A Leader Reads [#100Days]

@SD

Join me as I attempt to focus a leadership lens on some of the largest fantasy series.

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The Eye of the World - Chapter 13 [#100Days, Day 12]

Making Practice Harder Than The Game

    As the band travels onward towards Baerlon, Lan puts the three young lads through the paces of the weapons they carry.

At their first stop, before the sun sank, Lan began teaching the boys what to do with the weapons they carried.  He started with the bow. ... He showed Perrin a bit of how to use that great-bladed axe; raising an axe to someone, or something, that had a weapon was not at all like chppping wood or flailing around in pretend.  Setting the big apprentice blacksmith to a series of exercises, block, parry, and strike, he did the same for Rand and his sword. ... Rand sighed and held the sword upright before in him both hands. Moiraine watched without expression, but the next evening she told Lan to continue the lessons.
The Eye of the World, p. 148-149

    That last bit from Moiraine's viewpoint is just great.  Training and developing others is often overlooked in the moment or the day-to-day grind.  Training budgets are usually the first to get cut when scrounging for savings, highly reputed in person or webinar courses are cancelled in favor of quicker, cheaper online "click-through-to-a-certificate" courses and proudly touted as an employee training and development program. What's worse is that none of this is really done maliciously; it's done to fend off the wolves closest to the fence, but it ignores the long term ramifications of a stagnant workforce.  

    Part of the challenge I've seen is that it's very easy to visualize a solid training program; it's another effort entirely to develop it.  My company had an audit last week and we got absolutely crushed on our employee training and development program (or mostly lack of one).  It's probably one of any CEO's 'Top 3' for any company around the world. It takes a significant investment of both time and money to ensure training is aligned with the mission and facilitates personal and professional development. Sending folks to a seminar isn't enough; as leaders, we must create the environment that requires them to use the skills they've just acquired.  This means having processes that have built-in flexibility to adapt to differing skill levels; it's highly unlikely that a company would ever shut itself down completely to train the whole staff and then stay offline to implement and optimize their operations.  (Although it would likely be much cheaper in the long run, and often seems like the simplest solution.)  

    It takes full leadership engagement at all levels to prioritize training.  The tendency to "push training off till a more convenient time" is sinister.  It's so easy to do, and before you know it; your well organized training plan is tossed in a back room gathering dust.  This may mean the boss directing people to attend; and then spot-checking to ensure compliance.  We just did that at my company: the boss signed her direct reports up and then directed them to attend. The kicker: it was a mandatory training requirement anyway! And she still had to force people to attend.  Getting the culture to place the requisite emphasis on training and development is a tough challenge; the results won't happen overnight.  But when it finally clicks, it's a game changer.

The Eye of the World - Chapters 11 & 12 [#100Days, Day 11]

Options Come Standard

    Racing through the night, in a unnatural fog, the band blazes through Watch Hill, gallopping onwards towards Taren Ferry.  Moiraine and Lan persuade the ferrymen to pull them across.  On the other side, they finally halt for a rest near a thick tangle of roots.

Thrusting a stub of a torch ahead of him, Lan crawled out from under the mound and straightened. "No unwelcome visitors," he told Moiraine.  "And the wood I left is still dry, so I started a small fire.  We will rest warm."
"You expected us to stop here?" Egwene said in surprise.
"It seemed a likely place," Lan replied.  "I like to be prepared, just in case."
The Eye of the World, p. 139

    Optionality.  It allows plans to be more inherently robust; enables agility when flowing between options as the situation demands.  Making decisions to provide the largest set of available options is powerful.  Setting up the hidden camp on the way into Emond's Field probably cost minimal effort and time for Moiraine and Lan.  The price of gathering a few sticks delivers a perfectly placed to rest horses after a long, hard ride; hidden from unfriendly eyes, sheltered from the weather. 

    For more business-oriented scenarios, optionality is setting up standard procedures and frameworks that allow teams to take immediate action when certain criteria are met.  This allows the leader to immediately begin assessing the results of the actions and provide more timely feedback and course corrections to the team.  They in turn operate inside the standard framework.  Their OODA Loop works faster, gaining the advantage.  The key is discipline and adherence to the framework.  And to adjust the framework as improvements are identified.  

