Hamming on a Leader’s Focus

It is well known the drunken sailor who staggers to the left or right with n independent random steps will, on the average, end up about root n steps from the origin. But if there is a pretty girl in one direction, then his steps will tend to go in that direction and he will go a distance proportional to n. In a lifetime of many, many independent choices, small and large, a career with a vision will get you a distance proportional to n, while no vision will get you only the distance root n. In a sense, the main difference between those who go far and those who do not is some people have a vision and the others do not and therefore can only react to the current events as they happen.

Day-to-day, a leader exists to answer the question: what should I work on? Everyone in the world spends their days solving problems: problems at work, problems at home, problems with their parents, problems with their kids, problems with their car, their roof, their air conditioner. So if everyone is always solving problems, what’s the difference between you, me and, say, an engineer at Facebook or a hedge fund trader?

Well they’re solving different problems than us. But it’s not like they’re solving problems that other people couldn’t solve with some training. Lots of people could solve those problems but these people know something you and I don’t: they know which problems need solving. How do they know which problems to solve? Their leaders told them, that’s how.

Recently I was busily drinking heavily and talking nonsense with a good friend of mine in the military and we came to a realization that I’m pleased I remembered because I think about it all the time now: all organizations exist to solve problems and the job of people who run organziations is to:

  1. find problems for the organization to solve
  2. focus the organization on solving them

If the leader is good, the problems are well selected and the organization is successful in its goal (making money in my case, much higher goals in my friend’s). If the leader is poor, resources are wasted on valueless solutions to inconsequential problems.

What’s also interesting about Hamming’s point above is that the direction doesn’t matter. Here’s another excerpt:

One of the main tasks of this course is to start you on the path of creating in some detail your vision of your future. If I fail in this I fail in the whole course. You will probably object that if you try to get a vision now it is likely to be wrong—and my reply is from observation I have seen the accuracy of the vision matters less than you might suppose, getting anywhere is better than drifting, there are potentially many paths to greatness for you

This isn’t so applicable to the military, of course, but in business and research, the path doesn’t matter and maybe your first attempt at direction is wrong. So, to use the tech buzzword, you pivot.

Now, even the most focused organizations can run out of resources: be it money or time or, most importantly perhaps, energy. It is also the leader’s job to make sure that people aren’t just focused on the task but enthusiastic about the task. People need to buy in to the focus of the organization. They need to understand it. Luckily, focus tends to be accompanied by passion in the human emotional spectrum, and passion is contagious. A good leader infuses people with focus and energy at the same time.

Part of my Hamming series

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