Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Moltke on leadership

Here's another post I wrote on our internal blog some months ago. I refreshed and updated it somewhat. Enjoy!

Lately, I've been reading a certain series of short stories and novels (Falkenberg's Legion, by Jerry Pournelle). I'm not really a fan of military novels -- fiction or non-fiction -- but I found some aspects of this series quite fascinating.

While software development is perhaps not as lethal as war, we have a lot to learn from the military organizations when it comes to leadership vs. management, unity of command, and organizational theory. Let's face it, armies are subject to heavy darwinistic selection. Survival of the fittest.

Towards the end of the series I found the following quote. Pournelle is in the habit of quoting long passages from various military theory and history books and I got in the habit of skimming those fairly quickly. The following quote is actually one of the shortest in the book and thus one of the ones I actually read, but the implications are worth discussing here:
"The advantage which a commander thinks he can attain through continued personal intervention is largely illusory. By engaging in it he assumes a task which really belongs to others, whose effectiveness he thus destroys. He also multiplies his own tasks to a point where he can no longer fulfill the whole of them."
-- Helmuth von Moltke
Note that Moltke says "intervention" not "attention". The fact is that our most effective leaders are those who pay attention to the work of their subordinates. A good manager sees what is going on and adjusts the system to promote correct behavior (such as distributed decision-making) and dampen incorrect behavior. Or as Ronald Heifetz says, "attention is the currency of leadership".

Our least effective managers (no-one named, no-one forgotten) are those who personally intervene in the work of their subordinates. By continuous intervention the manager is sending one message upwards and another downwards in the hierarchy. Upwards, the manager is saying that he is personally taking heroic action to ensure that the team is moving forward in the face of overburdening technical challenges. To the team, he's saying "I don't trust you to do the right thing". Any initiative taken by team members is subject to review and approval. Self-motivated individuals will search for opportunities elsewhere. The manager becomes the bottleneck that prevents the team from delivering, thereby closing the self-reinforcing loop.

If you were a mid-level manager and had two projects, one delivering regularly and effortlessly and the other subject to continuous difficulties overcome only by heroic efforts from the project manager and the team, which project manager would you consider more effective? Which one would you reward for doing a good job? Would you grease the squeaky wheel and let the silent wheel go uncared for... until it also starts squeaking?

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