    Somewhat counterintuitively, enabling the team to make decisions at their level in accordance with the standard procedures, makes them more receptive to adjustments and refinements to the procedures.  Empowerment builds trust; trust builds creativity and innovation; and innovation drives improvement.  A team member showing up saying,  "I think we can adjust the procedure to gain..." is powerful.  It immediately informs the leader the the procedures are being followed, and that people are interested in operating more effectively.  As a leader, it's imperative to nurture the innovation, whether it succeeds or fails. If it fails, there's already a proven process, so the risk is well worth the reward.  

The Eye of the World - Chapters 10 [#100Days, Day 10]

Never pass up a good crisis

    Half of Emond's Field is in ashes, courtesy of a surprise nighttime attack by Trollocs and Myrddraal; driving our band of youths away from the only home they've known.  Under cover of darkness, Moiraine and Lan lead them out of the village; quickly and quietly to avoid any attention at all.  Even from their own villagers.

The footsteps halted before the inn in the grayness just beyond the dim light form the common-room windows.  It was not until Jon Thane stepped forward, a spear propped on his stout shoulder, an old jerkin sewn all over with steel disks straining across his chest, that Rand saw them for what they were. A dozen men from the village and the surrounding farms, some in helmets or pieces of armor that had lain dust covered in attics for generations, all with a spear or a woodaxe or a rusty bill.

The miller peered into a common-room window, then turned with a curt, "It looks right here."
The Eye of the World, p. 122

    As previously discussed, leadership is about action.  And about reaction. To bad news, to barriers, and to a crisis.  One of my old bosses enjoyed stating "never pass up a good crisis."  If you're the one moving forward when everyone else freezes, you stand out as a person who gets things done.  In the case of the Mayor of Emond's Field, it is something small: organizing his people into a patrol to stay vigilant.  Doing nothing would have just amplified the anxiety and fear building amongst the villagers from the previous night's attack and cost the Mayor the trust of his people.  Even though the patrolmen are ill-equipped and lack training, they have a direction, a sense of purpose, unifying them.  To say that the Mayor's efforts are "too little, too late" does a disservice to the human dynamics of leadership.  Tactically, it's not the ideal option, and is definitely inadequate across the board.  But to the people themselves, it's a mission that has meaning; and allows them to be empowered, taking action to prevent a recurrence.

The Eye of the World - Chapters 8 & 9 [#100Days, Day 9]

Last Stand City

    Moiraine's tale of Aemon and the last stand in Manetheren is a favorite passage of mine: the dichotomy of the current gaggle of angry farmers against her story of those same farmers' ancestors standing tall and facing the overwhelming hordes of darkness.

No one who made that journey did not know they would never return. But it was their land. It had been their fathers', and it would be their children's, and they went to pay the price of it. Not a step of ground was given up until it was soaked in blood, but at last the army of Manetheren was driven back, back to here, to this place you now call Emond's Field.
The Eye of the World, p. 112

    Historically, last stands tend to fascinate.  They are easily sensationalized, becoming a part of a cohesive identity to challenge the team to be greater than their predecessors.  The Battle of Thermopylae, the Alamo, the Lost Battalion in the Meuse-Argonne - a comprehensive list would be exhausting to complete. 

    From a leader's perspective, they are an absolute last resort.  It need not always be a wartime scenario, either.  One of my favorite personal sayings is: "This isn't the hill to die on."  Not everything is worth sacrificing it all.  It's impractical, it causes more friction than it solves, and eventually causes people to go around you.  Attacking a well fortified position is never advised, so it's generally easier to just go around than through.

    There are times when it's worth standing your ground against the odds.  Decisions involving safety of life, for example, are one of those.  The success of the U.S. Navy's SUBSAFE  (Submarine Safety) program is because it has chosen to not compromise on any technical, procedural or material component, system or system of systems that function to ensure a submarine makes as many surfaces as it does dives.  The Challenger space shuttle tragedy, by comparison, is one of those times when even forceful people standing their ground on safety concerns were unable to change the decision.  Choose your battles; and put those back that aren't the hill to die on.


