Managing Oneself

20 Oct 2021

An article from twenty-two years ago (1999, I still don't understand how time works) was the final crack that "broke the dam" in my mind. The article is called "Managing Oneself", written by Peter Drucker, published in HBR.

In the field of pedagogy there has long been the realization that everyone learns differently. Some people need to hear it, some need to read it, some need to repeat it, some need to simply take notes. This is all about input. What happens when you flip this and talk instead about output. About performance.

Drucker paints a large dichotomy: "Are you a reader or a listener? ... people rarely are both". And he uses the examples of presidents when discussing "How Do I Perform?"

Ten years later, the same journalists who had been his admirers held President Eisenhower in open contempt. He never addressed the questions, they complained, but rambled on endlessly about something else. And they constantly ridiculed him for butchering the King's English in incoherent and ungrammatical answers.\ \ Eisenhower apparently did not know that we was a reader, not a listener. When he was Supreme Commander in Europe, his aides made sure that every question from the press was presented in writing at least a half an hour before a conference was to begin. And then Eisenhower was in total command...\ \ A few years later, Lyndon Johnson destroyed his presidency, in large measure, by not knowing he was a listener. His predecessor, John Kennedy, was a reader who had assembled a brilliant group of writers as his assistants, making sure that they wrote to him before discussing their memos in person. Johnson kept these people on his staff—and they kept on writing. He never, apparently, understood one word of what they wrote. Yet as a senator, Johnson had been superb; for parliamentarians have to be, above all, listeners.

I don't know why but I had never in my life flipped the "learning" to "performing" and asked the question. Because, for myself, the answer is blindingly obvious. I am a strongly tilted towards reader. If we're having a discussion without enough context I have a really hard time adding any value.

As a reader there are organizations and working styles with which I will never perform well, no matter how hard we all try. I should be avoiding those environments. I need to make it clear to my manager(s) how I perform. And they should be making it clear to me how they perform.

However, do not mistake reader for; inflexible, rigid, or detailed. I thrive in chaos, am very adaptable, and generally am a big picture oriented person. I get the sense that, in many organizations, a reason "readers" are at a disadvantage is because writing is hard. After all: "To write well is to think clearly."

As a reader I want your clear thoughts. I don't want to do the work of sorting your thoughts out for you (unless that is actually my job). I need meeting agendas because I cannot help but sort out my thoughts into clear thoughts prior to the meeting. I ask that others do the same work. And the best way I know how to do that, at least for myself, is to write.

It is my experience that, when groups don't sort out their thoughts before hand, chances are you are going to have that meeting at least twice, or more. The first meeting becomes the prep. The first rule of meetings is that they are expensive. The second rule of meetings is to kill meetings.