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Introducing the Co-Leadership Canvas

How do you create a conscious partnership with another leader? It helps to start by making explicit why and how you want to work together. The Co-Leadership Canvas helps you do that.

Download it here: Co-leadership canvas – v1.0

This is inspired by the Business Model Canvas, which was created by Alexander Osterwalder to help entrepreneurs rapidly design and test alternative business models. Check out the Wikipedia page here.

From single point of accountability to single point of dependency: the flexibility constraint in leadership

“I have not permitted myself, gentlemen, to conclude that I am the best man in the country; but…it is not best to swap horses when crossing a stream.”

– Abraham Lincoln

One assumption in the standard leadership model is that a leader provides a single point of accountability. In theory, that means there is “one neck to squeeze” if the area is underperforming. This simplifies – seemingly – what senior leaders need to know to diagnose and address problems. First question, who is underperforming? Second question, do they know their job is on the line?*

In practice, we often know too little to deliver, but too much be held accountable. Long before we arrive at what it takes to deliver results in a role, we arrive at what it takes to deliver excuses. Immersed in the day-to-day, we quickly become fluent in the unique challenges of our situation. This local knowledge comes from directing traffic at the intersection of the customers, market, team, process, product, etc. Each of these acts as a filter that makes the situation more and more unique. You may know insurance, but you don’t know claims. You may know claims, but you don’t know flood insurance claims. You may know flood insurance claims, but you don’t know the new system we’re rolling out to address the top challenges with the old one. You may know that system, but you don’t know Glenda, our chief expert, and her vacation calendar. And so forth. Every team is unique, like a snowflake.

We wear local knowledge as plates of armor to protect us in monthly or quarterly performance reviews. That is, most managers know enough to take responsibility for good results, and enough to shift responsibility for bad results on to the perfect storm of headwinds they were up against.* Sometimes the headwinds (e.g. unanticipated moves by consumers or competitors, a lack of cooperation by a key function or external partner, lack of availability of key people, etc.) really are to blame. Sometimes they’re not. Even if we – like Lincoln – have the confidence to allow that we are not the best man for the role, it is best to not swap horses when crossing a stream. The rub is that we are almost always mid-stream. The flexibility constraint consists of the high cost of losing or moving knowledgeable managers mid-stream, whether they are effective or no.

The higher the cost of losing or moving managers, the more they become single points of dependency rather than single points of accountability. One the one hand, this means that most of us can deliver mostly mediocre results most of the time without threat of removal. On the other hand, an exceptional manager who can overcome other challenges becomes “indispensable,” managing what few can, and creating a risk that the performance and health of their team will not outlast their tenure.

The real cost of inflexibility is not the dampening of accountability, but the dampening of the development and redeployment of leadership. The best managers cannot be promoted or moved to other opportunities, because it would be too disruptive for the business. Mediocre managers may not be ready to rise, but we would still be quite costly to replace. So everybody stays put. Which limits their learning, and the learning of everyone similarly staying put in roles below them. Until better outside options come along.

How would you know whether the flexibility constraint is limiting your team or organization?

First, at the team level. Suppose you’ve been in the role a year or more. A year is more than enough time to get the lay of the land, get to know the team, diagnose challenges, design countermeasures and test them in a targeted way.

How easily can you step away for a 2-week vacation? If so, could you get away with checking email every other day? Could you turn off your phone altogether?

Have you already identified and prepared a successor? If you were needed in another part of the organization, or if your family needed you to pull out and make a change, could you go tomorrow? Could you go without impacting the performance and health of the team? If not, why not?

Second, at an organizational level. How do you create opportunities for rising talent? How do you know who is ready to be pulled out without disrupting their team? How often does rising talent leave your organization for outside opportunities?

The ability to create and flexibly redeploy leadership is what allows great organizations to improve existing operations, sustain or adapt those improvements, and grow to serve new markets.  The flexibility constraint – a high cost of moving effective leaders – makes it harder to hold leaders accountable in the short term. But it also makes it harder to create and redeploy leaders in the long term.

More to come.

