Posts for Innovation

Are you a Leader or a Boss?

Experiences - Joe Campbell - October 30, 2017

Because you can’t be both.*

I propose 3 questions that determine the difference.

1. Do you embody the values you preach? Or are you a hypocrite?

If you are a manager, then your actions are under extra scrutiny. People will notice when you say one thing, but do another. The quickest way to demoralize your employees is to be a hypocritical boss rather than a leader with integrity.

If you’re a boss, you may expect your employees to work late, while you go home early. You may take holidays that you don’t give them.

A leader and boss may say the same words, but their employees know the difference. And the exact same words have a markedly different effect.

When a boss talks about promoting “a collaborative workplace culture” as they act dictatorially, it saps at morale.  When a leader encourages open dialog and collaboration and brings employees into decisions, it boosts it. When a boss brags about “protecting their team” even as they publicly criticize them as underperformers, the hypocrisy is clearly telegraphed and undermines faith in the enterprise.

2. Do you have a vision or a PR team?

Everyone with a certain level of success can amplify their voice. Even Bill Cosby has a PR team. But having a real vision that can motivate people is something special. Many managers simply don’t have it. They may ask their employees for ideas, and then take the credit for them. They may jump from one idea to another without regard for the consequences. These are signs that a manager has become a boss rather than a leader.

A leader on the other hand has a vision of the future. It may change and evolve with conversation and collaboration. It will have to grow if it is to succeed. But it’s there. You can see the light in their eyes when they talk, the excitement in their voice. A leader can authentically persuade people to buy into their vision.

Others may pose as leaders – while making clear they aren’t – insisting that they persuade their teams by exercising “authority” through use of “positional influence without being seen as dictatorial.” In the end, the game is given away by the phrasing: “Don’t be seen as dictatorial” is something a PR team tells you…that you aren’t supposed to say out loud.

In public though, a PR team is a decent way to paper over this difference – but in private, it’s almost impossible to motivate a team by pointing to news clippings. Especially when they are contradicted by your own behavior.

3. Self-aware or self-made?

A manager needs to understand that they are in a position of power over their employees. And that that position can easily be abused. Words said by a manager carry extra weight to their employees. Self-awareness is a key aspect of the emotional intelligence required to be a good manager. As Sharron Adler wrote:

It is not the monsters we should be afraid of; it is the people that don’t recognize the same monsters inside of themself.

A leader needs to be aware of their own monsters – for if they only see monsters in others, it’s certain theirs are running wild.

Leaders acknowledge this and go the extra mile to make sure that their employees know that they don’t consider themselves intrinsically better. They realize that being a manager is a privilege. And that their teams aren’t just necessary props who can be “replaced” or “upgraded” but are owners and drives of the leader’s own success. They bring them into the process. They trust them and empower them with actions, instead of just words.

A boss on the other hand will declare that their success is self-made. And not realize the slight this gives to everyone who works with them. A boss will take every opportunity to demonstrate their power, at worst through bullying and harassment. A boss will see a line waiting to go up to the elevator and decide against basic rules of fairness that they have the authority to walk to the front and cut that line. This lack of self-awareness leads to toxic behavior.


The little things people do are noticed. They make an enormous impact – far more than PR agents ghostwriting. Those whose images are pristinely kept in public, hiding monsters within, are those who fall hardest when truth outs, as it does eventually.


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The largest group of people you can convince to build a different future

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 5, 2017

New technology tends to come from new ventures — startups. From the Founding Fathers in politics to the Royal Society in science to Fairchild Semiconductor’s “traitorous eight” in business, small groups of people bound together by some sense of mission have changed the world for the better. The easiest explanation for this is negative: it’s hard to develop new things in big organizations, and it’s even harder to do it by yourself. Bureaucratic hierarchies move slowly, and entrenched interests shy away from risk. In the most dysfunctional organizations, signaling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company, you should quit now). At the other extreme, a lone genius might create a classic work of art or literature, but he could never create an entire industry. Startups work on the principle that you need to work with other people to get stuff done, but you also need to stay small enough so that you actually can.