Author's note: Swedish band Sabaton has an entire album dedicated to the theme of the last stand - aptly titled The Last Stand - of which two of the songs recount the WWI battle in the Meuse-Argonne.  And it rocks!

The Eye of the World - Chapters 6 & 7 [#100Days, Day 8]

Rand & Nynaeve: A Study in Resolve

    Rand drags his wounded father through the woods taking the majority of the night to make a trip that both had made twice earlier in a fraction of the time.  Despite being practically petrified with fear, Rand is single-minded in his determination to get medical attention for his father.  Despite fear, hunger, or weariness, Rand manages to trudge along - a very physical embodiment of self-reliance.  Those who have completed an Ironman, run a marathon, completed a Tough Mudder, or any myriad of similar competitions can relate to that point that runners call "The Wall".  A tiredness so profound that it becomes a crucible to place one foot in front of the other and just keep moving.  When I first started running, my dad often reminded me to "Just keep moving. Slow down, slow down some more; but don't ever stop."  The ability to focus through pain and tiredness is why so many entry programs for military special operations involve feats of physical endurance: it challenges body and mind simultaneously in a minimal cost/maximum effect framework.

    Mental toughness goes beyond dragging yourself through the mud for hours at a time.  It's also critical when making, and sticking to, decisions.  Nynaeve, despite her legendary temper, is a competent healer:

Yes, I am. I know what I can do with my medicines, and I know when it's too late.  Don't you think I would do something if I could? But I can't.  I can't, Rand.  And there are others who need me.  People I can help.
Nynaeve to Rand, The Eye of the World, p. 79

    More critical to this particular discussion is the emotions that flash across Nynaeve's face leading into her reply to Rand's desperate plea for aid:

Pain twisted her face, but only for an instant, then she was all hollow-eyed resolve again, her voice emotionless and firm.
The Eye of the World, p. 79

    When operating with finite resources, it's critical to make decisions that provide the most impact or the most options.  In times of duress, it's imperative to stick to that decision.  Being indecisive eventually allows the situation to control your actions, reducing what was a multitude of options to a single one; usually one of the more unfavorable ones.  Conversely, trying to help everyone may yield a spike in short term individual happiness at the expense of long term united success. This isn't to say that building relationships isn't important; it's absolutely crucial, however, relationships are only one factor of many in the decision making system of inputs.  And sometimes the importance of the mission vastly outweighs the team's feelings.

The Eye of the World - Chapter 5 [#100Days, Day 7]

Acting on Intincts

    Tam knows something; or, at the very least, he suspects significantly more than he lets on. Breaking tradition, he and Rand head for home on Winternight.

Tam nodded but did not stop.  When he had made a complete circuit of the house, he did the same around the barn and the sheep pen, still studying the ground.  He even checked the smokehouse and the curing shed.  Drawing a bucket of water from the well, he filled a cupped hand, sniffed the water and gingerly touched it with the tip of his tongue.
The Eye of the World, p. 53

    His actions extend beyond the norms for caution; a level of training that speaks of enhanced caution, and of lessons learned the hard way.  He's got a very vague notion of the nature of his adversary, but he's still operating on instincts.

But if I am not taken by a black fancy, if our luck runs sour, maybe in the nect few days we'll be glad I tucked [the sword] in that old chest, instead.
Tam to Rand, The Eye of the World, p. 56

    As we've mentioned previously, part of the art of leadership is the art of action; especially acting with minimal information.  It's very easy to want to wait until more information becomes available.  Let's look at Tam's decision to grab his old sword from his chest.  In all liklihood, had he waited until more information became available, he would have died in the house trying to protect Rand.  The next sequence of information after his "black fancy" was Trollocs breaking down the door.  For those of us facing less bloodthirsty, sinister challenges, there is a fine line between acting and waiting, especially in this era of "Monday-morning quarterbacking."  We make decisions with the information we have at hand; but oftentimes we get judged by the additional information that becomes available after the fact.  Decisiveness and instincts can play a role in mitigating some of that harsh risk.  Continually acting and evaluating those actions, adjusting with new decisions (recall Boyd's OODA Loop), allows the leader to fine tune the plan on the fly as new information becomes available.  Action beats inaction, every time.