* Of course, the incentive for performance is rarely all or nothing. Performance is typically tied to pay. Removing a person is often seen as the “last resort.” Regardless, one use of hierarchy is to provide a signal wrapped up in an incentive. The signal is where the problem is happening; the incentive is for the leader(s) in that area to solve it. If they can.

Surfacing defects in leader behavior: the feedback constraint in leadership

How do we surface defects in our behavior as leaders? How do you know whether you’re doing it wrong? Or less provocatively, how do you know whether you’re doing it as well as you could? For most of us, most of the time, the answer is “I don’t know.”

Few leaders bring all of the habits, skills, and knowledge they need to a new role. Even if they were successful in a previous role, the differences in the level, the function, the product, the team, etc. pose new challenges. These can be easy to identify in broad generalities: for example, “I’ve never played the general manager role before,” or “this is my first time leading a product launch,” or “I’m learning how we work at XYZ Corp.” The specific gaps in habits, skills, or knowledge, however, are harder to surface and address. We do not know what we do not know.

Some gaps in knowledge can be closed just by being in the role. For the first few weeks, every conversation surfaces bits of new information that, in retrospect, were unknown unknowns: for example, the who’s who and what’s what surrounding the customers, the team, the process, and so forth. After a few months, managers can flip from knowing less than many team members to knowing more than them, simply by  virtue of how their perch allows them to see the traffic at the intersection of a particular set of priorities, processes, problems, projects, and people. (This makes it increasingly difficult to hold them accountable, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Many gaps in knowledge are hard to surface and address. It is once we think we know what is going on that we can get ourselves into trouble. We arrive at certain assumptions about how our corner of the world works: for example, what’s causing problems in a particular area, how best to spend our time, or what behaviors will be rewarded and recognized. Often times, we arrive at these assumptions on the fly, not through deliberate inquiry or analysis. And most of the time, these assumptions are invisible to ourselves and others. Suppose the team is willing and able to spot the faulty assumption and deliver upward feedback. The first gift is making the assumption explicit. The second gift could be changing our thinking for the better. If they are not, however, then we are largely on our own. And that’s not good.

It is hard to get feedback on our habits and skills as leaders. Habits (e.g., surgeon washing his hands before and after surgery) and skills (e.g., basketball player hitting his free throws) are typically harder to master than to understand. Mastery requires cycles of practice and feedback, refinement and reinforcement. We can make the same pattern of errors day after day without any awareness of that fact. We may spend too little time clarifying purpose and priorities for the team, show too little respect for expertise on the team, spend too much time in our office, spend too little time with individual team members, give too many instructions, ask too few open-ended questions, berate the bearers of bad news, and so forth.

These are not errors that will surface readily in a quarterly review conversation. But they would be immediately apparent to a teacher or coach who was there to see them. Unfortunately, the work of a leader is mostly done unobserved by a teacher or coach, in the form of a capable peer or supervisor. This can starve of us of the feedback we need to get better.

An analogy to surfacing defects at the frontline can be illuminating. What is the risk of doing “quality control” at the end of the line? That an error that begins to be made upstream will not be rapidly surfaced and addressed. That the same error will be made over dozens, hundreds, or thousands of cases before it is first caught. And that tracing it back to its origin will be quite difficult. The notion of building in quality at the source is to surface defects as soon as possible – which means right there and then where the work done – rather than to let them pass through and pile up.*

Most organizations do not build quality leaders at the source in this sense. Most organizations create few opportunities for people to do the work of a leader in front of a teacher.

How often do you practice leadership in front of a teacher? Try this answer on, and see how yours would be different:

“Nominally, about ~20% of my time is spent with supervisors, either my own or more senior leaders. I am in a meeting with my supervisor an hour or two each day. We get half-day visits from more senior leaders every few weeks. About ~65% of my time is spent with team members, and ~10% is spent alone. My team is not aware of what behaviors I am trying to master. Few of my team members are willing and able to deliver upward feedback.

“Only 25% of the time spent with supervisors is spent doing the work of a leader in front of them. In conversations with my supervisor or a more senior leader, they typically set the agenda and do more talking than listening or observing. Moreover, my supervisor rarely observes me interacting with my team.

