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Management Hack: Grow Fire

Management Hack: Grow Fire

If you’re a supervisor or executive in your company, you also must play the role of farmer. It’s your job to cultivate and grow crops that will yield the next series of leaders and top performers. So, with that as the backdrop, I say to you: grow fire.

Grow Fire

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Find the most passionate of your employees and give them extra care and attention, because though they might occasionally crowd the other plants with their quirks, their passion is what will ignite and move the company forward. Your fire crops are the kinds of people you want to cultivate into leaders that you can send into situations in your stead, and let them handle the task. Accept all responsibility for any problems they cause, but give all praise to them.

Managers and supervisors can sometimes feel worry that by giving their subordinates the spotlight on certain activities that it will somehow reflect negatively on their own perceived value to the organization. If my employee gets all the praise and spotlight, they’ll think nothing of me.

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I disagree. I think that by growing out incredible talent within your ranks, their success comes back as a hallmark of what a great manager and developer of talent you truly are. It’s such a powerful message, to tell an employee, “You’ve got what it takes. Go ahead and run with this. I trust you.” When you mean it, and when they truly have the ability, it’s a powerful moment.

Giving your passionate and capable employees the ball to run with also tells the rest of the team that if they work hard and do more than just the required effort, they have a shot at something bigger than their current role. It’s far more motivating than free coffee out of the vending machines, or blue jean Fridays. And it’s also giving something back to the company.

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Plan Tomorrow Today

You already know who the “fire” is on your team. The minute you understood the concept, you plugged in her name while considering this. Are you already working with this perspective in mind? Here are some tips to growing your fire.

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  • Share the end results requirements- Your talented leader-to-be has passion. Now, share the perspective from which you’re making your decisions. Not the “how to,” but the “what we need for a win” type information. Tell him, “It might seem like we’re pushing Engineering too hard, but if we make this deadline, we’ll get a $400,000 bonus to the contract.” Give your fire a sense of the dimensions from which you make decisions.
  • Share boundaries- Letting an employee run with a project doesn’t mean throwing her to the wild and letting her figure it all out. Show the edges of the game board, the known hazards, the things that traditionally will cause an issue. And then let your talented star navigate the course.
  • Announce and Coronate- Make sure more than you and your special employee know of this granting of extra power. Not in any weird way, and certainly not in a dynamic that will alienate or dishearten the remaining team members (“Yumiko’s really a star performer, so she’s going to handle the case. The rest of you would do well to learn by her.” — That would be the worst message ever to give.) But be sure everyone knows Yumiko’s working on your authority and that she can count on your support and hopefully the support of the entire team.
  • Stay attentive for “switchers”- Occasionally, a passionate up-and-comer is really a despot waiting to happen, someone who waits politely for power before using it to strike out and execute his own agenda. Watch for this, and when you observe it (be certain before you act), pull the person aside as quickly as possible and assess together. Give feedback. Search for motivations different than your original assessment. And if necessary, revoke the opportunity for the time being. Just like prison, never take away hope for a better chance, but be clear that the actions you observed weren’t appropriate for the kind of leader you’re looking to cultivate.
  • Broadcast success, shield failures- Give your freshly grown fire all the sunlight you can when she blazes a new trail to success for the team. Make sure your boss knows who your new superhero is. Give your peers an earful of her praise. Praising others often rubs off a little on you, too. It shows that you’re a gracious and appreciative person, and folks want that kind of energy around them.

    Now, the flipside. You know this. You’ve read it a million times. It’s one of the biggest lessons to learn, because often it seems almost natural to want to pile on criticism to someone who’s run afoul of expectations. But resist the urge. Stand up for their efforts and say that you imagine only better things to come. In private, take what steps are necessary. If he’s really botched things up, explain all the ramifications of his actions. Not, “You really messed up,” but, “By missing that deadline, we lost the bonus, we will have to spend more money on overtime and contractors to make up, and everything will slip downstream as well.” We always target the actions and their ramifications, not the person’s character.

Good Farmers

There are good managers in companies, bright managers who really contribute to the success of an organization. You’re one of those, right? But imagine just how much more effective you’d appear to an organization if, alongside your own considerable talents, you were producing these fire crops of talented leaders, who would in turn become future managers and leaders of greatness within the organization. Do I want a stand-alone great manager, or one who’s giving me growth for the future. All things equal, if I were in charge, I’d want the one growing fire.

–Chris Brogan is a regular writer for Lifehack.org. He grows content networks at GrasshopperFactory.com.

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Last Updated on November 14, 2019

A Review of “The Art of Learning”

A Review of “The Art of Learning”

Review of Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  New York: Free Press, 2007.

