Hamming on Leadership

Hamming sees leadership as command and control, a simplistic view I disagree with. My thinking on leadership is much more heavily influenced by Dan Rockwell who emphasizes leadership as service. In that frame the led do the work; the leader enables them do amazing things. Here’s Hamming:

A man was examining the construction of a cathedral. He asked a stone mason what he was doing chipping the stones, and the mason replied, “I am making stones”. He asked a stone carver what he was doing, “I am carving a gargoyle”. And so it went, each person said in detail what they were doing. Finally he came to an old woman who was sweeping the ground. She said, “I am helping build a cathedral”.

And another quote about the same cathedral:

You may claim in both cases the larger aim was so well understood there was no need to mention it, but I doubt you really believe it. Most of the time each person is immersed in the details of one special part of the whole and does not think of how what they are doing relates to the larger picture. It is characteristic of most people they keep a myopic view of their work and seldom, if ever, connect it with the larger aims they will admit, when pressed hard, are the true goals of the system. This myopic view is the chief characteristic of a bureaucrat. To rise to the top you should have the larger view—at least when you get there.

Someone needs to guide our hands. That’s the leader. Here’s my three-part definition of leadership:

  1. Vision: what should I do next?
  2. Mediation: I want this and she wants that. Can’t do both. Both are important. What’s the compromise? Could also call this politics.
  3. Coaching: how do I get better?

One more observation: cleansed of human interaction, my definition of a leader is a lot like Hamming’s Systems Engineer:

Systems engineering is the attempt to keep at all times the larger goals in mind and to translate local actions into global results. But there is no single larger picture. For example, when I first had a computer under my complete control I thought the goal was to get the maximum number of arithmetic operations done by the machine each day. It took only a little while before I grasped the idea it was the amount of important computing,not the raw volume, that mattered. Later I realized it was not the computing for the Mathematics department, where I was located, but the computing for the research division which was important. Indeed, I soon realized to get the most value out of the new machines it would be necessary to get the scientists themselves to use the machine directly so they would come to understand the possibilities computers offered for their work and thus produce less actual number crunching, but presumably more of the computing done would be valuable to Bell Telephone Laboratories. Still later I saw I should pay attention to all the needs of the Laboratories, and not just the Research Department. Then there was AT&T, and outside AT&T the Country, the scientific and engineering communities, and indeed the whole world to be considered. Thus I had obligations to myself, to the department, to the division, to the company, to the parent company, to the country, to the world of scientists and engineers, and to everyone. There was no sharp boundary I could draw and simply ignore everything outside.

One thought on “Hamming on Leadership

  1. I agree with the leader definition being more like his definition of a systems engineer.

    A leader has big responsibilities, and almost entirely to other stakeholders.

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