A Leader Reads

Join me as I focus a leadership lens on fantasy books and series. Current Series: The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson)

Interlude V

An Unexpected Hiatus

  Habits are an interesting thing. Part of the overall success of ingraining habits is (almost wholly) dependent on discipline. In the routine, it's (somewhat) easy to maintain those habits. Like this one for the #100Days, I would essentially just block off an hour of time each night and get to writing. Sometimes it took 15 minutes, other times it seemed to drag on. Either way, the writing happened. Interestingly, there were no instances of "writer's block". There were definitely nights when I struggled supremely, but nothing where I was completely unable to write anything at all. Granted, this blog is focused on analysis of other people's writing and it's applicability and lessons to the leadership arena. I don't have a set of characters I'm dragging through knotholes to develop and flesh out.

  Once I passed the #100Days point, I thought to release some of the pressure of writing daily with a shift to Mon-Fri. Part of it was indeed to free up some time on the weekends, but another was to see how well the habit truly stuck. Interestingly, the habit stuck a bit more than I thought it would. For me, usually if I give myself an inch, I'll take a mile. But the Mon-Fri routine worked. Until other life "stuff" happened. Vacation followed nearly immediately by travel for work derailed the system entirely. And that's fine. It was a much needed break from a lot of projects. Now we'll work on deliberately reintroducing the important things. And the Dark One take the rest.

The Shadow Rising - Chapter 10 [#128]

The Stone Stands

    Once more, the Stone of Tear is attacked.  This time, Trollocs, Myrddraal and Darkfriends sent by one of the Forsaken invade the Stone, searching for Rand, Perrin and Mat.  For the Tairen Defenders, the stories, it seems, have come to life - a nightmare of desperate battle.  A central theme to this chapter is action.  To build the Tairen Defenders' backbone, Rand leaps into the fray.  His action proves that the nightmares can be fought and, more importantly, that they can be defeated.  Rand builds a small attack cohort that he then leads throughout the Stone, searching for more Shadowspawn.  Yet, for all his recognition of the necessity of action in physical battle, Rand fails to act quick enough in his battle against Lanfear with the Power.  Rand manages to pin her against a wall, after she relinquishes shielding him from the Power.  As she hangs in the air, quietly assessing his next move, Rand attempts to figure the path ahead.

    Once more Lanfear took the decision from him.  The impact of severed flows jolted him, and she dropped lightly to the floor.  He stared as she stepped away from the wall, calmly brushing her skirts.  "You can't do that," he gasped foolishly, and she smiled.

Rand and Lanfear, The Shadow Rising, p. 136

    Clearly, Rand never really had any advantage against her.  He did recognize that she was trying to lull him into a trap, but beyond that, his inexperience proved the greater hindrance leading to his inaction.  Against the Shadowspawn, it's clear: kill or be killed.  Against Lanfear, he tries to think strategically and see multiple steps downstream.  His daily practice with the sword gives him the confidence to make the quick tactical decisions in battle.  In the strategic arena, he has no such daily practice.  And he falters because of it.

The Shadow Rising - Chapter 9 [#127]


    Egwene, along with Nynaeve and Elayne, try to unravel the trail the captured Black Ajah sisters offer up.  Mat keeps finding reasons not to leave while Perrin tries to find a way to get Faile to safety.  Rand works to develop his plan, while simultaneously trying to impose his will on the wayward High Lords.

    And Rand?  He met with High Lords in his chambers and issued orders.  He startled them by appearing at secret gatherings of three or four that Thom had ferreted out, just to reiterate some point from his last commands.  They smiled and bowed and sweated and wondered how much he knew.  A use had to be found for their energy before one of them decided that if Rand could not be manipulated, he must be killed. 

