The Math of Leadership

Posted 04.20.2011

Math1 I have a confession to make. I’m not that great at math. Don’t get me wrong, I can do the basics, but I’m not going to be writing any Google or Facebook style algorithms anytime soon. My math challenges literally go back to first grade when the concept of subtraction just rocked my little six year old brain. It’s always been a struggle and the math skills I have have been hard won.

That’s why I was so interested to read an article called A Better Way to Teach Math by David Bornstein on the New York Times blog this week.  Bornstein describes a teaching approach called Jump Math which has been used with 85,000 math students and has pushed the performance bell curve very far to the right.  According to the program’s originator, John Mighton, the secret of Jump’s success is that it teaches students math by breaking problems into micro steps and giving the kids time to develop mastery in the basics before moving to more advanced problem solving.  As Mighton told Bornstein,  “Asking children to make their own discoveries before they solidify the basics is like asking them to compose songs on guitar before they can form a C chord.”

The interesting thing is that teaching math isn’t the only discipline where we tend to move people into situations for which they’re unprepared. The same is often the case with leadership. Think about it.  How many times have you seen people put into leadership roles and then fail because they weren’t ready? I’ve seen it so much that I wrote a book about it called The Next Level.

The story on Jump Start gave me a fresh perspective on the issue of preparing people for new challenges.  Here are a few things I think are important to keep in mind as you prepare leaders for bigger roles:

You might be unconsciously competent.  They might be unconsciously incompetent.  If you’ve been in a leadership role yourself for years a lot of what you do comes naturally.  You may not even remember that there was a time when you didn’t know everything you know now.  Your rising leader hasn’t had that experience.  Help them move up the curve by taking the time to help them learn what they don’t even know they need to learn.

Make the implicit explicit.  Take the time and effort to explicitly define expectations for the new role.  It’s not enough to assume that “everybody knows this and they’ll figure it out.”  Break the expectations down into granular, actionable goals.

Define what success looks like.  How will this person know when they’re successful?  Take the time to paint a clear picture for them of what success looks like and what the milestones are along the way.

What’s the best thing a senior leader ever did for you to set you up for success?