Positively defined, a startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future. A new company’s most important strength is new thinking: even more important than nimbleness, small size affords space to think…[T]hat is what a startup has to do: question received ideas and rethink business from scratch.

Peter Thiel in the introduction to Zero to One.

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The greatest chance of success comes from trial and error

Quote - Joe Campbell - September 27, 2017

Taleb believes in tinkering – it was to be the title of his next book. Trial and error will save us from ourselves because they capture benign black swans. Look at the three big inventions of our time: lasers, computers and the internet. They were all produced by tinkering and none of them ended up doing what their inventors intended them to do. All were black swans. The big hope for the world is that, as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.

“We have the ability to identify our mistakes eventually better than average; that’s what saves us.” We choose the iPod over the Walkman. Medicine improved exponentially when the tinkering barber surgeons took over from the high theorists. They just went with what worked, irrespective of why it worked. Our sense of the good tinker is not infallible, but it might be just enough to turn away from the apocalypse that now threatens Extremistan.

Bryan Appleyard quoting Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Sunday Times.

Taleb also cites the work of Philip Scranton who has demonstrated that:

the original developers of the jet engine had no idea of the theory behind it, which was only developed after the fact. The jet engine was arrived at through tinkering and rote trial and error.

The theory to explain why it worked came later.

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The authority to make messy changes

Quote - Joe Campbell - September 20, 2017

MIT Building 20

Building 20 was a “hastily erected” wooden building at MIT during World War II as an emergency war measure to house the scientists collaborating to work on technology for the war. It was always considered “temporary” during it’s 50+ years of existence and never received a formal name. But it housed some of the world’s greatest scientists who had breakthrough after breakthrough while working in this ramshackle building. In his meandering but insightful exposition on how disorder has often led to great things, Tim Hartford including Building 20 as one of his prime examples, pointing to the building’s hodge podge of different scientific disciplines, to the poorly thought out office numbering which lead to people getting lost

This absurdly inefficient way of organizing a building meant that people were constantly getting lost and wandering into places they didn’t intend to go. Better still, because Building 20 was low-rise and sprawling, when chance meetings occurred, they didn’t happen in elevators, the eternal home of the glib, tidy monologue we call the “elevator pitch.” They began in long corridors, where a genuine conversation could develop.

More important, the combination of people who could have those conversations was strange and wonderful. In the early 1950s, Building 20 contained departments that were wartime holdovers—nuclear science, flight control, the “Guided Missiles Program Office”—but also plastics research, the adhesives lab, the acoustics lab, the electronics lab, and even an outpost of the architecture department: a lighting design shop…

This unlikely mess made possible chance interactions among innovative researchers that paid such spectacular dividends. Who would have guessed that throwing the electrical engineers in with the Model Railway Club would result in hacking and video games? Or that the electronics specialists, the music department, and the acoustics lab would end up spawning technology pioneers such as the Bose Corporation and Bolt, Beranek and Newman? Nobody would have guessed, and nobody tried to guess, either. The hodgepodge of Building 20 was the result of simple expedience and neglect…

But also important, perhaps more so, was that the building’s occupants felt empowered to make changes:

Another key element of Building 20’s success was that the space was easy to reconfigure. Its services—water, phones, electricity—were exposed, running along the corridor ceilings, supported by brackets. This was ugly but convenient. Researchers thought nothing of tapping into them directly for whatever experimental needs they had. Paul Penfield, a longtime occupant of Building 20, recalled: “You know that if you want to run a wire from one room to another, you don’t call Physical Plant, you don’t plunk down a thousand dollars to call an electrician and a carpenter, instead you get out a power drill or a screwdriver, and you jam it through the wall, and you string the wire, and you take care of things right away, and you do it in one afternoon, rather than waiting six months for a purchase order to come through.” …

Building 20’s true advantage wasn’t so much that it was reconfigurable by design, but that the building’s inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority (if only by default) to make changes, even messy changes. It was that it was so cheap and ugly that in the words of Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn, “Nobody cares what you do in there.”

Tim Hartford in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (p. 76-79). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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