If you think you’re leading and no one is following you, then you’re only taking a walk.

I’m not sure whether it’s really an Afghan proverb, but this Internet-famous phrase does provide a succinct test for leadership. It stands to reason that other people decide whether you’re a leader, not your title, salary or wealth of experience. And for leadership to be effective, it must be fundamentally based in clarity of purpose and effective collaboration. Let’s review a few mental models to give us language to discuss effective leadership, and then see how factoring in remote work changes them.

Leaders Are Made, Not Born

Firstly, let’s establish a baseline: I fundamentally believe that while inborn leadership talent (including elusive things like charisma) is a thing, improving yourself as a leader is possible through practice. Thus, I line up with one side of what’s called the implicit theories of intelligent: specifically, incremental.

Carol Dweck and her team have been studying these differences for many years, even publishing a book on the subject in 2006. Here is the low-down via Wikipedia:

If you believe that intelligence and ability are fixed and unchangeable, then you subscribe to the entity theory of intelligence. However, if you think that you can accumulate intelligence through hard work and effort, then you subscribe to the incremental theory of intelligence. People who believe this incremental (or growth) theory “don’t necessarily believe that anyone can become an Einstein or Mozart, but they do understand even Einstein and Mozart had to put in years of effort to become who they were.”

What’s your belief on this as it applies to leadership?

Slave Driver or Shoot-the-Shit Shane?

Blake and Mouton have an interesting managerial style grid, that essentially pits one’s tendency to focus on tasks vs. their pull to focus on relationships:

I continue to struggle with the tradeoffs myself, figuring out what the right balance is of maker vs. manager activities.

Here’s another view of this grid, this time from the perspective of actually getting others to do something in various circumstances, also known as the situational leadership model:

Here’s a self-reflection exercise to try: which quadrant of either grid do you find yourself tending toward naturally? Now, recall a recent situation in which something went wrong. Which way did you go then? Which way would you like to have gone?

Motivation

There are two opposing views on work: Theory X and Theory Y. The general premise behind Theory X seems to be that people are lazy, and would rather be doing anything other than working. This means they need pretty close supervision if you’re planning on beating any kind of productivity out of them. Theory Y, however, assumes that people actually have an internal drive to work – and it’s the responsibility of leaders to tap into it.

Why do I ascribe to Theory Y? From Daniel Pink’s “Drive”, we know that 1) intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic when it comes to knowledge work, and 2) the components of intrinsic motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

And how does this line up to overall happiness? Here’s a breakdown as per Sonja Lyubomirksy’s “The How of Happiness”:

So, only 10% of the happiness pie is contributed to by external things (salary, perks, weather, etc.), and you can’t do much about 50% of the pie. The 40% intentional activity is where intrinsic motivation for work could play – all the more likely if leaders are able to line work up to a mission and vision that people can believe in.

Decision Making

 

There is a whole lot that can be said on biases in decision-making, but I’ll just list a few (courtesy of High Performance Collaboration: Leadership, Teamwork, and Negotiation via Coursera) for context:

  • Framing Effect: we tend toward being risk averse when it comes to favourable situations, risk seeking when it comes to crappy ones.

  • Confirmation Bias: we are blind to things that do not conform to our opinions.

  • Decision Fatigue: decision-making is really difficult, and we have a finite amount of energy to do it. Additionally, we are unaware when we are mentally fatigued, so we should know our limits; get ready for the big stuff (try to automate minutiae like what to wear and what to eat).

  • Team Scaling Fallacy: as team size increases, people increasingly underestimate the time it will take to complete the project.

  • Common Information Effect: tendency for groups to discuss information they have in common, rather than unique information; we should suspend initial judgement, ask people who have new information.

As a leader, the idea mainly, then, is to actively seek constructive criticism from your team mates. As Elon Musk says,

You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.

The Postcard Model

For a small team like Postcard’s, we only have two hiring criteria. They are:

You have to be smart, and you have to be nice.

Here, let me draw you a diagram:

This actually matches up nicely with the Blake and Mouton grid above.

Leadership in Remote Teams

So how do you get from there to cultivating leadership in remote teams?

  1. On the task/smart side of the spectrum, the main issue is letting go of tasks. Transitioning from maker to manager is a difficult concept for high-performance over-achievers, so understanding the value of mentorship and the scalability of this arrangement is paramount. This is especially true in a remote environment, where vast quantities of alone, “get-shit-done” time is the default. Therefore, one could do well to create a structure for this (e.g., regular 1-on-1s) – hopefully then it becomes a habit.
  2. On the people/nice front, there isn’t really anything special that needs to happen. If the person is already a good team member, then they are exhibiting empathy, and taking a real interest in other people. Use this skill to figure out what drives your team mates! The only thing to highlight – and this ties in with the first point – is that other people become priority #1, and should start taking up the majority of your to-do list. Again, make it explicit; people in remote teams cannot rely on water cooler gossip to gauge how the team is doing (maybe through the percentage of GIFs to text in Slack).
  3. Actively seek out criticism from your colleagues. In remote teams, this will likely take more explicit communication, which actually could be a good thing.
  4. Actual practice. It feels incredibly important to allow people room to try out leading a team, and celebrate the possibility of failure. While in some people leadership abilities might be obvious, others will take you by surprise! This is no more or less true in remote teams than in co-located ones, but I thought it was important.

Remote Teamwork Anthem?

I’ll just leave this here. Apologies in advance.

Your Turn

What are your thoughts on leadership in remote teams? Which models above match yours, and which do not? I’d love to hear from you! Let me know via sabbatical@mashakrol.com, or below in the comments.

  • Get weekly updates on brain tech, fitness, networking, and other fun!