational decision-making, decisions of any consequence rest in part on unverifiable assumptions, often about the unknowable future. So with all the best of intentions, different participants, making different and conflicting assumptions and forecasts, will reach different conclusions. Which will result in a list of conflicting but equally valid possible right decisions to choose from.

You can either pick one, or find a compromise that’s right enough.

Sometimes, picking one of the alternatives and going with it is the best choice. It’s the engineering optimum, and would yield the best results. As someone once said, no committee ever painted a Mona Lisa.

But engineering optima can face a frustrating constraint: Without buy-in on the part of the decision’s major stakeholders even the most elegant designs will fail, while an inferior, messy compromise to which the whole organization is committed to will succeed.

Bob’s last word: I have one more nit to pick, and that’s Bezos’s implicit assumption that decisions are about discovering “the truth.” That isn’t what decisions are for.

When it comes to organizations, decisions, as has been pointed out in this space from time to time, commit or deny staffing, time, and money. Anything else is just talking.

Decisions, that is, are about designing solutions and choosing courses of action. “The truth” implies these are binary – right or wrong. But competing designs and courses of action are better or worse, not right or wrong. And what constitutes better or worse depends on each evaluator’s personal values and priorities.

No tape measure in the world will reconcile these when they conflict.

Bob’s sales pitch: Stick around. We’re still working through the complexities of handing over the keys to KJR, as it were. And as with just about everything else on this planet, no matter how simple a task looks before someone has to do it, having to do it reveals complexities that someone didn’t anticipate.

We are working on it, shooting for early next year to make it happen.

Watch this space.

Leading isn’t hard the way neurosurgery is hard. It’s hard the way digging a ditch is hard.

Thinking about what I’ve accomplished since I starting publishing KJR and its predecessors, I consider Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World one of my highlights. What follows is my attempt at the Classic Comics version.

Leadership defined:

Peter Drucker and Admiral Grace Hopper suggested, respectively, that, “Leadership is doing the right things. Management is doing them right,” and, “You manage things. You lead people.” I don’t like them because neither is a definition.

And so, mine: “If people are following then you’re leading. Otherwise you aren’t.”

I’d leave it at that except President Eisenhower did me one better, with, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”


The Leadership compass

“Leader” isn’t a title. It’s a choice. Which brings up the leadership compass: Every employee is in a position to lead in one or more of four directions. They can lead South, to the people who report to them on the org chart. They can lead North, to those higher up on the org chart, and especially those they report to. They can lead East, to their organizational peers. And they can lead West, to those who make use of the services their organization provides.

As a general rule, some managers excel at leading in the southwesterly direction; the rest are northeasterners. Southwestern leaders are good at getting done what they’re supposed to get done. Northeastern leaders are good at getting ahead in their careers. At, not to put too fine a point on it, brownnosing and schmoozing.

But also on getting the budget and resources their organizations need, from the people who are in a position to provide them.

Leadership Power Rankings

How you lead depends in large part on the level of power you bring to bear on your relationships, and there are five levels. You can (1) control, which is the power a programmer brings to their relationship with the computers they program. You can (2) exert authority – you can tell someone what to do, and hope they do it and do it right. You can (3) persuade – you can modify a colleague’s thought process so they reach the same conclusion you’ve reached. And you can (4) influence, which is like persuasion only less complete: you can modify a colleague’s thought process so it’s closer to your own.

And, least appealing, you can (5) be a victim – you can be powerless, which is the definition of victimhood.

No matter which direction you’re facing you have opportunities to lead, which you can take advantage of so long as you recognize that influencing is a legitimate leadership result.

Which brings us to the world of technique: How effective leaders get others to follow their lead.

The eight tasks of leadership

Effective leaders master eight tasks:

Setting direction: Leaders must be clear about their organization’s mission, vision, and strategy. The mission is the reason the organization exists – what it’s supposed to accomplish. Vision is a clear and precise account of how tomorrow will be different from yesterday. Strategy is how the leader expects to deliver on their organization’s mission and make the vision real.

Delegation: Effective staff get things done. Effective leaders build organizations that get things done for them. The process of getting staff to do the leader’s work and do it well is the essence of leading.

Staffing: To build organizations that get things done, effective leaders must be adept at determining who to recruit, hire, train, and promote so the organization is staffed with people they can delegate to.

Decision-making: Decisions commit or deny staff, time, and money. Everything else is just talking. Decent leaders don’t necessarily make good decisions, but they do take the steps needed so good decisions get made.

Motivating: A point not worth bothering to make is that motivated staff work harder and better than apathetic staff. Leaders motivate by (1) avoiding de-motivating employees; and then (2) energizing them.

Managing team dynamics: Most of the work that gets done gets done by teams – collections of employees who trust each other and who are aligned to a common purpose. The best leaders don’t consider themselves part of the teams they lead, but do take responsibility for creating the conditions that result in trust and alignment.

Instituting culture: Culture is how we do things around here – not on a procedural level, but on an attitudinal one. Employees who share the same unconscious assumptions and thought processes collaborate more effectively than those who don’t.

Communicating: For the most part, the way leaders accomplish the first seven tasks is by communicating – the eighth task. Communicating means they listen, inform, persuade, and facilitate.

There’s a myth that leadership training is pointless, because you can’t teach someone to be a great leader.

It’s a myth because it’s based on a bipolar outcome.

Few who aspire to leadership will become great leaders, no matter how much education they receive on the subject.

But only the most oblivious will improve their skills at the eight tasks and still fail to become a better leader.

As with so many other subjects, when it comes to leadership perfection is the enemy of the good.