Leadership and the Lure of Abstraction

So, what the heck does abstraction have to do with leadership?

Well, let me first explain what I mean by abstraction. Let’s say you take your car to a workshop, you meet someone at the counter, hand over your car, and then come back a few hours later with your car washed and fixed (hopefully!). What happens to the car inside the workshop is an abstraction. You don’t care if the person washing your car used a pressure pump or hand washed it, where the mechanic was trained, how much they get paid and so on. Everything that happened between you handing over the keys and collecting your car is an abstraction.

If you think about it, you will realize that we are surrounded by abstractions. Your smart phones, televisions, accounting services, legal documentation – a lot of your day-to-day life involves abstractions. The challenge, of course, starts when the abstraction stops working. If your car breaks down right after the servicing, you immediately start asking questions about what happened to your car inside that workshop.

Leadership can be similar. Let’s say that as a leader, you instruct your management team to execute an important project. Your managers then go out, assign teams, prepare plans, motivate people, manage the project life cycle, resolve all bugs, manage all issues, and successfully deliver the project to the client. For you, as the leader, everything that happened between instructing your managers and client delivery was abstracted away. Sounds tempting, doesn’t it?

Therein lies the danger. It is possible that one of your managers are unable to motivate their team, maybe some managers are hiding issues, maybe there is a skill gap in your company which is being ignored, maybe there has been a steady loss of knowledge through attrition in your company, maybe your org structure is biased towards inaction, and so on.

Now, I don’t mean that you must roll up your sleeves every day and be completely hands on in the implementation. Neither should you be micromanaging your team. What I strongly recommend though, from my own experience as a leader, is that you must build a clear understanding of your organization that is not based only on inputs from your direct reports or team managers. Especially since you are the one who are ultimately accountable for critical decisions.

Again, if you are leader in a 100,000 or even a 1,000 people – it’s simply not possible to know what is happening with the latest batch of fresh-joins. But you can, and should, know what’s happening in your organization at least a few levels below you. Avoiding abstraction is even more important if you are managing a remote team, which now we all are. When everyone is working in an office, there are a lot of serendipitous encounters – you run into people while getting a coffee or riding an elevator together. Some of these encounters lead to achieving better understanding by triggering a larger and meaningful conversation. Now with the pandemic, these encounters have stopped happening.

Unfortunately, black-box abstraction is scarily common at all leadership levels, including CXOs. I know leaders who never interact with anyone other than their direct reports – ever! I don’t think they were disdainful or disinterested, it’s just that the operating in abstraction was too tempting. I have also seen the same leaders struggle when one or two of their key people left or them take decisions that were disastrous because they were operating in a vacuum.

My preferred way to reduce abstraction is setting up catch ups with a predictable cadence. These catch ups can be one on one meetings with key personnel and/or one to many meetings with a small group. It will signal to your employees that they have a voice and an opportunity to be heard (sometimes that’s all that’s required). More importantly, you will also gain insights into what drives people, what their roadblocks are, their challenges, and so on. You will be able to identify the problem solvers, the enthusiasts, the curious learners, and yes, even the slackers and complainers. And you will know all this firsthand without running the risk of filtered and selective information from your direct reports.

I am not saying that your direct reports have malice or are hiding information from you. However, some form of direct connect with your reports’ teams is essential to have a feel for the ‘pulse’ of your organization. If you and your teams feel comfortable, include your 2nd rung in those catch ups as well. If not, then exclude the manager and meet only with the team/key personnel. An authentic and effective manager will not feel insecure about you meeting with their teams– if they do, that’s a red flag.

I remember, at one of my earlier employers, when our CEO fly down from the US, I would ask them to close their eyes (metaphorically of course) and randomly point to employees and have a 1-on-1 with them. What surprised me was that some of my teammates opened to them more than they did with me. As a result, among other things, I was able to pre-emptively address some personnel issues that were looming in the background. So not only did these meetings help them get a sense of the India office, but were also very valuable to me.

Now, an interesting dichotomy about abstraction is that leaders should always aim for achieving abstraction. If you have a leadership team who can execute your vision and priorities without you having to keep a close watch on operational details – then that means that you have a built a great leadership team. That also gives you time to spend time on strategic and long-term issues.

The key is to aim for ‘desirable abstraction’ – a fine balance between creating a culture of independence and having your own organization black boxed for you. So go ahead and set up those 1-on-1’s right away – I guarantee you it’s going to make your much more effective leader.

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