I learned a lot about what makes for a good leader at a recent large inline skating event. I had volunteered to lead one of the skating events for the Big Apple Roll, which entailed getting 75 skaters safely through 20 miles of NYC streets. A seasoned skate leader planned the route for me and offered me pointers along the way, but keeping everything together rested primarily on my ability to delegate smaller tasks to others – it’s clear that this skill is necessarily in any leader.
To explain why, let’s start with a different kind of skating group – one with just a handful of similarly skilled skaters. In this case, everyone can simply follow the guy in front. This “leader” doesn’t need to do much more than follow the route and turn around on occasion to make sure everyone is still there. In essence, that’s not much leading; each person is fine with just following the “leader” (I should note that this leader still has the important task of selecting a safe route and pace). Now contrast this to a much larger group with skaters of varying skills; things are different. The leader has to make sure that skaters know where to turn and keep them on route. This becomes difficult as the group of skaters will inevitably become spread out among several blocks (many more when there’s 75 skaters). The leader must also make sure skaters remain courteous to pedestrians and cars. At this point it’s clear that more than one person is needed to coordinate this sort of effort. It’s here that a leader’s purpose becomes obvious; for his task is coordinating the coordinators – delegation.
The coordinators would each have a set of smaller, manageable tasks. In the case of this skating event, they had to stay in the front with the leader (me) and be ready to mark any turns when I requested them to do so, and stay there until the last skater passed by (which was another coordinator assigned to sweep). These team members also had to keep skaters from taking over the entire road or crosswalks. So a crucial part of the leader’s job is to select coordinators capable of handling the subtasks (and of course knowing what subtasks are required). I had to pick a team of volunteers that I could trust to do the job, without the need to watch over them. In the end, the responsibility rests on the leader. If any single member of his team fails to deliver, it’s still the leader’s fault for not selecting someone capable enough.
The skate event I lead was a successful one and everyone thanked me for it afterwards. Still, the thanks should go to the whole group of volunteers. They were capable, responsible, and enthusiastic in helping out me and the rest of the skating community.
There were two lessons learned on leading: First, that a leader serves to coordinate others when a task is too big to handle alone. And second, that those selected by the leader are picked for specific abilities and should work to live up to those expectations. Although I learned these lessons through involvement in the inline skating community, it’s clear that they apply everywhere, from political offices to workplaces.
Special thanks to Leo for planning the route, sweeping, and giving me guidance throughout this skating event. Also thanks to the skate volunteers that helped out on this event! Lastly, thanks to everyone else on this skating event for supporting the adventure!
In an earlier post, I discussed how there appeared to be a tradeoff between social skills and other abilities, and how this was a consequence of people having different kinds of minds, as Temple Grandin described in her TED talk. Temple also discusses how people differ in the internal mechanism by which they process and understand the world. For her own self, she described how she thought in pictures and how that gave her the ability run like virtual simulation models in her head. While these were some pretty extraordinary capabilities, she experienced tradeoffs – for example, she was terrible at algebra, a more abstract discipline.
At the same time, we see that some people think more verbally (in fact, there was strong myth that language was essential for complex thought – the myth led to prejudice of deaf people). These people are probably very good at expressing themselves and communicating in general. They may very well be the more social (and perhaps less geeky) type.
Coming back to thinking in ways beyond language: consider non-human animals. They most certainly don’t think in words, but they have their own extraordinary capabilities. Temple Grandin gives an example of the dog sniffing the fire hydrant – he knows who was there, when, and what to make of that information. Or consider a cheetah running across the plains at 60mph, amazingly avoiding rocks and controlling movement masterfully.
For many years, I’ve deeply thought about the way my own mind processes the world. I know for sure that I don’t quite think in words. It’s as if my mind interprets things in some higher-level manner and puts together a model like a puzzle. While this means I have a really powerful and deep way to understand things, I’m left with great difficulty to explain what’s on my mind. I can’t easily put the model or thoughts into words.
This thinking style – modeling – might give clues to a connection with cheetah example. Friends know me as being outrageous when it comes to physical activity. [I don’t mean to gloat but] I’m considered an incredible inline skater and fantastic martial artist. Fellow skaters and and martial artists are impressed with the technical sophistication behind my activity. They say that I make it look so simple and easy, though they understand the sheer complexity behind my abilities. This is very much the same skillfulness of a non-human animals’ physical prowess. Interestingly enough, when I’m learning a new martial arts technique or sequence, I need to build a mental model before trying it out. If I don’t have this opportunity (it does take a bit more time), I fail terribly at executing the move. However, if I can put it together in my head, it comes out beautifully.
Is my style of processing the world, seemingly by feel, its own category; something more kinesthetic? Or is it just another manner of visual thinking as Temple Grandin discusses? I’m inclined to think it’s more a form of the latter since visual thinking also entails motion. Either way, I know what my advantage is so I leverage that to learn better. I avoid getting frustrated in the beginning because I understand the need to get a model down.
This virtual modeling thinking works beyond physical activity. It is in a way an engineering mind because it allows one to build something mentally before building it for real. This could account for my infatuation of creating things, between computer programs to theories of human behavior. As great as this is, it does come with tradeoffs, often involving communication or social skills. It’s important to understand that no mind can have it all. Acknowledge the weaknesses and manage them. More on that in a future post.
There’s still so much to ponder regarding the mechanisms by which our minds work. Still, it seems things are becoming clearer and are mapping onto the real world. The unique abilities of different minds are a strong asset when working together.
So perhaps you’re giving some sort of presentation. People are watching you. And all you can think about is how you’re doing and what these people think. And of course, how you can avoid messing up. But it happens, inevitably. Then you get more nervous. And then you make even more mistakes.
It’s all about brain resources – something always in limited supply. Toss in the gas-guzzling behemoth of managing social interaction, and you’ve got very little left to work with. So if your focus is on what others are thinking, then you’re sabotaging yourself. You’re throwing away important brain cycles to monitor social information when you really need to put everything into the task at hand.
An interesting reversed condition also occurs – where social processing is sacrificed for something more taxing, like intense spacial processing. This is something I experience regularly when inline skating at a decent speed, and I’ve heard many cyclists express experiencing the same phenomenon. Essentially, we fail to recognize people we know when moving fast. It isn’t so much the moving fast part that does it. It’s more that we’re trying to process every potential obstacle to avoid disaster. So we see people as objects. Moving objects with trajectories that we must calculate to proceed safely. At that level, recognizing objects as friends is not worth the brain resources.
So the next time you’re feeling nervous under the sight of others, put that thought away (I know, easier said than done) and just focus solely on what you’re doing. And if that friend on wheels whizzes by without saying hi, don’t be offended because his brain is just automatically preoccupied with cruising safely. Keep in mind that our brains and minds are very sophisticated technologies that do have limits. Understanding those limits will let us best use your heads.
Doing physical activity can be immensely more enjoyable in the company of others. We humans are social creatures and are built to respond strongly to social influence. Why not use it to our benefit? A recent NYT article discussed how many people have leveraged this fact so strongly that the prime motivating factor is the social event, and that the exercise itself is a secondary benefit. Hey, it works! And as I’ve stated before, it makes exercise seem less like a chore and more like a fun activity. You’ll certainly train better and be more committed, not to mention have others call you out on when you’re not.
There’s plenty of ways to go about this. Going to the gym with friends or significant others works well. Being part of a team sport is another. Or how about joining a grouped activity, like running, cycling, or inline skating (pictured above and among my favorites)? Martial arts is an exceptional one. Students push each other and help keep their energy up even as the training gets tougher.
There’s plenty of other activities. What’s your favorite and what tips do you have to get involved in social physical activity?