“Even when they see me doing the work of the leader, it results in constructive feedback or coaching less than 10% of the time. I would guess that less than a third of my supervisors over the years see themselves as teachers or coaches of leadership practices, and, of those, only a third seem to have developed their craft as teachers and coaches. Useful feedback is rarely sought or given.

“So here’s the tally:

20% of time is with supervisor(s) present

x   25% of that is doing the work while observed by supervisor(s)

x   10% of those occasions result in constructive feedback

= 1/200 of each week 

“Overall, I practice leadership in front of a motivated and effective teacher less than 1% of my week.

The feedback constraint keeps leaders from realizing their potential to help others. This makes teams less effective. It takes leaders and their teams alike more time and effort to get the things done, which leads to stress and burn-out. It means that people do not grow and develop over time, which leads to dissatisfaction and attrition. And it means that organizations cannot tap the full capabilities of their people.

Again, this is only one of the challenges that constrains a leader’s effectiveness.

More to come.

*The idea of building quality at the source comes from Toyota. Before Toyota applied this notion to making cars, Sakichi Toyoda applied it to the design of his power loom in 1897:

In power looms, if the weft or the warp thread breaks and the machine is not stopped immediately, faults can occur, such as the warp continuing to be incorporated into the fabric without the weft, or the broken warp thread being left out, leading to the output of damaged fabric. Sakichi Toyoda researched systems to prevent such faults.

This led to the notion of jidoka, or “automation with a human touch.” The more general insight is that work should stop when a problem occurs to identify and address the causes of the problem. More here.


So little time, so much to do: the time constraint in leadership

“There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

– Henry Kissinger

One of the assumptions of the standard leadership model is that a single decision-maker can and will be swift to make decisions. For those who have experienced organizational life, this is not a good assumption to make.

Specifically, many of us have worked on teams with leaders who are so busy or overburdened that they themselves have become a bottleneck. And, in some cases, they become the bottleneck that limits the rate at which the team can deliver the decisions that add up to a service or a product. This doesn’t just happen to us or around us. Many of us know what it’s like to be that leader, that bottleneck. This tends to happen more when we, as leaders, (1) have more work to do and (2) less available time to do it in.

Leaders tend to have more work when:  (a) they oversee more people, projects, products or processes, (b) they are still learning how to lead at a particular level or in a particular role, (c) they have not standardized the work of the team to segment what should be routine from what should require expert judgment or problem-solving, (d) they do not know the skill levels of team members, so more time is need to coach up-front and to review work after the fact, (e) they must attract, select and on-board new team members to backfill for attrition, (f) they are responsible not just for the short-term performance but the long-term health of the team, (g) they need to understand and adapt to rapid changes in the environment external to the team, and (h) they have not prepared successors who are willing and able to take up some of the slack.

All of that determines the hours of work to be done. The available time is the hours of work we have to give.

Available time is limited first and foremost by the hours in the day and the days in the week. Beyond that, leaders tend to have less available time when (a) they have other commitments (e.g. families) outside of work so that nights, weekends and vacations cannot be “repurposed” to do work, (b) there are a larger number of scheduled meetings during the work day, and many of these are beyond their control to change (whether to limit who must attend, to reduce the frequency, to clarify the agenda, or to improve the quality of the conversation), and (c) there is a greater need for travel to and from sites, within or across regions.

IF the hours of work to do in the week are greater than the hours available to do the work, THEN the queue will begin to back up, creating a bottleneck and – eventually – a backlog at the manager’s desk. The greater the backlog, the greater the difference between the time it takes to get a decision, and the time it takes to actually make that decision.

This is the counter-intuitive point. Even if the decision on any particular piece of work only takes seconds to process – after all, we have a single decisive leader at the helm – the time from when a decision was requested and when the decision is actually made, the so-called lead time*, may be days, weeks or months. This is not so swift.

