Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

Able to Build This in a Cave

Today I read James Tabor’s Blind Descent, an account of cavers attempting to find the deepest place on Earth. It’s a flawed book, and falls to the level of being a bit forgettable, but it does contain an interesting study in leadership.

The book’s central figures are the American spelunker Bill Stone and the Ukranian hydrogeologist Alexander Klimchouk. Stone is a figure driven by urgency, and while the book examines how he has been portrayed as both a bold explorer in the mold of Hilary and a controlling, domineering expedition leader in the mold of Cortez, it’s indisputable that he is an individualist. He welcomes others and works well with them, but his passion for caving and exploration is deeply personal and linked to a sense of time running out. He explores because he must. Meanwhile, Klimchouk is convinced that only “a big society of united people” can reach the most profound achievements in caving. Stone has led virtually all of the caving expeditions he has been on. Klimchouk is content to take a role elsewhere than at the peak of the hierarchy. Klimchouk regards the task of caving as something that demands the efforts of a community - he is a team-builder.

This of course oversimplifies - but it illustrates that these two leadership styles exist. I think that for most human endeavors, we should prefer the team-building style. Stone, in his more brusque moments, reminds me of nothing so much as a reality-TV montage.

The “I’m not here to make friends!” attitude has become a cliché because it so strongly indicates a belief that others have nothing to offer - or worse, that working with others is a zero-sum game. But it’s not. To the contrary, our friends are our most valuable resource. In business and in other areas of our lives, we flourish in direct proportion to our ability to make friends. This is disguised by the many different needs we have regarding friendship: I don’t need the same types of friends that my brother does, and neither of us needs the same type of friends that our parents do. But we all do need companionship, support, and connections.

In the IT world, I actually see this most clearly in Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs seems to be almost a caricature of the urgency-driven, individualistic personality - and certainly almost all accounts portray him as an extremely demanding person. And yet, Jobs is a team-builder. At both Pixar and Apple, Jobs has assembled a team that reliably produces amazing things. But it should be obvious that Jobs’ individual work is not what created Up or the iPhone. Jobs is not an animator, a programmer, or a hardware tinkerer. Jobs is a visionary - and he has that crucial team-building skill of bringing together groups that can accomplish far more than the sum of individual creators’ efforts. The astonishing accomplishments of Apple and Pixar demonstrate the power that can spring from a team-building style of leadership.

Of course, that’s not a huge revelation - the synergy that comes from working in teams is an advantage about as old as human society. What we must be aware of, complementing our knowledge of that synergy, is of attempts to fake it. The shallow, insincere corporate team-building exercise is another cliché of modern society - and that comes from attempts at control. Complete control is a chimera. It is unattainable, and attempts to attain it will only end in wasted resources and frustration. So take a lesson from the cavers, and build teams that will attain your objectives.