The Eye of the World - Chapters 3 & 4 [#100Days, Day 6]

Team Dynamics

    Part of choosing a team is selecting individuals who have traits that work well together.  We see this tale repeatedly told in sports: one side has extremely talented individuals, spending lots of money and effort in recruiting that high level talent; the other has fewer superstars, but rocks the fundamentals and behaves as a cohesive unit focused entirely on winning. More often than not, the team beats the group of individuals; ego is pushed aside for the strategic goal and everyone works to achieve it.

    In Chapter 3, we finally see the interaction of Rand, Mat and Perrin.  Perrin is introduced as deliberate and methodical; one end of the spectrum.  Mat, as we've seen previously, is impulsive and gregarious, at the other end of the spectrum.  Rand seems to float somewhere in between the two - depending on the situation, or his assessment on the matter, he'll maneuver towards one end or the other.'

    Another trait we see in the three, is a willingness to venture off into the unknown.  All are eager to sign up for patrols, "a few weeks of bordeom and sleeping rough." This is in stark contrast to the majority of their peers and community.  Emond's Field is a fairly isolated community, as such, the rarity of change breeds a certain amount of xenophobia and distrust of strangers; clearly evidenced by Cenn's assessment of Taren Ferry folk.

I will not be silent! I've no liking for this talk, either, but I won't hide my head under a basket till a Taren Ferry man comes to cut my throat.
Cenn Buie, The Eye of the World, p. 31

     A willingness to embrace the unknown is healthy in team dynamics; it facilitates outside-the-box thinking, driving towards change.  Conceptually, it's a challenge for most folks to move out on the idea that the end state may not be fully known; combined with the natural inclination to fear failure, such a path towards change can cause paralysis in large segments of the workforce.  As ledaers, it's up to us to navigate the untravelled path.

The Eye of the World - Chapter 2 [#100Days, Day 5]

Emotional Intelligence I:

    A key element to Chapter 2 is not about who we meet, but who we don't meet. The Wisdom of Emond's Field is a tempest, by all accounts:

You know Nynaeve's temper. When Cenn Buie called her a child last year, she thumped him on the head with her stick, and he's on the Village Council, and old enough to be her grandfather, besides. She flares up at anything, and never stays angry past turning around.
Rand al'Thor, The Eye of the World, p. 20

    The problem with continually getting overly angry about any tiny issue eventually drives people to stop coming with issues.  The Wisdom of Emond's Field is clearly a leadership position, with a focus on healing, and the general health and well-being of the town. For her to have such a knack for extreme outbursts does not bode well for her bedside manner practices.  It's quite clear that she'll unleash on anyone at anytime for any reason; hardly the qualities of a caring leader.

    Communications are integral to the success of any project, team or organization. Leadership tends to involve news about less-than-positive occurances.  In fact, I had a boss who liked to say that no one ever called to give him good news.  People always call with problems. That's what leadership is about: removing those barriers to keep the team moving forward towards success. It's critical for the leader to balance their emotions and be able to face the facts without excessive emotional outbursts, especially negative emotions.  This is a very challenging task. It's made even more challenging when outside entities are auditing your organization for certifications, or a comprehensive assessment.  It's tough to face a screen full of yellow and red, labeling programs as "Partial" or "Ineffective" or "Declining." It's tougher still when you have team of great people doing the best they can. The body blows can be hard to shrug off. That's also a part of leadership: take the hit, take a knee, get back up and keep attacking.



The Eye of the World - Chapter 1 (cont'd) [#100Days, Day 4]

Initial Impressions: Rand al'Thor

    We first meet Rand as he's walking the Quarry Road with his father, heading through the blistering cold towards the village of Emond's Field. He's tall, very tall; the anti-Napoleon of the district, if you prefer. He's very much a young man - old enough to be trusted to wander the woods alone with his friends and handle hunting weapons, but still young enough to be afraid of being out alone on a cold, dark day.  

... he was a pillar of reality in that morning, like a stone in the middle of a drifting stream.

