Jordan Peterson’s guide to leadership

Here's what it means to be a good leader—no buzzwords, no bullsh*t.

JORDAN PETERSON: I suppose this touches on the psychology of leadership too—which is a mess, by the way.

Well, what's the fundamental characteristic of a leader? Here's one: A leader is someone who knows where he or she is going. Well that would be the first thing, is like, how are you going to lead unless you have a destination?

Okay. Well a destination implies an ethic. And then you need to be able to communicate that. And you communicate your destination with a story. Now if I want to motivate people—and that's not the right way to think about it, because you shouldn't want to motivate people. That's management idiot speak, that is—what you should so is figure out something that's worth doing, that you really think is worth doing. Something that you would actually commit a substantial proportion of your life to. And you should have deep reasons for pursuing it. And then if you're a leader, well first of all you have that established, but the second is that you can communicate that, okay, and you communicate that in a manner that also appeals to other people's sense of purpose. And so you'd say to someone, like if I wanted to move forward with you on an enterprise, I would have to say, "Well here's the purpose of the enterprise and here's the reasons that it's not only eminently justifiable but more justifiable than anything else we could be doing at the same time." And then I'd have to say, "Well here's what's in it for me, and here's what's in it for you. And here's why the two of us together can further the enterprise and further what's in it for you and further what's in it for me."

And then you have a situation there that Piaget, Jean Piaget, the developmental psychologist, called an equilibrated state. So an equilibrated state is a situation that's set up by two or more people where everyone is participating in the state voluntarily. So when he got that — he derived that notion in part by looking at how children set up games. So if children are going to set up a pretend game, what they do is they negotiate a little narrative, to begin with. It's almost like they generate a little play and they assign everyone their parts, and then they manifest the play, and that's how they think. But everyone has to accept their part voluntarily, right, or the game won't continue. Now Piaget's ethical claim, ethical analytic claim, was that a game everyone plays voluntarily is more sustainable and productive than one the people have to be forced to play. And that was his fundamental distinction between the utility of freedom versus the utility of tyranny. Because you could say, well the authoritarians win: "Do this or else." That's a way of organizing a society. But Piaget's claim was the enforcement costs are so high that the free society will outcompete the authoritarian society across time.

Now if you're going to set up an organization, you can set it up on authoritarian lines. But then you're basically compelling people to perform with punishment and fear. It's better to motivate them positively, and the way you do that is say, "Look, here's the goal, here's your role. Here's what this will add to your life, practically and in terms of, say, significant engagement and involvement." And then if you can do that, the people will, you know, with certain other preconditions in place – competence, for example, and a certain amount of conscientiousness – then people will participate in the game voluntarily. You don't have to overlord them. And so that's – well, if you have any experience in the world at all in complex processes you know that that's the optimal circumstances under which to engage with other people. It's like, "Hey, we're all in the same boat. We're going somewhere interesting. Everyone's got a role to play. We're all in this together and it's working out for each of us as well."

Now, there's a corollary to that, which is an interesting one. So imagine this. So let's say you have your organization and you have your goals and you're out to do something worthwhile. And you can tell a good story about that. So you've got people on board. Now you really want to get people on board and so now you've got two choices. You could tell people, "Go home and spend four or five hours and formulate a career plan about how you're going to contribute to this organization." Or you could say, "No, no, you go home and you formulate a plan for your life that includes your job at this organization as a subset." And then imagine you do that with 100 people in each group. Then you run those people in a head-to-head competition for a year to see who's most productive.

The answer? The people who formulate the plan for their life. They're ten percent more productive. So you can gain a ten percent increment in corporate-level productivity by having your people write out a plan for their life. We have a program like that online, called Future Authoring, that thousands of people have done now that increased the probability that university students would stay in university by 30 percent. And that's part of the narrative issue. It's like what you want from your employees is, well, you want them to be doing something useful with their life that they're engaged in, because like if they can't do that for their life what the hell makes you think they're going to do that for your organization?! And then you want them to see how working for you serves their higher order purpose.

And if it doesn't, because maybe they can't formulate that integrated hierarchical relationship, well then they should find another job, because that isn't the job for them. If your job is running at cross purposes with your life, how the hell are you going to be motivated? You're not. At least you're going to be stymied constantly by the internal contradiction. So imagine what you're trying to do is you're trying to get everyone pointing in the same direction. But I don't mean by eliminating all diversity of opinion or anything like that. It's like the overall organization has a point, and then everyone within that organization has their point but they're integrated within that overarching coherent narrative. That's the purpose of leadership. And to make that work at every level of the organization. That's what you want to do. It's very difficult, but you build a stellar organization if you do that.

  • The psychology of leadership is a mess, says Jordan Peterson, because it's clouded by "management idiot speak." One example? A leader's job isn't to motivate people; it's to tap into people's sense of purpose. Motivation is the byproduct.
  • Lead your team like a free society, not a dictatorship. Based on developmental psychologist Jean Piaget's observations, Peterson emphasizes the importance of an equilibrated state, which is "a situation that's set up by two or more people where everyone is participating in the state voluntarily."
  • Authoritarian-style leadership ("Do this or else") is a terrible way to run a team. Good leadership means finding people who want to contribute. Otherwise, says Peterson, "the enforcement costs are so high that the free society will outcompete the authoritarian society across time."


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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

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Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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