One common response to these bottlenecks is to reduce the amount of work in the queue by shedding the investment in improving the process or building the capabilities of their team. Another common response is to try to pull more available time into the system, by eating into nights, weekends and vacations. Both of these allow short-term delivery at the expense of long-term sustainability, improvement or adaptation.

This leads to stress and burn-out not just on the job, but in family life. It also leads to disengagement and attrition of managers and their team members. And to rigidity and risk for the organization.

And this is only one of the challenges that constrains a leader’s effectiveness.

More to come.

*Lead time is a technical term for the time between the initiation and execution of any request for a service or product. The “lead” in lead time has nothing to do with leadership.

The challenges of flying solo


“Ninety percent of the trouble we have with the chief executive’s job is rooted in our superstition of the one-man chief.”

– Peter Drucker, The Practice of Management (1954)

The conventional wisdom is that a team should have only one manager, and an organization only one leader. This seemingly unassailable truth has been baked into the structure of thousands of organizations and millions of teams around the world.

In theory, this allows us – as managers – to be swift, effective, and accountable in our role. The swiftness is meant to come from giving one person the right to close out any on-going dialogue or deliberation. The effectiveness is meant to come from getting a person with the right skills, habits, and self-awareness in the role. The accountability is meant to come from clarifying whose neck to squeeze if trains run behind schedule, and whose head will roll if trains run off the track entirely.

Any manager can tell you that the theory rarely works out in practice. Managers – at many levels, in many functions, and in many industries – find themselves too backlogged to be swift. Or too fragmented, hurried and unprepared to be effective. Or too deep in the details to be held accountable. Or all of the above.

We are not swift, because we lack the hours in the day or days in the week to catch up with our work, to say nothing of getting ahead. With scheduled commitments from dawn to dusk – punctuated by unscheduled fire drills to keep things lively – we easily become the bottleneck for the team.

We are not effective, because we lack the skills, habits or self-awareness we need, particularly when new to a role. Success in a previous role does not give us the skills or habits we need in the next one. As the saying goes, what got you here won’t get you there. This is exacerbated by a self-awareness gap. That is, we see the errors and biases of others, but not our own.* Rather than having our hard edges sanded down with time, experience, and candid feedback, our authority shields us from the truth. This leads to a great deal of variability and inconsistency in how managers manage, and leaders lead. Not only do different managers often handle similar decisions differently, even the same manager can shift approaches according to time, circumstance and mood. At its best, this capriciousness is the stuff of happy hour roasts and Dilbert cartoons. At its worst, it is the source of chronic stress and frustration in the workplace.

Finally, long before we arrive at what it takes to deliver results in a role, we arrive at what it takes to deliver excuses. Immersed in the day-to-day, we quickly become fluent in the unique challenges of our situation. And then we wear these challenges as plates of armor to protect us in monthly or quarterly performance reviews. We often know too little to deliver, but too much be held accountable.

In the very best case, we acquire the skills, habits and self-awareness we need to be both swift and effective. In which case we become altogether indispensable. When it comes time to move on, we leave behind shoes too big to fill. In this case, the bomb of our failure – to prepare successors – does not go off until we have already left the building. Those left at the scene are tried and found guilty for our crime.

But wait. Let’s not be too quick to judge. It is the theory of the solo leader, the superstition of the one-man chief, that is to blame. It is just compelling and pervasive enough to blind us to the alternatives.

More to come on the specific challenges of flying solo.

What is a “noble” leader?

The word “noble” means knowable or known, from the root gno – meaning, to know – and ibilis – meaning, to be able or capable. It comes from the Roman Republic. It described a particular set of leaders, the nobiles, each of whom had apprenticed over a twenty-year period in a series of military and administrative roles. This series of roles – which became known as the cursus honorum – ascended step by step to the highest levels of Roman leadership. In the third and second centuries BCE, as a result of this system, Rome was able to create thousands upon thousands of leaders of a certain caliber: known leaders. Noble leaders.

But this was not how Rome began.

