Don’t appeal to authority.

Even though it is very tempting to do so, please don’t appeal to authority. Not only is it a logical fallacy, it also shuts down any attempt at understanding.

Now, I get it. An appeal to authority in our society is still very powerful. It shortens the time necessary to get a team to agree, and it may appear as though this move will speed implementation.

The classic example of this is the 1961 experiment by Psychologist Stanley Milgram.


The experiment had a test subject enter a room where there was a control panel, and a white coated scientist. The subject was told the panel controlled the amount of electrical shock which was administered to an individual in the next room (played by an actor). The scientist then told the subject (who became the teacher) that it was their job to administer ever increasing shocks to the person (the student) in the other room if the student answered questions wrong. As the test progressed, the screams of the actor could be heard in the other room and many subjects became nervous. However, being assured by the person in the white coat (who represented authority) more than half of the subjects continued administering shocks, even up to a lethal level (having been told previously that amount would kill a person).

These are shocking results (pun intended), and I recognise there are some severe issues with the set up of the experiment and its subsequent explanation as being a demonstration of the “evil” nature of humanity. I am not sure we need an experiment to prove that, but I digress.

The experiment highlights something else I find very interesting. Almost half of the subjects refused to obey the authority. They were unwilling to continue to follow the directions, even though the experimenter appealed to authority, and they walked out.

When you lead by appealing to authority, you create a team that is submissive to authority. One that is less willing to think on their own, less able to explain decisions to others, and less willing to raise legitimate questions.

Now, I have a question for you.

Who would you rather have working as a part of your team? Someone who will blindly follow authority, even when it causes them to cross some major ethical boundaries, or someone who is willing to stand up and ask questions? Even though it may take more time, effort, and a different set of skills to lead the later, that’s who I’d want as a part of my team.

Don’t appeal to authority.

Rather, lead in such a way as you deepen the ability of your team to think, explain, and ask good questions.


Improvisation requires failure

Steven Asma in his article for AEON notes that while we need to approach more of life with improvisation, but we also need to learn how to do it better.

Many of us have had the excruciating experience of watching bad jazz players struggle to articulate a solo, or uncreative comedians writhe painfully on stage, or public speakers go off-script and crash magnificently on the rocks. Some of us have been those jazz musicians and public speakers. And it reminds us that, while ad-libbing can produce novel solutions and genius expressions, sometimes it flounders horribly and does damage instead.

The solution for many organisations is to create processes and rules to help guide decision making. This way scripts can be given to employees at every level to ensure that decisions are made exactly the way the leadership wants them to be made. This makes sense when things are relatively stable and you can prepare for almost every eventuality. This is not our world, however.

For one, it is virtually impossible to create scripts for every eventuality. On top of this we need to demand more humanity out of our human employees. If it can be scripted, a computer can do it better. This means we need to empower our employees to use their own discretion and judgement to interact with the new situations they encounter. In a world increasingly full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity we need to improvise.

We need to improvise, but we are not very good at improvising.

This means we need to learn how to improvise well. The problem is, learning to improvise requires failure. Asma puts it this way:

Failing is a major aspect of improvisation. Failure is the thing we learn from, so it’s the cornerstone of productive experience.

Learning to improvise is really learning how to make the most of the resources available to overcome the obstacles facing you. The way we begin to learn the techniques and tools is to try, while being guided by some of the “rules” which have been distilled from other people’s experiences.

As a leader then, you need to let your team fail. You need to create space for them to make their own decisions, and then learn from those decisions. This means there will be times when things go really poorly. A sales call will fall flat. A presentation will be painful. A crucial business relationship will be strained, or even broken. These failures will happen, and they can help your team learn how to bounce back from them. One of the best ways to help them learn, is to let them work to fix it.

So, let your team fail. We could all do with learning how to improvise a little better.

Lead like an improv referee.

Chair on empty theatre stage

Wednesday night I went to a couple improv shows at Vancouver TheaterSports League. I had a lot of fun as the teams created some really great scenes (and some not so great ones). TheaterSports is a very specific format which pitches two teams of improvisers against each other. One important role, which we don’t often think about in improv, is the referee. They explain it this way on their website.

Each TheatreSports match is overseen by a referee. More than just a whimsical host, the ref will slap the improvisers with penalties & jabs, or reward them with bonuses as he/she sees fit. And round after gruelling round, the audience votes for the best scenes & the sharpest improv.

The referee essentially keeps the evening on track. They end scenes when they begin to get off the rails, or seem to have come to a fitting conclusion, or when time is up. They introduce the different games, and explain the rules of the game for the next section. They create the space for the improvisers to do good work, by setting the boundaries for the scenes.

Some of these boundaries are temporary, like lines in the sand. Some of them are a bit more permanent, like guardrails on the highway. Regardless, it is the referees job to set them and the teams job to use them as guides to their creations. The referee sets the stage.

Good leaders work like an improv referee.

As a leader, you need to work to keep your team(s) and organisation on track. You are responsible for setting the boundaries within which the team(s) work. You need to ensure that projects and meetings stay on track, and end them when they seem to be getting off the rails or come to a fitting conclusion. You introduce the different projects, and explain how they relate to the over all purpose of the organisation. As a leader you set the boundaries within which your team works.

As a leader you set the stage.

Do it well.