Lessons in Leadership from one of Technology's "Hidden Figures"

I must admit that I am a real-life hidden figure – a girly geek with an affinity to infinity and an intense love of mathematics.  Calculus is the field of mathematics which deals with change – specifically, the rate of change over time.  But you don’t have to be a math geek to appreciate the perspectives of a leader’s calculus.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Leadership is all about change.  Leaders implement new programs, discover breakthroughs in science, make struggling organizations successful, and lead troops to victory.  They lead people, organizations and most importantly, they drive themselves.  Leaders take small changes, over time and achieve the infinitely possible – or the impossible.

Leaders bring people together to accomplish what they could not have achieved by themselves as individuals.  This additive property of bringing people together creates new capabilities. Colin Powell in It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership asserts that “Good management gets 100% of a team’s designated capability…Great leadership …takes their followers to 110, 120, and 150 percent of what anyone thought was possible.”

Another additive property of leadership calculus comes from diversity and inclusion.  Homogeneous thinking will not bring about new ideas, approaches, or solutions.  Diversity in terms of style, occupation, skill, race, gender, socio-economic status, and many others will bring a broader solution set to a specific challenge.  The well-managed diverse team will offer more together than what they provide as individuals. 

One final aspect of the power of leadership calculus comes from what I will call orchestration.  This is readily apparent in the musical magic created in the improvisational style of jazz collaborations.  Each musician brings his individual gifts to the table.  The Encyclopedia Britannica defines improvisation as "the extemporaneous composition or free performance of a musical passage, usually in a manner conforming to certain stylistic norms but unfettered by the prescriptive features of a specific musical text.” Great jazz leaders such as Duke Ellington knew how to guide and set the musical context to create the inspired magic.  Said another way, leaders will bring diverse people together to accomplish on their own what they can do without the leader. It was more than Ellington’s skill as a pianist that created his musical magic; it was his ability to bring together musicians to create substance out of his vision for an innovative sound that was difficult to mimic.

Perhaps leadership calculus looks like magic to the uninformed or the uninspired. However, exceptional leaders will bring a set of skills and personal characteristics required to sustain change in their organizations. With Leadership calculus, a leader overcomes limits to achieve the impossible.