Monday, April 26, 2010

Lead like a statistician - without the math

If you are a fan and student of analytics and infographics, I hope you visit, subscribe and follow the work and discovereris of Nathan Yau and his Flowing Data blog. (Blog, Twitter) I am a data geek in my day job and appreciate the growing use of analytics and infographics as a means of communicating and making sense of data.

My interest in infographics brought me to the Flowing Data site and Nathan's collection of unique and informative visualizations. I'll share a couple of favorites before I get to the leadership message of this post.

A favorite blogosphere chuckle came with the post Data Underload #6 - Bed Head. Here is a snippet, check the post for the entire visualization.

In another clever application of infographics, Nathan represents familiar movie quotations in Data Underload #12 - Famous Movie Quotes. Visit the post to see the entire collection.

What about Leadership?

Nathan wrote a post on his Flowing Data blog entitled Think like a Statistician - without the math. In the post, Nathan describes informal and practical insights that he has learned about working and playing with data. He suggests that " the most important things I've learned are less formal."

The parallels to leadership struck me almost immediately. The Lead Quietly blog focuses on the informal, practical and "quiet" principles of leadership, collaboration, community, balance, and vision. One of my missions is to share the informal insights that I have discovered and validate those insights through links to other work in the leadership space.

Statistics and leadership both call for principled action and I found the overlap surprising. Let's review Nathan's five "statistical" principles with a leadership twist:

Attention to Detail
In data work, Nathan suggests that, "it's the little things that end up being the most important." You should be looking for outliers, missing data points, and inconsistencies.
In my view, the parallel leadership attribute is vision, the ability to sense and observe what is going on around you within your teams. I believe that as a leader you know the little details about the people around you. If you know about your colleagues children and spouses, this attention to detail will serve you well in building trust and community.

See the Big Picture
While attention to detail is important, statically speaking, Nathan encourages us to not get get "too caught up with individual data points or a tiny section in a really big dataset."

In leadership you also need vision to see the big picture. Leaders need big-picture vision to have an awareness of the of the people, skills, processes, and opportunities around you. I previously wrote about vision in Act with vision - the Vision of Quiet Leadership. See the Big Picture, it's a practical piece of advice for leaders and statisticians.

No Agendas
In statistics, Nathan describes the dangers of letting preconceived ideas influence the results of a study or experiment.
Leadership requires the same type of objectivity. There is a certain maturity required of good leaders that allows them to work without personal agenda. As I cited before in The Maturity and Balance of Quiet Leadership, maturity may be the basis for objectivity, patience, and humility exhibited by great leaders.

Look Outside the Data
To think like a statistician, Nathan proposes that the:
more you know about how the data was collected, where it came from, when it happened, and what was going on at the time, the more informative your results and the more confident you can be about your findings.
Whereas, he proposes context, context, context for better understanding of data, I couldn't help but think of mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness for a parallel concept in leadership. A quote from George Ambler from The Practice of Mindfulness on the Practice of Leadership blog proposes this context awareness:
When navigating through uncertainty, especially during times to rapid change, crisis or when facing novel situations the ability to be fully present is critical. This is because in these types of situations, “When faced with this kind of turbulence, mindfulness becomes even more important. You need more, rather than less, information, and it is generally more difficult to get. You need to leverage your strengths and find those people who are succeeding despite the disruptions. You need to stay calm.
Mindfulness allows you to establish awareness of your surroundings and understand the context, context, context of your situation.

Ask Why

Nathan states, " this is the most important thing I've learned, always ask why." For a blip in a graph, you should wonder why it is there.

I equate "asking why" to curiosity. Curiosity links directly to learning and passion.

Curiosity is a measure of your passion. In Curiosity as a measure of passion, I quoted Steve Roesler of the All Things Workplace blog who stated,
successful employees of every ilk display a never-ending curiosity that emerges as "passion" in a meeting room filled with people.
Effective leaders recognize the value of curiosity. They are driven to ask why?
The important thing is not to stop questioning; never lose a holy curiosity.
- Albert Einstein

Principles as a Compass
Principles guide action and clearly statistics and leadership are principled genres. As Stephen Covey writes in Principle Centered Leadership,
Correct principles are like compasses: they are always pointing the way. And if we know how to read them, we won't get lost, confused, or fooled by conflicting voices and values.

Thanks for reading. Mesh. Lead quietly and like a statistician.

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