The Eye of the World, p. 2

    The use of negative space to provide a comparison is brilliant here; especially for a young kid on his first read through decades ago. Instead of saying that Rand is a child; Jordan instead takes the more relatable (in my opinion) of the father being the ideal leader for the son.  As a small child; this is just a part of reality. As we grow towards adulthood, the commitment on the part of the parents to be the ideal leader becomes a heavier burden; it's no longer just accepted as fact - it's earned, in every action and in every promise.

Keeping his word was important to Tam.

The Eye of the World, p. 3

    Children are ever watching their parents.  As youngsters, it's to observe and learn - orienting themselves to the world.  As they charge towards adulthood, oftentimes an essence of competition kicks in; waiting eagerly for a mistake so the youthful upstart can prove their superiority over their elders. Those that march stolidly on, shrugging off the cold and damp, holding fast to convictions and ideals keep the respect and admiration of their children.

The Eye of the World - Chapter 1 (cont'd) [#100Days, Day 3]

Women's Circle Business 

"You try meddling in Women's Circle business, and see how you like eating your own cooking. Which you won't do in my kitchen. And washing your own clothes and making your own bed. Which won't be under my roof."
Daise Congar to Wit Congar, The Eye of the World, p. 7

    At the risk of causing a roiling feminist stampede; I'll explore some different nuances to Daise Congar's stout proclamation.  Admittedly, on the surface, it reeks of the past two centuries and earlier eras: relegating women to simple household duties.  I'm far more interested in the idea that the Women's Circle takes complete ownership of the household duties.  In four short sentences, we see, quite clearly, that there is a deep rooted pride what the Women's Circle does.  There is clearly a level of satisfaction gained from executing a task well: if you've ever watched a musician playing "in the zone," oftentimes you'll notice a slight smile, almost a smirk, acknowledging their own perfection.  Flawless, or near-flawless execution breeds confidence, an important leadership trait.  Just as critical is that perfectionist's eye, attention to detail, ensuring that the teams are performing tasks correctly and making forward progress.  Complete ownership, of the task and the outcomes (positive or negative), is fundamental to good leadership.

    This isn't to be confused with micromanagement.  Daise is quick to point out that Women's Circle business is completed to the satisfaction of the Women's Circle, not some outside entity. Micromanagement on the other hand, would be that outside entity dictating every step of the project; instead of the leader owning the task and the desired end-state and working their way towards that goal. Critical to the success of such ownership-centered leadership is trust. With trust goes confidence. The two have a symbiotic relationship: as confidence builds in the junior leader to take on more, the trust grows between the junior and senior leader.  As that trust increases, the senior is more confident in the junior's ability and willing to entrust more to them.  And the cycle of ownership-centered leadership continues.

The Eye of the World - Chapter 1 [#100Days, Day 2]

Chapter 1 

One of the trademarks for Jordan's series is its opening phrase:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.
The Eye of the World, p.1   


    From the macro view, the events in this world are cyclical, as Elan Morin hinted: he and Lews Therin have clashed a "thousand times a thousand" times.  Faces,  names, places - all may have changed, but the core of the conflict always involved those two.  At the micro level, this phrase embodies what we leaders affectionately know as "tribal knowledge" - methods, processes, and procedures long unwritten and based purely on verbal pass downs. Tribal knowledge can be particularly vexing because it's often intertwined in the "That's how we've always done it" mentality once the "why" behind the method has long since faded to myth. 

    Leading often means inducing change, ideally for the better; stretching the teams to reach a new standard. It's a challenging endeavor, especially if the leader is in the job for a significantly shorter time frame than the rest of the work force.  There's a tension between the urgent need for change and the long-term impact. It's especially grueling for a workforce that's seen the cycle time and again: a new boss arrives, pitching big ideas for change; change starts gaining momentum; the boss gets promoted based on early results and a new boss shows up with different ideas. The clash begins anew. From the workforce perspective, there is a deep sense of frustration based on lack of complete follow-through.  A sales pitch was made, end state vision mapped out, tentative progress achieved, then broken faith when the champion departs.  Eventually, this degrades to a complete apathy towards change or, even more sinister, passive-aggressive resistance to change of the flavor "well, I'll just wait you out."