The Shadow Rising, p. 124 - 125

    Walking around and talking to people is an excellent way to get the latest "intel from the trenches."  Hopefully, your organization isn't as toxic as the High Lords of Tear, but Rand's intrusions are a tried and true way to understand the complexities of the issues at hand.  The folks that work for us have to live with all the decisions, policies, changes, etc that we implement.  Getting their perspective is critical - often there are complaints about "a great idea but poorly executed."  Walking around, talking to people, listening to them is really the only way to get that information.  Surveys and questionnaires are great, but somewhat negatively biased from the outset; that is, most people that respond are at the polar extremes.  That's good information to have; but the real working ground is that mid-section of the bell curve.  Getting the thoughts and issues from the bulk of the workforce that is quietly doing the business.  Somewhat paradoxically, walking around to go see the teams in action and see their challenges first hand becomes increasingly more difficult to do the further you get from the ground floor.  That's when it's most important to carve out the time in the calendar to go see what you are having the teams do.  There are plenty of problems that from their view are insurmountable, but from the leader's perspective just require a little tweak to a process already in place.  It's time well spent.

*MBWA: n. Management By Walking Around; predates the internet, email and other instantaneous communications channels and requires effort (and sometimes humility when the leader's great idea failed in execution).

The Shadow Rising - Chapter 8 [#126]


    Rand continues his infuriating dealings with the High Lords; working to impose his rule as the Dragon Reborn.  In the tumultuous time, he faces a common enemy: the "we've always done it this way" mentality.

    Always - for the twenty years since the Aiel War.  They were so bound up in what they had always done that they could not see what was so simple. Or would no see it.  When the cabbages sprouted like weeds around Emond's Field, it was a near certainty that bad rain or whiteworm had struck Deven Ride or Watch Hill.  When Watch Hill had too many turnips, Emond's Field would have a shortage, or Deven Ride.

Rand, The Shadow Rising, p. 117

    The "always" mentality is formidable.  It has taken years to settle in.  It's comfortable in its known quantity.  It's established.  It is the definition of inertia.  And it takes a tremendous amount of effort to move.  One of the guys I work with said it's like pushing a giant boulder - it's stuck fast, but the second you feel it move, you shove with everything you've got to gain an inch in the positive direction.  In many ways, that's spot on; sometimes it does take brute force ("we will do this, because I say so").  But you can also move the boulder without directly confronting it, clearing around the side in the grass, removing smaller, only tangentially associated obstacles.  Remove enough, and the boulder will take off on its own.  Either way takes hard work and a concerted effort.  Much of what comprised that boulder likely started off as small problems.  Small solutions may be the answer - it's easier to measure success and impact, and smaller adjustments are easier to digest than wholesale sweeping changes.  But surrendering to "always" is not the choice for success.

The Shadow Rising - Chapter 7 [#125]

Throwing A Fit

    Rand continues his efforts at attempting to lead the High Lords of Tear.  They feign respect for the Lord Dragon, but try to plot their way out of Rand's demands.

    "They may be troubling him.  He is in a foul mood this morning."  Gaul grinned, just a quick flash of white teeth, in understanding of a temper when wounded.  "He has chased off a group of these High Lords already, and threw one of them out himself.  What was his name?"

    "Torean," another, even taller man replied.  He had an arrow nocked, the short, curved bow held almost casually.  His gray eyes rested on the two women for an instand, then went back to searching among the anteroom's columns.

    "Torean," Gaul agreed.  "I thought he would slide as far as those pretty carvings..." He pointed a spear to the ring of stiff-standing Defenders. "...but he came short by three paces.  I lost a good Tairen hanging, all hawks in gold thread to Mangin."

Gaul, The Shadow Rising, p. 101

    I'm sure many of us have been there: wishing to literally throw people out of our offices.  Barring that, just unleashing in full anger, would offer some catharsis.  But the long term damage is immense and lasting.  Because the leader shows that it's acceptable to fly by the seat of their emotions, any and all emotional outbursts become acceptable to the rest of the workforce.  Beyond the immediate workforce it impacts customers and stakeholders.  Once news of the emotional instability of the leader reaches outside the organization, it will slowly get cut off; which will, of course, increase the emotional outbursts.  It's a downward spiral.  But some days, it would be awfully nice to pitch someone headlong out of the office.

