Leaders Don’t Hide Behind Data

Managers have turned digital tools into a crutch. We need leaders who focus on human connection instead.

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Image courtesy of Beppe Giacobbe/theispot.com

Editor’s note: This article is part of a new MIT SMR series about how leadership is evolving in a digital world.

One hundred and thirty years ago, a jeweler named Willard Bundy changed the world of management: He invented the employee time clock.

It was a natural consequence of the times. Management had fueled industrialism (and vice versa). Without management, there was no chance to coordinate the workforce, to be sure the work was getting done, and to ensure quality. Management not only worked to contain the costs of our most expensive input (labor); it created a command-and-control regime that allowed us to increase productivity and quality.

Then Frederick Taylor came along and took things to the next level. Taylor was the Madame Curie of industrial management. His breakthrough work on scientific management created a movement that persists to this day. The theory is simple: With a clipboard and a stopwatch, you can measure and improve the performance of your workforce.

So, of course, the new digital tools were the next big thing, seen as a boon for managers. First, we digitized the time clock. But that was just the beginning. Now we can track the path of the night watchman, the keystrokes of the legal team, and the throughput on the assembly line. Not only do we get instant transparency into how labor works, but we can spend our days endlessly tweaking the data and using it to manage people even more closely.

At Bloomberg, every employee badges in every morning. That badge is connected to the internal management system, and now, white-collar workers are measured just as easily and precisely as those on the assembly line.

But a revolution is happening. As the resolution of our insight has gotten ever sharper, the need for more management has rapidly decreased. The step after making a job an efficient program is to automate it and replace it with a computer that works for free.

Two Digital Traps

There are two traps that have ensnared many who see digital management as a boon:

First, it’s easier than ever to do A/B testing. Digital tools allow us to spend a lot of time comparing one approach with another. A/B testing encourages tiny steps instead of bold ones. A/B testing is safe. A/B testing allows us to spend our day seeking deniability instead of taking responsibility.

Second, it’s easier to stay busy. It’s possible for a manager to engage with every employee several times a day. Slack, email, and videoconferencing mean that every conscientious boss is, as Tom Peters wrote, managing by walking around. The challenge is that all that virtual walking around distracts us from the real issues.

Starting now, the future belongs to leaders, not managers.

Management is an industrial activity. In many ways, it enables the race to the bottom. By managing carefully, bosses can inexorably lower costs. The problem with a race to the bottom is that you might win.

Amazon and the rest of the internet bodega have demonstrated that a downward ratchet benefits the monopoly middleman, not the organization churning out widgets or the driver hustling his Uber. Your competitors are trying to out-manage you, an effort measured in productivity and thus in costs.

A/B testing is a trap because it insulates us from A/J testing. A/B testing is an asymptotic stroll toward a local maximum. But it leaves no room for more extreme alternatives, for the breakthroughs when we compare method A with something very different, call it method J. This is much harder to measure in a digital way, and so, in our metric-driven mania, we avoid it.

And busyness is a trap because it allows us to believe that we’ve actually created value. A day spent in digital volleys is thrilling, tiring, and ultimately nihilistic. It’s true, your business is not on cruise control — you’re driving. But what you’re not doing is figuring out a whole new route forward. What you’re not doing is inspiring your team to level up. What you’re not doing is inventing a new game. Instead, you’re playing someone else’s game.

The Art of Persuasion

Leadership is the art of doing things you’re not sure of, and doing them with enrollment instead of authority. Leadership is often conflated with management, but they’re completely different ways to expend time and energy.

Management is an exercise in power. It can’t work without authority, because managers tell people what to do. Effective management requires knowledge of the work to be done, awareness of best practices, and yes, probably a stopwatch.

On the other hand, leadership is voluntary. Those who follow you must be enrolled in your journey and persuaded to follow (and contribute to) your vision.

Digital management, then, begins by eliminating the cruft that makes it so easy to manage.

Slack and email don’t make it easier for you to lead, not if you’re using the very same channel to manage. Those who work with you will be confused about which voice you’re using.

Yet, the leveraged presence that digital tools create for leaders can amplify the engagement that smart leaders put to work.

Just as Franklin D. Roosevelt used the radio to enlist a country in his decade-long effort to recover from the Depression, a modern leader can use digital charisma to clearly delineate her vision, to describe the goal, and to earn enrollment in the journey.

Digital charisma doesn’t feel like management, and it requires alternative channels. Human channels. Channels that involve actually showing up, not hiding behind a system.

Who sees you, and who do you see in return? What does it mean for those on the journey to listen to you, and given the asymmetric nature of leadership (there’s more of them than there are of you), how can you possibly listen back?

We can learn quite a bit from how the modern cultural leaders of Instagram and Facebook use their platform, despite so many of their habits we’d prefer to avoid. They’ve changed the worlds of fashion, politics, and much that lies in between. Not because people are forced to follow them or spread their ideas, but because they’ve chosen to.

In 1983, as a young brand manager working at Spinnaker Software in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I started one of the first desktop-published newsletters in history. I printed 60 issues at a time (on yellow paper) and slipped them into the interoffice mailboxes of each person in our small and growing company. At the time, no one reported to me. I managed no one.

By highlighting the essence of the projects I was working on, by celebrating our contributors, and by creating a narrative that some felt compelling, I was able, through that newsletter, to lead a team of 40 programmers, musicians, artists, and operations professionals. None of them had to make the choice to follow, but each of them did.

Sooner or later, important work becomes a choice. It’s a choice to put something extra into the project, to care enough to extend ourselves. At Spinnaker, the choice was even more obvious: Not only did I have to persuade people to work on my projects at the expense of other things vying for their attention, but I needed to describe a vision and a path to how it might happen.

We ended up shipping five products in record time, each of them earning gold status and ultimately creating a significant share of the company’s sales. More important to me and the team, though, was what it felt like to be part of something, to leap and to explore instead of merely being managed. We changed the world of software games, we discovered how much we were capable of, and we found work that was worthy of the effort we were putting into it.

I could never have managed my way to this extraordinary outcome, never having managed this group of professionals where I had little authority. Leadership was the only way to get there.

Management is essential, but it’s ultimately a form of hiding. Today’s tools open the door for tomorrow’s leaders, if we care enough to choose to make things better by making better things.


(Re)Learn to Lead

(Re)Learn to Lead is a limited article series that distills wisdom from prominent experts on the future of leadership in a changing world. The article series will help you evaluate your leadership skills, know what you need to learn, and get ready for the changing demands of today's workplace.
More in this series

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Comment (1)
Brian Pelletier
Thanks for this article Seth. Love your ideas and definition of leadership. 
Useful ideas on how we can shift from management to leadership.