    Leaders will be quick to proclaim that it should be incumbent on the workforce to press towards change once the vision is provided and the order to move out given. And they're right, but only to the point that the next leader shares the same vision. Often, this is not the case.  It's critical to understand the method behind the apparent madness prior to jumping forward towards making a change.  This brings another cycle, made famous by Air Force Colonel John Boyd - the OODA loop

  • Observe the unfolding circumstances
  • Orient yourself based on previous experience and determine the options that can be done with the observed information
  • Decide upon a course of action
  • Act by taking the first steps on the course of action

Its core development was to provide concepts to enhance superiority in air-to-air combat; but the applicability can expand outward to more strategic aims, and even well beyond being constrained to military applications.  In the change management arena, it provides a framework to break through the tribal knowledge permafrost and finally begin to achieve results:

  • Observe and understand the method behind the madness
  • Orient based on previous experience, examine all the possibilities, find allies to the cause
  • Decide upon a course of action
  • Act by taking the first steps on the course of action

The cycle continues as results from the small changes are analyzed and compared to the desired path to the vision.  Critical to the success of this framework is to keep moving along the loop.  It's easy to freeze in the Observe stage, trying to gather as much information as possible in order to make the perfect decision to avoid making the wrong one.  In most cases, not making a decision is more costly than the possible negative outcomes of one made earlier on.  Incremental adjustments are far easier to make and navigate than large course corrections.

The Eye of the World - Prologue [#100Days, Day 1]

    Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World.  I've read this particular book at least a dozen times since I stumbled across the series in the mid-1990's.  A fan of all things fantasy; I recall being particularly ecstatic about a series where each individual book could be used as a doorstop.  It was the sixth in the series, Lord of Chaos, that first drew my young teenage attention on the neatly packed shelves of a now shuttered bookstore in Williamsburg.  I frantically hunted across the shelf, pulling and discarding the companion tomes, desperate in my haste to find the trail-head to the series (fans of brick and mortar bookshops may recall the frustration dealing with shop inventory requirements - firsts in a series always seemed to be rare).

    This re-read (at least for volumes one through ten; then a first read to the finish) is an attempt to focus a leadership lens on the characters and their struggles.  Fantasy provides a tremendously powerful media for showcasing the extraordinary within the boundaries of the relate-able ordinary  - it's why we love the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the flaws and imperfections are magnified to epic proportions when pitted in titanic struggles, yet at some foundational level, we can relate to them as mere humans. 

    Obligatory Spoiler Alert: This read through will contain spoilers as they appear naturally in the sequence of the series.  I will make efforts to stick to only what is known up to that point in time - and make every effort to avoid forecasting or pre-releasing information.  Additionally, I'll try to avoid full chapter summaries - instead focusing efforts on the characters, their development and the challenges they face.  Unfortunately, the devil is in the details, so to speak, and Mr. Jordan was brilliant at placing them "just so."

    Some final words of caution: these initial entries are part of @Listed's 100 Day Writing Challenge. As such, they may lack a considerable amount of polish.  Expect them to be very free-form and stream-of-consciousness.


Prologue

The cost of victory, the price for failure.   

    Our story begins, well, at the end.

    Some cataclysmic event sets the stage: a heaving earth, an unidentified number of dead bodies and two men.

Remember, you fool! Remember your futile attack on the Great Lord of the Dark! Remember his counterstroke! Remember! Even now the Hundred Companions are tearing the world apart, and every day a hundred men more join them. What hand slew Ilyena Sunhair, Kinslayer? Not mine. Not mine. What hand struck down every life that bore a drop of your blood, everyone who loved you, everyone you loved? Not mine, Kinslayer. Not mine. Remember, and know the price of opposing Shai'tan!

Elan Morin Tedronai to Lews Therin Telamon (The Eye of the World, p. xii)

    A choice was made; the full measure of the consequences not understood or, perhaps, ignored for some greater benefit. It brought an end - to loved ones, to a conflict, even to, we can surmise, the world.  There's a desperation to Lews Therin, a raw fraying counterpoint wobbling on the edges of madd to Elan Morin's polished appearance.  Of that rawness emerges the last, desperate act of a desperate man - yearning only for forgiveness.