Jordan Peterson’s guide to leadership
Here's what it means to be a good leader—no buzzwords, no bullsh*t.
Jordan B. Peterson, raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta, has flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stunt-plane, explored an Arizona meteorite crater with astronauts, and built a Kwagu'l ceremonial bighouse on the upper floor of his Toronto home after being invited into and named by that Canadian First Nation. He's taught mythology to lawyers, doctors and business people, consulted for the UN Secretary General, helped his clinical clients manage depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia, served as an adviser to senior partners of major Canadian law firms, and lectured extensively in North America and Europe. With his students and colleagues at Harvard and the University of Toronto, Dr. Peterson has published over a hundred scientific papers, transforming the modern understanding of personality, while his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief revolutionized the psychology of religion. His latest book is 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
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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