Ammar Mian

Leadership Is Indistinguishable from Magic

Magic in an Uncertain World

Futurist Arthur Clarke once claimed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The same goes with leadership: you’re not quite sure how the hell they did what they just did, only that everything makes more sense all of a sudden.

Magic is the name we give to mastery over the complex and unknown. When I first saw the Sistine Chapel in person, I could not believe it was a human creation. I still feel the same way when I watch old interviews of Steve Jobs or when I read the works of Sufi mystics.

Those who “wield the magic” are magicians, tamers of the unknown, gods from a supreme realm. They seem to know something vital -- a skill, capability, or lens on the world that gives them superpowers.

Not all magicians appear the same way. The curators see what others cannot, and so we admire the Elon Musks and the Albert Einsteins for revealing the impossible as possible. The inventors hack what others cannot, and so we admire the Nikola Teslas, Alan Turings, and Michelangelos for building the impossible. The allocators organize what others cannot, and so we admire the Henry Fords, Jeff Bezoses, and Sun Tzus for coordinating the impossible.

Authority by Magicians

Reverence for magic and magicians goes back to the very first tools we ever invented. The mastery of fire and the transformation of stone into a weapon catapulted us from a world of foraging to a world of hunting, thus ensuring the survival and development of our species.

By expanding our access to shelter and food, these tools tamed our environment considerably. Those who knew how to build and use daggers became sources of authority, as they wielded the power of control. They became the magicians, those who had access to technology that was indistinguishable from magic.

We revere magicians because they help us find what we crave most in the world - control over complexity. As recent research into the possible roots of mental illness has shown, we begin to shut down when there are too many unknown variables in our immediate environment. That which soothes us from these unknowns supersedes almost every other need.

Dominance and Submission

The danger (and the beauty) of such reverence is how quickly we cede authority to those we revere.

In an uncertain world, individuals who believe they do not possess vital survival information seek it out from those willing to offer relief from this uncertainty. Such a pursuit is a subtle submission: “I am not capable of doing this myself.” To submit knowingly to authority is the ultimate act of humility, and to knowingly accept authority is the ultimate act of responsibility.

The dominance-submission relation that authority creates gives one the power to destroy the other, to exercise unimaginable cruelty. History bears testimony to a long line of those who grew drunk by such power, chasing permanent dominance.

Leadership is the constant refusal to become inebriated by one’s own magic. A humble leader is all too aware of his capacity for cruelty. He remembers he has ascended to such a position to guide the submitter to ultimately discover his own magic. Authority is necessarily a temporary engagement; otherwise, it is ineffective “leadering,” regardless of intent.

A Typology of Leaders

Because the world is not uniformly uncertain, leadership is context-dependent; all uncertainty is not uncertain in the same way. This is why most best-selling management books are false, painting leadership with broad strokes, ignoring contextual variation. We see this all the time in the business and sports worlds, where highly successful coaches and executives from one domain fall flat on their face in another domain.

If leadership is context-dependent, then it means that certain types of magic thrive in certain types of environments:

Peacetime/wartime leadership succeeds in an environment with long periods of calm but a constant threat known to attack unexpectedly. The Iroquois tribes of centuries ago (and arguably Israel today) operated under this model. During times of peace, magical leaders tended to the spiritual well-being of their people; during war, these leaders were replaced by those most cunning and most brutal.

Teacher/mentor leadership succeeds where there’s high cohesiveness but also high bimodality of skill required to achieve a shared goal. This is the chessmaster model, in which young prodigies sharpen their mental axes by learning from those who are at the technical and mental apex of the game.

Authoritarian leadership is worth mentioning because it seems to work in resource-constrained, non-volatile environments (like Saudi Arabia). But these environments are quite rare, and harsh top-down leadership becomes quite fragile to systemic change.

Servant leadership, meanwhile, thrives where uncertainty is high but the group has a high degree of alignment to a shared mission or set of goals. Former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink would call this “extreme ownership,” in which leaders deflect all praise and absorb all blame in the service of protecting their team. Survival and alignment are supreme.

Shepherd leadership succeeds at the frontier with highly-skilled actors who need resources and autonomy to find magic in the uncertainty. In the early days of the Internet, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) gave grants to ambitious young technologists to tinker at the frontier with minimal supervision. ARPA grants played an indirect hand in the founding of Pixar, Adobe, Silicon Graphics, not to mention countless other technologies we take for granted today.

Successful leaders are those who possess the magic (curative, inventive, or allocative) required of the context, coupled with the desire to hold authority only until those that submit to him no longer need him. The technical mentor provides access to skill, until the student surpasses the master. The servant leader does all the schlep work so his team can focus on making him (and his schlep work) obsolete. The shepherd lightly guides the herd until they learn to guide themselves.

Magic, Courage, and Fractal Leadership

We are all leaders. The world is more complex and uncertain than ever (though when is it never not more complex than it was before?). Navigating it and surviving it requires that all of us groom ourselves to discover our magic and that of the people around us. The thinkers, inventors, and networkers of tomorrow will replace the Pointy-Haired Bosses of today, and in the process tame or further entangle complexity in interesting and unpredictable ways.

November 2017