The Shadow Rising - Chapter 6 [#124]

Lead, Follow, Or Get Out Of The Way

    "War will come whether Rand begins it or not," [Elayne] said reluctantly.  Egwene stepped back a pace, staring at her in disbelief no sharper than that on Nynaeve's face; the incredulity faded from both women as she continued.  "The Forsaken will not stand idly and wait.  Sammael cannot be the only one to have seized a nation's reins, just the lone one we know.  They will come after Rand eventually, in their own persons perhaps, but certainly with whatever armies they command.  And the nations that are free of the Forsaken?  How many will cry glory to the Dragon banner and follow him to Tarmon Gai'don, and how many will convince themselves the fall of the Stone is a lie and Rand only another false Dragon who must be put down, a false Dragon perhaps strong enough to threaten them if they do not move against him first?  One way or another, war will come."  She cut off sharply.  There was more to it, but she could not, would not tell them that part.

    Moiraine was not so reticent.  "Very good," she said, nodding, "yet incomplete."  The look she gave Elayne said she knew Elayne had left out what she had on purpose.  Hands folded calmly at her waist, she addressed Nynaeve and Egwene.  "Nothing makes this war better, or cleaner.  Except that it will cement the Tairens to him, and the Illianers will end up following him just as the Tairens do now.  How could they not, once the Dragon banner flies over Illian?  Just the news of his victory might decide the wars in Tarabon and Arad Doman in his favor; there are wars ended for you."

    "In one stroke he will make himself so strong in terms of men and swords that only a coalition of every remaining nation from here to the Blight can defeat him, and with the same blow he shows the Forsaken that he is not a plump partridge on a limb for the netting.  That will make them wary, and buy him time to learn to use his strength.  He must move first, be the hammer, not the nail."

Elayne and Moiraine, The Shadow Rising, p. 92 - 93

    Often, I have mentioned action giving a greater advantage than inaction.  Moiraine and Elayne point out the possible end states for both.  Although, a bit polarized, perhaps out of bias, there is a distinct advantage to Rand taking the initiative.  Inaction, on the other hand, invites all Rand's enemies to take larger actions against him.  Embedded in this choice is the requirement to also choose an option that isn't appealing; but are necessary to succeed and survive.  As I've stated before, taking an action forces reactions from everyone else.  It removes their choices and their control of the situation.  For Moiraine and Elayne, this is all very academic - textbook leadership from those who have had the benefit of growing up around rulers.  Rand, on the other hand, prefers to take actions that are unpredictable to friend and foe alike.  No doubt the Forsaken expect Rand to try and rally armies to him, so they place themselves in position to best counter him and that particular threat.  Rand's penchant for unpredictability brings it's own flavor of initiative - on a much smaller scale.  He's still very much focused on the tactical picture - that's where he's been living.  All his battles with the Dark One so far have been personal in nature.  There have been armies engaged, but on the outskirts.  Rand has not actually had to lead an army into battle; he has minimal appreciation and experience for the larger, strategic picture.  While he recognizes that he is the Dragon Reborn, it's not quite sunk in that he is the Dragon Reborn.

The Shadow Rising - Chapter 5 [#123]

Stubborn Stupid

    Egwene, Nynaeve and Elayne continue to masquerade as full Aes Sedai; interrogating the two captured Black Ajah Sisters.  Moiraine seems to have delegated this task to the three women, for purposes she keeps to herself.  Despite the importance of their task - drawing forth intelligence to piece together the Black Ajah's plan - Egwene and Nynaeve still continue their squabble.

    Elayne usually smoothed things over when it came to this, as it did more often than it should.  By the time Egwene thought of smoothing matters herself, she had almost always dug in her heels and flared back, and trying to be soothing then would only be backing down.  That was how Nynaeve would see it, she was sure.  She could not remember Nynaeve ever making any move to back down, so why should she?  This time Elayne was not there; Moiraine had summoned the Daughter-Heir with a word and a gesture to follow the Maiden who had come for the Aes Sedai.  Without her, the tension stretched, each of the Accepted waiting for the other to blink first.  Aviendha barely breathed; she kept herself strictly out of their confrontations.  No doubt she considered it simple wisdom to stand clear.

Egwene, The Shadow Rising, p. 83

    This little spat is still going strong.  Egwene blames Nynaeve for her response, to justify her own similar response.  The two are falling victim to the idea that backing down means giving up completely.  Not at all the case; Egwene could back down from the current position to maneuver around to a more suitable one and re-engage.  Since each is holding so tightly to their current position, they are left open to other arguments from other angles. 