    Josh Waitzkin has led a full life as a chess master and international martial arts champion, and as of this writing he isn’t yet 35.  The Art of Learning chronicles his journey from chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) to world championship Tai Chi Chuan with important lessons identified and explained along the way.  Marketing expert Seth Godin has written and said that one should resolve to change three things as a result of reading a business book; the reader will find many lessons in Waitzkin’s volume.  Waitzkin has a list of principles that appear throughout the book, but it isn’t always clear exactly what the principles are and how they tie together.  This doesn’t really hurt the book’s readability, though, and it is at best a minor inconvenience.  There are many lessons for the educator or leader, and as one who teaches college, was president of the chess club in middle school, and who started studying martial arts about two years ago, I found the book engaging, edifying, and instructive.

    Waitzkin’s chess career began among the hustlers of New York’s Washington Square, and he learned how to concentrate among the noise and distractions this brings. This experience taught him the ins and outs of aggressive chess-playing as well as the importance of endurance from the cagey players with whom he interacted.  He was discovered in Washington Square by chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who became his first coach and developed him from a prodigious talent into one of the best young players in the world.

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    The book presents Waitzkin’s life as a study in contrasts; perhaps this is intentional given Waitzkin’s admitted fascination with eastern philosophy.  Among the most useful lessons concern the aggression of the park chess players and young prodigies who brought their queens into the action early or who set elaborate traps and then pounced on opponents’ mistakes.  These are excellent ways to rapidly dispatch weaker players, but it does not build endurance or skill.  He contrasts these approaches with the attention to detail that leads to genuine mastery over the long run.

    According to Waitzkin, an unfortunate reality in chess and martial arts—and perhaps by extension in education—is that people learn many superficial and sometimes impressive tricks and techniques without developing a subtle, nuanced command of the fundamental principles.  Tricks and traps can impress (or vanquish) the credulous, but they are of limited usefulness against someone who really knows what he or she is doing. Strategies that rely on quick checkmates are likely to falter against players who can deflect attacks and get one into a long middle-game.  Smashing inferior players with four-move checkmates is superficially satisfying, but it does little to better one’s game.

    He offers one child as an anecdote who won many games against inferior opposition but who refused to embrace real challenges, settling for a long string of victories over clearly inferior players (pp. 36-37).  This reminds me of advice I got from a friend recently: always try to make sure you’re the dumbest person in the room so that you’re always learning.  Many of us, though, draw our self-worth from being big fish in small ponds.

    Waitzkin’s discussions cast chess as an intellectual boxing match, and they are particularly apt given his discussion of martial arts later in the book.  Those familiar with boxing will remember Muhammad Ali’s strategy against George Foreman in the 1970s: Foreman was a heavy hitter, but he had never been in a long bout before.  Ali won with his “rope-a-dope” strategy, patiently absorbing Foreman’s blows and waiting for Foreman to exhaust himself.  His lesson from chess is apt (p. 34-36) as he discusses promising young players who focused more intensely on winning fast rather than developing their games.

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    Waitzkin builds on these stories and contributes to our understanding of learning in chapter two by discussing the “entity” and “incremental” approaches to learning. Entity theorists believe things are innate; thus, one can play chess or do karate or be an economist because he or she was born to do so.  Therefore, failure is deeply personal.  By contrast, “incremental theorists” view losses as opportunities: “step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (p. 30).  They rise to the occasion when presented with difficult material because their approach is oriented toward mastering something over time.  Entity theorists collapse under pressure.  Waitzkin contrasts his approach, in which he spent a lot of time dealing with end-game strategies
    where both players had very few pieces.  By contrast, he said that many young students begin by learning a wide array of opening variations.  This damaged their games over the long run: “(m)any very talented kids expected to win without much resistance.  When the game was a struggle, they were emotionally unprepared.”  For some of us, pressure becomes a source of paralysis and mistakes are the beginning of a downward spiral (pp. 60, 62).  As Waitzkin argues, however, a different approach is necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

    A fatal flaw of the shock-and-awe, blitzkrieg approach to chess, martial arts, and ultimately anything that has to be learned is that everything can be learned by rote.  Waitzkin derides martial arts practitioners who become “form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value” (p. 117).  One might say the same thing about problem sets.  This is not to gainsay fundamentals—Waitzkin’s focus in Tai Chi was “to refine certain fundamental principles” (p. 117)—but there is a profound difference between technical proficiency and true understanding.  Knowing the moves is one thing, but knowing how to determine what to do next is quite another.  Waitzkin’s intense focus on refined fundamentals and processes meant that he remained strong in later round while his opponents withered.  His approach to martial arts is summarized in this passage (p. 123):

    “I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires.  The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest.  It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.  Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

    This is about much more than smelling blood in the water.  In chapter 14, he discusses “the illusion of the mystical,” whereby something is so clearly internalized that almost imperceptibly small movements are incredibly powerful as embodied in this quote from Wu Yu-hsiang, writing in the nineteenth century: “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.  At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”  A learning-centered view of intelligence means associating effort with success through a process of instruction and encouragement (p. 32).  In other words, genetics and raw talent can only get you so far before hard work has to pick up the slack (p. 37).