In the beginning, Rome was a city-state divided against itself. The first 170 years of the Republic saw a clash between patrician and plebeian families, the so-called “Conflict of the Orders.” During that time Rome evolved a kind of divided government, with patricians controlling the two-person consulate (with each consul taking month-long turns presiding over the Senate) and the plebeians controlling the “tribune of the people,” who could exercise a veto on the consuls. During this period, Rome went nowhere. It did not win any lasting dominion. It was a city-state like any other. In fact, it was sacked by the Gauls in 390 BCE.

A new leadership model – specifically, co-leadership – helped to overcome the old divisions and create a new nobility. After the Genucian Law (a.k.a. Lex Genucia) of 342 BCE, Rome switched to requiring one patrician and one plebeian consul. In subsequent years, similar “pairing” of patricians and plebeians was put in place at lower levels of office. The next generation of Roman leaders arrived at mutually agreeable standards, rights and liberties that should apply to all men, regardless of family of origin. Previously, the senate had been the consuls’ hand-picked advisors. Instead, it was made the alumni of the senior leadership offices, a balance of patrician and plebeian leaders who had proven themselves by steadily advancing through a succession of military and administrative leadership roles over a ~20 year period. This was the nobility. Whereas previous empires had been built largely on the back of one great general – e.g. Alexander the Great – the Romans built their dominion man by man. Early historians marveled at the fact that Rome did not rely on the charisma or capabilities of one or two individual leaders. Instead, they relied on a system that created leaders. Leaders with particular experiences, and particular qualities.

The results of this system were astounding. Over the next 250 years, Rome grew by three orders of magnitude, taking over central Italy (a 10x increase in dominion), all of the peninsula (another 10x increase) and all of the known world (another 10x), all while over 400 different individuals took a turn as chief executive of Rome, and then surrendered power peacefully. Thousands more held other senior leadership roles that qualified them for the Senate, but never won election to the consulate. Most of us cannot name one! Which is a feature, not a bug.

So what? What can this teach us about leadership today? We face three challenges that the Romans knew well.

First, leaders have disproportionate impact – for better and for worse – on the well-being of team members within their organizations, as well as on the well-being of customers or other stakeholders beyond.

Second, the quality of leadership often varies tremendously, not only across organizations but within each organization or even within each level of an organization. A good job on an effective team can quickly become a bad job on an ineffective team when a good boss is replaced by a bad boss. Heaven and hell have different leadership. A well-meaning and capable boss may nonetheless act like a bad boss when they are overwhelmed with work. Most employees do not believe their manager has enough time for the people aspects of their job. [1]

Third, leaders rapidly become single points of dependency, rather than single points of accountability. In theory, giving one person authority over the team will make that person accountable for results, and therefore motivate that person to deliver. In practice, most managers quickly become indispensable, simply by directing traffic – day after day – at the unique intersection of a particular team, products, processes, customers, etc. Good managers get locked into roles they can never leave. Bad managers can choose to lock themselves in, blocking advancement for those beneath them. This makes many organizations rigid and stagnant. They are forced to be fluid only when their people leave for outside opportunities. By one estimate, roughly ~40% of employees believe they will need to leave in order to advance. [2]

As the Romans must have known, there is a better way.

In our time, a few great organizations have used paired leadership to create a reservoir of leaders that they can draw upon to adapt and grow. This makes it easier to offer opportunities for their people and to deliver against their strategic objectives. In large part, they do this by weaving leadership development and succession into day-to-day operations. A version of this model is used by organizations known for making and exporting leaders, like the Mayo Clinic, Toyota, McKinsey & Company, and the U.S. military.

Our purpose at Noble Partners is to design and enhance partnerships for leaders, and thereby to improve the quality of decisions, habits, and skills available to them and their teams, while reducing unnecessary inflexibility, stress, stagnation, and turn-over.

[Updated February 2017]


Both estimates are from Towers Watson’s 2012 Global Workforce Study, “Engagement at Risk: Driving Strong Performance in a Volatile Global Environment.” It was based on a survey of 32,000 full time employees around the globe, roughly half of which are in some sort of supervisory role. More here.

[1] Estimate of supervisors with time for “people aspects” of job on page 14.

[2] Estimate of employees who will need to leave to advance on page 19.