    Or, simpler still, Egwene just needs to put her hat in her hands (so to speak) and make the offer to come to an agreement.  It's much harder - admitting wrongdoing, asking for help - all seem to imply a position of weakness.  Not at all true.  Most people, once asked, will spend a great deal of effort in teaching whatever skill is needed.  This happened to me in my shipyard days.  Part of my job was to qualify in a particular position; it wasn't an overly challenging qualification, it was simply uninteresting to me.  And I had had some less than positive interactions with the lead qualifier.   So I procrastinated.  Until I was left with mere weeks to complete it.  I went to the lead qualifier and simply asked for his help.  To my utter surprise, he bent over backwards to help; starting that very minute.  I had let something fester that I had no need to; simply out of my own stubbornness.  As it turns out, he became one of my biggest advocates in obtaining that qualification - so I really was my own worst enemy.  All I had to do was just ask.

The Shadow Rising - Chapter 4 [#122]

Character Development: Thom

    Following the episode with the killer cards, Mat seeks out Thom to discuss plans for leaving.  Their discussion reveals a tremendous amount of loyalty that Thom shows for the Emond's Fielders. 

    Why had he not left Tear himself long since?  Much the wisest thing to.  Hundreds of villages lay lout there, waiting for a gleeman to entertain and amaze them.  And each with an inn or two full of wine to drown memories.  But if he did, Rand would have no one except Moiraine to keep the High Lords from maneuvering him into corners, and maybe cutting his throat.  She could do it, of course.  Using different methods than his.  He thought she could.  She was Cairhienin, which meant she had probably taken in the Game of Houses with her mother's milk.  And she would tie another string to Rand for the White Tower while she was about it.  Mesh him in an Aes Sedai net so strong he would never escape.

Thom, The Shadow Rising, p. 77

    If he was caught, too, Thom decided, it would be worth it to help one man, at least, keep free of Aes Sedai.  Worth it, to make a payment on that fifteen-year-old debt.

Thom, The Shadow Rising, p. 79

    Thom is wracked by guilt from what happened to his nephew fifteen years ago.  While Thom seems to prefer to assist Rand, because of his ability to channel, Thom is just as eager to help the other two escape from the grasp of the White Tower, as he sees it.  From being a random visitor to Emond's Field fleeing Trollocs on Winternight, Thom finds his care for the boys far exceeding any amount of wine that he could drown himself in.  I don't think it's just Thom's guilt driving him, he puts in too much effort in his tactics within the Game of Houses.  He genuinely cares for the three boys, despite what he may tell himself.

The Shadow Rising - Chapter 3 [#121]


    Perrin reaches Rand's rooms in time to get the Aiel guarding the door to find Moiraine for Healing.  She arrives just in time to keep Rand from bleeding to death from the wound in his side taken at Falme.  Rand's rooms are crowded with bystanders: Perrin, Lan, and Rhuarc, with other Aiel just at the doors. 

    Rhuarc surveyed the room with sharp blue eyes, as if he suspected enemies hiding behind a drape or an overturned chair.  The clan chief of the Taardad Aiel had no visible weapon except the heavy-bladed knife at his waist, but he carried authority and confidence like weapons, quietly, yet as surely as if they were sheathed alongside the knife.

Rhuarc, The Shadow Rising, p. 69

    "Don't try to harry me, Moiraine."  He was blood filthy, half naked, more than half leaning on Callandor to stay sitting up, but he managed to fill those words with quiet command.

Rand, The Shadow Rising, p. 73

    Both Rhuarc and Rand have an expectation of obedience - the quiet confidence that radiates from them.  For Rhuarc, it's likely from many years as a clan chief; overcoming challenges for the survival of his clan.  For Rand, it's less on such experience, and more the comfort in the knowledge that, with Callandor, he has the authority to back the expectation.  He's still struggling to find his way, but has settled on the path of accepting his role as Dragon Reborn.  That takes a burden off his shoulders and allows him to assume the role and all the expectations that go with it.  There is a certain comfort from accepting a task that lays the foundation for continued confidence in its execution.