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    Another useful lesson concerns the use of adversity (cf. pp. 132-33).  Waitzkin suggests using a problem in one area to adapt and strengthen other areas.  I have a personal example to back this up.  I will always regret quitting basketball in high school.  I remember my sophomore year—my last year playing—I broke my thumb and, instead of focusing on cardiovascular conditioning and other aspects of my game (such as working with my left hand), I waited to recover before I got back to work.

    Waitzkin offers another useful chapter entitled “slowing down time” in which he discusses ways to sharpen and harness intuition.  He discusses the process of “chunking,” which is compartmentalizing problems into progressively larger problems until one does a complex set of calculations tacitly, without having to think about it.  His technical example from chess is particularly instructive in the footnote on page 143.  A chess grandmaster has internalized much about pieces and scenarios; the grandmaster can process a much greater amount of information with less effort than an expert.  Mastery is the process of turning the articulated into the intuitive.

    There is much that will be familiar to people who read books like this, such as the need to pace oneself, to set clearly defined goals, the need to relax, techniques for “getting in the zone,” and so forth.  The anecdotes illustrate his points beautifully.  Over the course of the book, he lays out his methodology for “getting in the zone,” another concept that people in performance-based occupations will find useful.  He calls it “the soft zone” (chapter three), and it consists of being flexible, malleable, and able to adapt to circumstances.  Martial artists and devotees of David Allen’s Getting Things Done might recognize this as having a “mind like water.”  He contrasts this to “the hard zone,” which “demands a cooperative world for you to function.  Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure” (p. 54).  “The Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds” (p. 54).

    Another illustration refers to “making sandals” if one is confronted with a journeyacross a field of thorns (p. 55).  Neither bases “success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience” (p. 55). Much here will be familiar to creative people:  you’re trying to think, but that one song by that one band keeps blasting away in your head.  Waitzkin’s “only option was to become at peace with the noise” (p. 56).  In the language of economics, the constraints are given; we don’t get to choose them.

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    This is explored in greater detail in chapter 16.  He discusses the top performers, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and others who do not obsess over the last failure and who know how to relax when they need to (p. 179).  The experience of NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh is also useful as “the more he could let things go” while the defense was on the field, “the sharper he was in the next drive” (p. 179).  Waitzkin discusses further things he learned while experimenting in human performance, particularly with respect to “cardiovascular interval training,” which “can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion” (p. 181).  It is that last concept—to “recover from mental exhaustion”—that is likely what most academics need help with.

    There is much here about pushing boundaries; however, one must earn the right to do so: as Waitzkin writes, “Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion”  (p. 85).  This is another good lesson for academics, managers, and educators.  Waitzken emphasizes close attention to detail when receiving instruction, particularly from his Tai Chi instructor William C.C. Chen.  Tai Chi is not about offering resistance or force, but about the ability “to blend with (an opponent’s) energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness” (p. 103).

    The book is littered with stories of people who didn’t reach their potential because they didn’t seize opportunities to improve or because they refused to adapt to conditions.  This lesson is emphasized in chapter 17, where he discusses “making sandals” when confronted with a thorny path, such as an underhanded competitor.  The book offers several principles by which we can become better educators, scholars, and managers.  Celebrating outcomes should be secondary to celebrating the processes that produced those outcomes (pp. 45-47).  There is also a study in contrasts beginning on page 185, and it is something I have struggled to learn.  Waitzkin points to himself at tournaments being able to relax between matches while some of his opponents were pressured to analyze their games in between.  This leads to extreme mental fatigue: “this tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive” (p. 186).

    The Art of Learning has much to teach us regardless of our field.  I found it particularly relevant given my chosen profession and my decision to start studying martial arts when I started teaching.  The insights are numerous and applicable, and the fact that Waitzkin has used the principles he now teaches to become a world-class competitor in two very demanding competitive enterprises makes it that much easier to read.  I recommend this book to anyone in a position of leadership or in a position that requires extensive learning and adaptation.  That is to say, I recommend this book to everyone.

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    Featured photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via unsplash.com

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