“Do not pay attention to what people say, only to what they do, and to how much of their necks they are putting on the line” — Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game.
Leadership is more than flying around on company-owned jets or prancing into a corner office wearing an expensive suit. Accepting a leadership position means accepting a social contract to gobble up the most risk, work the hardest and make the most sacrifices. Giddy up!
Own your choices
In 1981, a Harvard Law professor suggested a simple solution to handling the Presidential nuclear codes: storing them inside the chest cavity of a staffer. This young volunteer, likely a Navy Seal, would also carry a large butcher knife so that cleaving open a human being with his bare hands was something the President would have to do, should the urge to nuke someone arise. Owning your decisions as a leader means owning the consequences and the fallout — killing a staffer would certainly fall under that category.
Making choices which deeply impact a group of people you’re supposed to lead shouldn’t be taken lightly. Many of us are aghast at the idea of the President slaughtering a subordinate as a precursor to nuclear warfare, but the idea of extreme ownership shouldn’t be shocking to us. Back in the day, kings, lords and generals were expected to pick up a sword, lead their nation into battle and remain visible throughout the skirmish. That’s solid proof of accountability and acceptance of significant risk. Contrasted with today’s use of drone strikes and insulating layers of bureaucracy, our cultural perspective and expectations regarding leadership have drastically diminished compared to ancient times, or even as recently as the 50s and 60s…
Are you a pilot or a doctor?
Moving away from extreme examples like kings and presidents, consider how doctors and pilots own their choices in today’s society. Pilots arguably have more skin in the game than perhaps anyone on their aircraft because they’re, as psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer notes, absolutely going to suffer the “consequences of mediocrity or incompetence”. That’s why we see them inspecting the plane before takeoff. Doctors, on the other hand, are unlikely to suffer much blowback from incompetence or negligence because of insurance and/or bureaucratic protection — and they certainly won’t have any physical ramifications. No matter how poorly a doctor might perform, they get to walk out of the operating room without any major fallout — especially not the possible loss of their own life. A pilot couldn’t say the same.
Work the hardest
Leadership includes being both servant and shepherd when necessary. Servant, you say? Yeah. Leaders are ultimately serving the will of their employees. Remember, the President is an elected official employed by us. Given this position, his job is concerning himself with our wishes about a decision to spill blood on the White House carpet.
In the case of corporations however, servant leadership appears most often as foresight, open communication, positive reinforcement and appreciation of staff contributions. While servants are the hardest workers in a household, shepherds protect their flock. They have skin in the game and will put themselves on the line to defend the sheep in their care. An ad agency executive once said: “When you employ people, you have a responsibility to them. When you work in a community, you have a responsibility to that community and to pretend otherwise is wrong and foolish” which is spot on. Leadership is about climbing into the trenches, getting your hands dirty and ensuring your flock is safe. This internal accountability stems from having adequate skin in the game.
In 324 BC, Alexander the Great’s troops mutinied against him. He won them back with an impassioned speech that culminated in baring his scars to prove his leadership merit. Alexander argued that he fought alongside his soldiers and had never asked anything of them that he hadn’t done himself. His scars were irrefutable proof of his sacrifices and skin in the game. Oh, and he also shared the spoils of victory with his troops as tangible recognition and appreciation for their efforts and loyalty over the years.
While good leadership means being invested in what you say and do, it’s equally dependent on effectively absorbing and acting on new information that arises. After his troops refused to march further, Alexander sequestered himself in his tent for three days before concluding they were right. He acknowledged that a vibe had shifted among the ranks and he agreed to turn back, as per their wishes. Alexander recognized the conditions of this particular situation had shifted, thus he proved himself capable of adapting to the changes.
Fall on your sword
Suffering the consequences of one’s actions isn’t just a parental lesson to bestow upon toddlers. It’s a leadership trait which commands respect because it irrevocably binds someone to their decisions and their word. The more leaders invest, the more internal responsibility they feel, the greater chance they’ll succeed. To quote myself, “who’s going to take the guy full of hot air seriously?” There are questions our society should ponder when accepting opinions and advice from internet pundits, news anchors and so-called investment experts. How much, if anything, have they sacrificed to prove themselves? Do they have skin in the game and own their consequences? Do they, as leaders, serve and protect their flock when the wolf is prowling outside? As a leader, your convictions only matter if sufficiently connected to the amount of risk you’ve claimed.
If someone hasn’t bled, they have no right to lead. And if someone is not willing to bleed, they’re not fit to lead.
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