The Shadow Rising - Chapter 2 [#120]

Leadership Development: Mat

    With Tear only a month under the Dragon Reborn's rule, the three Emond's Fielders have settled into a somewhat quieter routine.  Until the fabric of reality parts and the the three face variations of themselves and their habits that make a concerted effort to kill them.  Perrin gets attacked by his own axe, the deck of cards comes alive in Mat's hands with knives flashing for him, and Rand faces mirror images of himself with swords bared to kill. Just prior to that, Mat has an interesting dialogue with some of the other lords of Tear.

    "Didn't I say?"  The plain-faced man squinted at his cards and scratched his head, then brightened.  "Oh, yes.  His proclamation, Mat.  The Lord Dragon's.  His last one.  Where he said commoners had the right to call lords before a magistrate.  Who ever heard of a lord being summoned to a magistrate?  And for peasants!"

    Mat's hand tightened on his purse until the coins inside grated together.  "It would be a shame," he said quietly, "if you were tried and judged just for having your way with a fisherman's daughter whatever she wanted, or for having some farmer beaten for splashing mud on your cloak."

Mat and Lord Estean, The Shadow Rising, p. 49

    Despite Mat's bluster and exterior as a gambler and risk taker, he has a strong sense of justice and equality.  I suspect it's due to his upbringing; but likely also his traveling companions and recent experiences.  Despite Moiraine's status as Aes Sedai, she never mistreated any of the Emond's Fielders, or any other people they've encountered over the previous three books.  She treats everyone with respect and courtesy, regardless of social stature.  The same can be said about Thom.  Mat's interaction with Queen Morgase, provided Mat a glimpse of how rulers are capable of behaving; so to have lordlings behaving counter to that standard, just because of their social status, leads to Mat's subtle comment.  Mat continues to mature, and develop solid principles for his own leadership style.

The Shadow Rising - Chapter 1 [#119]

The Most Dangerous Phrase In Any Language

    A series first: no prologue! Just jumping right into the action.  Min arrives at the White Tower, seeking an audience with the Amyrlin Seat.  As she is led through the halls, her ability to see the future shows a bleak picture of battle inside the halls of the White Tower.  In her discussion with the Amyrlin, Min reveals that the plans Moiraine and the Amyrlin laid have not snared Rand enough.  He's unpredictable and bringing change.

    "I'll take the risk; maybe I can help him.  With what I see.  It isn't even as if the Tower would be that much safer, not so long as there is one Red sister here.  They'll see a man who can channel and forget the Last Battle, and the Prophecies of the Dragon."

    "So will many others," Siuan broke in calmly.  "Old ways of thinking are hard to shed, for Aes Sedai as for anyone else."

Min and Siuan Sanche, The Shadow Rising, p. 27

    Unfortunately, change usually gets viewed as a threat.  It is a threat - to the status quo.  People within organizations view it as a threat because there is a great deal of uncertainty involved in implementing change within that organization.  As creatures of habit, we become accustomed to the routine of the current state.  Small perturbations, those get filed in the "annoying, but we have a process to deal with that" bin.  Larger changes, however, usually get met with the most dangerous phrase in any language: "but, we've always done it this way."  This is one of the most frustrating responses to come up against as a leader.  To start with, it's not even remotely true; as the organization hasn't always done it any specific way.  If that were the case, we'd be stuck in the Stone Age, working on developing the wheel.  More frustrating, however, is the fact that the people that choose this paradigm don't even acknowledge the possibility of change being positive - for their own benefit.  They ignore the fact that, as a person, they themselves have changed, evolved and been formed by their experiences.  The mentality that "we've always done it this way" doesn't just halt change, it drives the organization in reverse.  It becomes narrow-minded, losing focus on the strategic picture in favor of protecting a small aspect of the organization.  It is the mentality of failure.  A tremendous amount of energy is required to overcome this inertia.  Working within the "accepted" small perturbations is a good place to start.  Start small, build momentum, and gradually larger steps can be taken. 

