The Insider - July 2023

On leadership, concept creep, and optimizations vs. goals, and family business

The Insider - July 2023
Photo by Manuel Nägeli / Unsplash

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the July edition of the Insider. Do you know someone who would enjoy the Insider? Forward this email to them and they can subscribe here.

On leadership

What if our standard perception of management is backwards? I recently heard a theory that for teams under about twenty people, it’s less that a leader is managing their employees and more that their employees have figured out how to manage their leader. For example, employees are often skilled at understanding exactly how their leaders operate and what they want, and then behaving and performing accordingly. For leaders, this can be a helpful reframe: management becomes not just a series of actions (meetings, check-ins, performance reviews, etc.), but rather something more interpersonal: setting good examples, modeling positive behavior, and proactively creating consistency around expectations, behaviors, incentives, and consequences. Leaders and managers might not be as skilled or have as much control as they’d like to think. But instead of overcorrecting, it may be best to embrace this fact and focus on designing environments where this kind of upward management is directed toward what’s best for the company.

On concept creep

As a progressive who believes in the principles of social justice but has found himself confused by some of the dynamics on the Left in the last few years, I’ve found the idea of concept creep to be a helpful anchor point. Concept creep refers to the ways negative aspects of a human experience have been expanded in meaning and semantics so that they encompass a much wider range of phenomena. In his book What’s Our Problem, Tim Urban says, “When concept creep gets out of control, it allows a far wider range of behaviors to qualify as bigotry, abuse, and trauma, which means a far wider range of people viewing themselves as victims of bigotry, abuse, and trauma. It also turns a far wider range of people into bigots, abusers, and traumatizers. Many more victims = many more villains.” Perhaps our definitions have been too narrow to begin with, but I’ve noticed how concept creep creates a dynamic of fear and outrage in online and organizational spaces.

The journalist Coleman Hughes says, “We’re operating on like, five or ten different definitions of racism simultaneously at the moment as a society. And yet the word ‘racist’ carries a severe stigma. So the stigma is very precise, but the definition is very vague.” The combination of: 1) precise stigma 2) vague concept, and 3) severe punishment (even if just social or reputational) leads to virtue-signaling and fear. I’ve felt this fear personally, and I’ve noticed not only the ways it pushes people towards silence, conformity, or attempts to telegraph to other people one’s own innocence or enlightened complicity, but also that this fear-based posturing can distract us from the bigger work of actually advancing justice.

On optimizations vs. goals

I heard this parable on a podcast: A 12-year-old goes to Mozart and asks, “How do I start writing symphonies?” And Mozart says, “Well, go to music college and work through it and study the greats and then you can write a symphony.” And the 12-year-old says, "Yes, but you were writing symphonies when you were 12." And Mozart says, "Well I didn’t go around asking people how to write symphonies."

The guest on the podcast, Jeremy Giffon, shared this parable to emphasize how unserious some people are about actually getting into the arena and doing whatever they’re preemptively optimizing their lives to do. Whether it’s seeking advice or reading industry articles or consuming hours and hours of podcast content, Giffon notices this tendency in his peer group (and in himself) where “everyone is sharpening their sword for the battle that's never going to come.”

It’s in vogue (at least in some corners of Twitter/X) to obsess about advice, habits, 1% optimizations, and daily routines that supposedly add up to transformational outcomes. But what happens when we don’t know what our goals are? It’s easier to ask for advice or optimize daily systems than it is to define truly original goals for our lives. We’d rather become extraordinary at sharpening our swords and call it progress than do the meandering, possibly devastating, and certainly soul-searching work to choose which worthy cause is worth fighting for.

Event: AI and the 4-day workweek

Among the many exciting potential applications of artificial intelligence technology, Christopher Pissarides, a Nobel Prize winning economist, predicted recently that AI will enable us to “move to a four-day week easily.” Is that possible? How can these two major trends coincide?

The Work Time Reduction Center of Excellence and I are hosting a webinar on AI, the future of work, and the 4-day workweek. I’ll be joining an amazing panel of thought-leaders, academics, and practitioners to explore the future of AI and the workplace and offer leaders and teams practical tools to be on the cutting edge.

  • August 16th, 11:30am ET (8:30am PT)
  • Register for free, here.

Can you help?

  • Do you know anyone at Tiny? Looking to connect with them to learn more about their model as Ezra continues to evolve into a holding company.

What I am reading

  • The US has waged economic war on China. The battle for technological supremacy in the age of semiconductor geopolitics. The New York Times.
  • “Your curiosity never lies.” An essay on how to do great work. Paul Graham.
  • The climate crisis is justifying the extractive activities of the mining industry. The race is on to capture rare earth minerals to fuel the clean energy economy. The Drift.
  • Companies are rethinking if and when to weigh in on potentially divisive issues. The complicated politics of being a company. The Wall Street Journal.
  • The forests are disappearing. A beautiful essay on trees and the fight to save them. The New Yorker.
  • Men are lost. Christine Emba’s op-ed provides a map out of the wilderness of modern masculinity. The Washington Post.

What I am writing

Something personal

It’s been one year since my dad and I decided to be co-workers—sharing a small, two-room office equidistant from our houses in Denver. We’ve carefully furnished the space with southwestern art, standing desks, and fragile succulents. On Fridays we alternate buying each other lunch from a restaurant nearby, and we often find ourselves discussing the ups and downs of our respective work in the small hallway between our two rooms. It’s been the best thing, unlocking a new dimension in our relationship. While we don’t work together at the same company, it’s given me a small taste of what an intergenerational business might be like and the deeper bonds and friendships when family and work meet.