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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Fictional Leadership

I've often maintained that fiction is as good a source of leadership training as non-fiction, since much non-fiction is written in terms of platitudes and generalities, while fiction frequently presents specific situations. Of course, leaders in fiction are always superb, but humans always learn better from positive examples than from negative examples, so that's not a bad thing.

I was watching the Battlestar Galactica reboot's Hand of God episode the other day with Xiaoqin, and was particularly struck by how great an example of leadership the episode had in the form of commander Adama. We see him in various different roles that illustrate what role leadership plays, and what a great manager should do.

The episode begins with a planning meeting. Adama's role here is simple: he needs the proper diversity of thinking and expertise in the planning stage to design the best plan for the assault on the Cylon base. Note that while the news media loves to consider diversity of races as a proxy for diversity of thinking, here Adama cares very much about having a diverse of mindset. He turns to Starbuck (Kara Thrace) to provide that. Not only that, at the meeting he carefully backs up Starbuck, by telling both Apollo and Colonel Tigh: "With all due respect, none of us are as crazy as Starbuck." There are lots of subtleties about that meeting, including that Starbuck and Tigh hate each other, and Adama is aware of that. Notice how deftly he shuts down the name calling that the two of them were about to start, which would have been unproductive and prevented a good plan for being formed. Leadership is frequently about bringing the right people in the room and managing the context so that you can get the most out of everyone, and this is a great example.

Starbuck is a great pilot. In the arena of technical management, she'd be considered a great tech lead. That made her a natural to lead the assault, but her healing leg meant that she had to be kept out of the fight. Adama convinces Starbuck of this not by giving her an order, but by showing her that her legs are not yet strong enough to  let her perform at her best. This is another great example of leadership as persuasion: it's not enough to say "no, you shouldn't do this." You have to provide examples why.

Then there's the scene where Apollo is up the night before the mission. He's anxious, and already defensive because everyone knows that Starbuck's the best pilot in the fleet but he's having to substitute for her. Adama's aware of this, and carefully steers Apollo's anxieties away from this, providing assurance that he's going to do a great job. He even hands Apollo his personal lucky charm to assist. He then tells Apollo to get some rest in preparation for the mission.

During the execution of the mission, Adama provides leadership mentoring to Starbuck, telling her that once she's laid down the plan, the execution is in the hands of the others, and that her obvious anxiousness would actually undermine the operation if she doesn't retain a good grip on herself in the operations room. Not only does that calm her, he's clearly also grooming her as a future leader.

Finally, when the operation is successful and everyone's celebrating, notice what Adama does. He carefully places himself at the edge of the celebration. He's cheering folks on, and there to receive the lucky charm back from Apollo, but at no point does he attempt to steal the credit for the success. His people are allowed to say to themselves, "We did this great thing!" This is servant leadership at its greatest, and you very rarely see it in real life.

Of course, the fictional universe Adama is in is very stark. Adama isn't racing for the next promotion (there's no one to promote him), and the stakes are high, so it's easier to motivate people to do the right thing. But that's actually not that much different from a startup (getting a promotion at an unsuccessful startup isn't going to do much good). But it's still great to watch a great leader in action, and I can only think of a very small handful of people who in real life could match what Adama did in this episode.

If you haven't already seen this, it's well worth the $1.99 to watch this episode for these leadership lessons. As a technical manager, it's well worth the 44 minutes of your time.

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