The Wheel of Time - Interlude IV [#118]

    Three down, eleven to go.  The next is a turning point, where we see Rand begin to fully accept the mantle of Dragon Reborn and start to embark on the path to unite mankind against the Dark One.  He's more or less done running away from his responsibility, and is now trying to define himself to the role.  The rest of the Emond's Fielders mimic this overall arc, accepting their responsibility and choosing how they will execute their duties.

The Dragon Reborn - Chapters 55 & 56 [#117]

Indomitable Spirit

    In the final two chapters, the Emond's Fielders showcase their ability to fight through to success.  Perrin frees illusion after illusion of Faile, before finally breaking the hedgehog ter-angreal trap in a room thousands of falcons (reminds me of the flying key scene in Harry Potter - but with falcons).  He wakes up cut and bleeding back in the room of the inn.  Egwene tirelessly works through the World of Dreams to shut her captors off from the Source.  Mat and Juilin arrive in time to free them physically and then all continue on in their hunt for Liandrin.  Rand pulls Callandor free and turns the tables, becoming the Ba'alzamon's hunter.  Their battle twists the fabric of reality on the fly, reminiscent of Inception.  Above all, they fight through to success; no matter the odds or the cost.  

The Dragon Reborn - Chapter 54 [#116]

A Convergence

    Now the pace of the book picks up - hurtling all the Emond's Fielders towards the Stone of Tear.  Egwene, Nynaeve and Elayne are already imprisoned there.  Mat, with a guilt-ridden Juilin Sandar, circles the Stone, searching from every possible vantage for a way in prior to detonating all his fireworks and making his own door.  Rand freeclimbs the entire dizzying height in his quest for Callandor.  Perrin searches the Stone's shadow in the World of Dreams for Faile.  The common theme: all are taking action.

  • Rand has been almost insanely myopic in his drive to reach Tear and obtain Callandor.  With no way to use a traditional entrance, he climbs the wall of the Stone and makes his way across the ramparts to get inside.
  • Mat spends long hours circling the Stone; finding barred gates and armed guards.  A chance meeting with Sandar provides a possible avenue to enter, using the same small gate other thief-catchers use with criminals in tow.  Mat elects to detonate his remaining fireworks cache as a means to add a generous amount of chaos and confusion.
  • Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve are shielded, but Egwene stumbles on a loophole provided by the World of Dreams.  Using her ter-angreal, she finds their Black Ajah jailer in the World of Dreams and shields her.
  • Perrin and Hopper search the infinite maze of iterations of the Stone of Tear in their quest to find Faile and free her.

All the OODA Loops are moving forward; driving reactions from their foes.  Reacting itself isn't a place of weakness, but it does limit the choices available.  Action beats inaction; and reaction.

The Dragon Reborn - Chapter 53 [#115]

He Is The Brute Squad

    Moiraine, Perrin, Lan, Faile and Loial plot their next move against the Forsaken, Be'lal, leading Tear.  Liandrin and her cohorts strike first, leaving a tiny ter-angreal trap with the innkeeper.  Intending to snare Moiraine into the World of Dreams, Faile was first to trigger it.  Moiraine and Lan depart to surprise Be'lal, leaving Perrin and Loial with the unconscious Faile.

    [Perrin] was surprised when Loial growled.

    "No! Perrin, it is not right!  Faile was so free.  It is not right to trap her!"

    Perrin peered up at Loial's face, and suddenly remembered the old stories that claimed Ogier were implacable enemies.  Loial's ears had laid back along the sides of his head, and his broad face was as hard as an anvil.

    "Loial, I am going to try to help Faile.  But I will be helpless myself while I do.  Will you guard my back?"

    Loial raised those huge hands that held books so carefully, and his thick fingers curled as if to crush stone.  "None will pass me while I live, Perrin.  Not Myrddraal or the Dark One himself."  He said it like a simple statement of fact.

Perrin and Loial, The Dragon Reborn, p. 535

    Loial's statement at the end is one of my favorites in this book (and probably in all three thus far).  Before Perrin's very eyes, Loial transforms from a bookish scholar to a one man army.  Perrin may be helpless, but he's definitely not alone here.  Loial fully supports Perrin's rescue attempt, even if he's unsure of the full details.  His task is to protect Perrin and Faile, and he will execute it, flawlessly, for as long as he stands.