Lead with merit and be rewarded with success

Michael Lopp on the concept of merit badges for leaders.

Girl Scout Sash with Badges," by Steve Snodgrass on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license

Attend Cultivate, September 28 to 29 in New York, NY. Cultivate is our conference looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

At our Cultivate conference in July, Michael Lopp had a fantastic session on “Leadership: By the Numbers,” which was a bit like leadership fundamentals that you may have forgotten or never knew. However, he also had a few slides in his presentation that were meant to be a brief tangent from his primary talk, but they grabbed my attention immediately. Lopp always has fantastic stories and pearls of wisdom from the hard-won experiences in his career like “Busy is a bug, not a feature.” But before he launched into his “Vegetable Talk” on how being a good manager is really basic—like vegetables—he explored the idea of having merit badges for leaders.

As Lopp said, when something wonderful or terrible happens to you as a leader, it’s a fantastic opportunity to stop and understand the lesson you just learned. His list of merit badges cut to the quick:

  • Influence without management authority
  • Delegate something you care about
  • Hire a human
  • Fire a human
  • Put a human on a performance plan
  • Successfully deliver horrifically bad news
  • Successfully receive horrifically bad news
  • Lay someone off
  • Be deposed
  • Ship a thing
  • Ask for help from an enemy
  • Promote someone
  • Sit there calmly when a human loses their mind
  • Lead leaders
  • Fail spectacularly

Merit badges make me think of the green Girl Scout sash. The physical emblem of your acumen in a specific skill is there to prove your individual abilities (Fire badge? Check!)—but they also indicate what those abilities are to the entire troop (Laurel is in charge of building the fire for morning tea). Your abilities as an individual contribute to the well-being, capabilities, and success of the entire team, so perhaps we should call them “ability badges” instead of merit badges. As a good leader, you should recognize the experience before you have it (or while its happening, especially as you are failing spectacularly), but then what makes it an obvious “ability badge” in your career is to stop and think about what happened. This is real life, kids, so there isn’t a Scout Leader hovering nearby to add a physical badge to your sash. However, you’ll have an inflection point that you can refer to in the future, and, more importantly, share with other people. And these abilities are transferrable, too—your leadership skills don’t stop when you close the office door.

I’d like to briefly mention my other favorite part of Lopp’s talk—a mantra that I find is important to recite and live every day—“Be unfailingly kind.” So, you’re likely thinking: What does all of this have to do with the ideas, initiatives, and content that O’Reilly is traditionally associated with? Well, the “new enterprise” has to be data-driven, agile, focused on design, but also put humans first by balancing team culture, customer promise, and business expectations.

We’ll be thinking hard about the topics of leadership, team skills, and personal communication skills, as well as what the new enterprise actually looks like when humans are put first. Not just any humans, but your humans: customers, coworkers, and those who depend on you because you’ve earned your ability badge to be a leader. I hope you can join me at the next installation of Cultivate in New York City this fall. We’ll be focusing on the data-driven aspects of leadership, because command and control just doesn’t work in the new enterprise.

Cropped photo: “Girl Scout Sash with Badges,” by Steve Snodgrass on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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