in Economics

Leadership and Collective Action Problems, or Goofy Games with Surprising Implications

I’m not generally all that big on “leadership training.” Back in early 2007, I spent a lot of time prowling around through the business section of the local Barnes & Noble, doing some research for a potential gig ghostwriting a book on leadership.

The project never really came together (thank you, But the experience did teach me one lesson. A whole lot books on leadership suck. More to the point, they mostly boil down to Leadership By Acronym (or LBA™). Want to improve as a leader? Just master my 14 simple acronyms and watch your revenue/teamwork/productivity/general awesomeness soar!

My subsequent experiences attending various leadership programs have pretty much confirmed my belief that this stuff is mostly bunk. Or, rather, that it’s mostly an exercise in spinning 80,000 words of some goofy metaphor, most of which just boil down to, “Don’t Be a Dick!

But that’s before I spent last week at the Center for Creative Leadership.

Now don’t get me wrong: there was still plenty of touchy-feely crap. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the parts that involved acronyms were the touchy-feely-est of all.

And yet, despite those occasional lapses into If Aristotle Ran General Motors land, I left the course with some real insights about myself and how my personality traits impact my work.

One that particularly stuck with me—and yes, now we finally come to the subject of the post—came to me in one of those well, duh moments. It started inauspiciously enough. The class all went outside to do one of those goofy teamwork games (I think they called it “hover stick.” Don’t be fooled. The name was the dumbest thing about it.)

The object of “hover stick” is for a group of 12 people to lower a long piece of PVC pipe to the ground. The catch? The pipe has to rest on top of everyone’s index fingers, and the group has to lower it to the ground without anyone’s finger losing contact with the pipe.

Those of you with even the most basic understanding of collective action problems will see the issue immediately.

I don’t want to be the one whose fingers come off the pipe. So I’ll keep exerting just a tiny bit of pressure to make sure I don’t disengage. But everyone else will do exactly the same thing. So the pipe keeps going up rather than coming back down.

Now CCL wanted us to take some lesson about communication styles from this. (I could tell you exactly the point, but that’d require getting out my notes, and that seems like a lot of work. So.)

The lesson I took was a bit different. See, the real problem is that individual incentives run in one direction, while the team goal runs in the opposite direction.

Work is often like that, too. The team benefits from producing the best possible product (or the biggest profit margin, or the largest set of sales, or what have you.) But the individual benefits from standing out in some way, from being the person who owned the product or who had the highest individual sales. But these incentives can easily lead your star performer to cut out other collaborators who might make the product better even while they dilute “ownership” or to poach sales from someone else in the office rather than create new clients.

And that’s where a real leader has to step in. A good manager has to try to align individual goals with the needs of the organization. A leader has to act as a hand on top of the PVC pipe, pushing down so that everyone else’s slight up still goes in the right direction.

Of course, that’s really easy to say. In practice, it takes a lot of hard work, a bit of insight, and probably a touch of luck. Which is to say that leading takes a lot more than an acronym. But don’t tell anyone. I just need to write another 79,322 words to finish up Leadership By Acronyms: Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Leadership I Learned from Reading a Directory of Government Agencies.

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