Oct 1, 2014

XL-Files: Leadership: are you open for it?

Contributing Editor Xiao-Li Meng writes:

In addition to increasingly frequent requests to predict the future (see the last XL-Files), another sure sign of “professional aging” is being asked to talk about leadership. Just this past summer alone, I served on ICSA–KISS and IMS–NRC panels on leadership (while still sharpening my predictive skills on a JSM panel about the next 25 years of statistics).

But what exactly is leadership? Anyone who thinks s/he really knows the answer is likely busy touring the country instead of serving on academic panels. Therefore what I was able to share at the panels were some personal observations on traits for being an effective leader. Again, don’t ask me for a precise definition, but the leaders to whom I referred are those whose mindsets and decisions can make your (professional) life a fulfilling or depressing one. You may not care if a leader can impress you, but surely you don’t want one who can depress you (unless you are a masochist). Consequently, my response to anyone asking what it takes to be a good leader is rather simple: think about what you want from a leader. Rhetorical though this might sound, it has provided practical guidance for me. It has also helped me to realize that an effective leader should be a “triple opener”…

An Open Heart

Virtually all leaders need to interact with a variety of people with diverse abilities, backgrounds, curiosities, demeanors, experiences, etc. To interact effectively, leaders have to respect people even when they don’t like them. To do so for an extended period — and without exhausting yourself — requires something more profound than diplomatic skills. It requires an open heart, an almost innate ability to appreciate that there is something worth learning from, and about, every fellow human being. It’s almost a tautology to say that it is hard to like these people whom you don’t like, but that is precisely at the heart of the matter when you are in a position to affect these people’s lives in some ways. An open heart builds wider empathetic channels to more individuals, and such empathy is critical in reducing unfair treatment, especially to those with whom you may have every other reason to disassociate yourself.

An Open Mind

Most people would tell you that good leaders listen, but fewer know how hard it is to really listen, especially for those who are trained to engage in research brainstorming and in academic debate, where shouting out half-baked ideas and driving each other up the wall are expected and encouraged. Carrying over that habit, I constantly found myself eager to express my opinions in various meetings I conducted as a dean, especially when someone was saying something that, in my opinion, was wrong-headed: while I was “listening,” my mind was completely occupied by constructing counter-arguments! It didn’t take long before I realized that listening effectively would require more an open mind rather than merely open ears. Perhaps being truly open-minded will always be an aspiration, but leaders without such an aspiration tend to have a much harder time building consensus that benefits the people they serve and themselves.

An Open Bottle

Few people find socially friendly environments unwelcoming. The same is true for leadership style. Brainstorming sessions are more fruitful over creative meals, and difficult conversations tend to flow a bit easier in a cafeteria or a bar. Therefore, effective leaders are more likely to be always prepared to open a bottle of social lubricant, be it Guinness, Gewürztraminer, or Gerolsteiner. And pay from your own pocket if such expenses are not reimbursable, because the ultimate beneficiary is you—your work is more enjoyable (literally), you have fewer sleepless nights (as long as you don’t open too many bottles a day), and most importantly, you will have more life-long friends (or at least fewer life-long enemies).

…but not an Open Mouth

Not everything should be open, however. I recall a time when I couldn’t respond to an accusation from a faculty member because it involved confidential information. Worse, I couldn’t tell him that I couldn’t tell him, because that itself would have implied confidential information was involved.

Being able to protect others — especially those not of your liking — when facing unjustified blame is a trait required of good leaders. It can be a lonely, frustrating, or even helpless experience. Yet, effective leadership almost always involves giving organizations’ and others’ interests higher priority. This is not about being noble but more about being practical. A party will not run smoothly if the host’s main interest is in ensuring that s/he has a better time than everyone else.

Speaking of parties, it is time to open a bottle of G. H. Mumm to toast all the leaders who have kept their hearts and minds open all the time, but their mouths open only when appropriate. Bottoms up!
Mumm Cordon Rouge

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