Mar 202013
"Respect My Authority" Cartman T-Shi...

“Respect My Authority” Cartman T-Shirt
at Target spotted by Scringy
(Photo credit: JeepersMedia)

Your Quote to Original Thought Ratio is Too High

Take a look at your tweets, your blogs, your online discussions, your presentations – all the collective information you present to the world or to a specific audience and ask yourself, “Could a well-filtered RSS feed have done the same thing?”

Remember that employee who always used to cut out magazine and newspaper articles and route them around, but never actually led any initiatives?  The modern equivalent of that is a high volume of “contributions” that are actually links to thoughts someone else had.  That does not make you an authority; it makes you a less-efficient headline aggregator.

Instead of looking for other people’s material all the time, why not try writing your own?

Your Quote to Original Thought Ratio is Too Low

We all stand on the shoulders of giants.  I did not write the Agile Manifesto.  I did not invent Scrum or Kanban.  I have not worked for every type of client in every type of situation, and my personal experience or “what makes sense to me” is not the final arbiter of truth or wisdom.

Sometimes, in our efforts to avoid dogmatic regurgitation of someone else’s work, we act as if it doesn’t exist.  If something is old, traditional, or in some other way not directly thought of or experienced by you, then it’s worthless.

I want to be clear that traditionally held views or a the opinion of Everyone Else But You can be wrong, but they are not wrong simply because they’ve been around a long time or they come from other people.  A true authority is able to think critically about other sources without completely disregarding them just because they happen to be traditional, commonly held, or disagree with your own views.

You Think Rebuttals Are Personal Attacks

One unfortunate aspect of our education system is that we’ve been taught from a very early age that wrong answers are unacceptable and our ratio of wrong to right answers are the primary determining factor of our intellectual ability and rate of success.  It’s no wonder that, when someone tells us that we’re wrong, we automatically feel like someone is basically saying we’re inept or a failure.

Sometimes, rebuttals can contain personal attacks, but people who are authorities view rebuttals with curiosity and interest rather than disdain or dismissal.  When someone tells you that you’re wrong, do you get on a soapbox to pontificate on why you absolutely must be right, or do you think that rebuttal is interesting, worth hearing out, and worth investigating?

I was a newly hired team lead at one company, and a couple of the developers gave a presentation on a piece of an application they’d put together.  After the presentation, I said, and I quote, “Why did you choose to do it that way?”  And, no, it had no sarcastic emphasis or anything.  Just a matter of fact question.  They reacted as though I’d basically asked, “Why did this company hire morons like you?”  They got mad.  Really mad.  It was as though the very act of questioning their reasoning was the same as condemning it.

Debate is good.  And if someone expresses a view contrary to yours, they can certainly be wrong.  They may even be really really wrong.  But an authority comes to that conclusion after actually entertaining the notion rather than assuming that the “opposition” is wrong by default or deliberately trying to make them look bad.  Take them as opportunities to find out rather than a personal attack.

You Don’t Check Your Sources

Fairly recently, one of Kansas City’s more prominent agile charlatans tweeted an article written a couple of years ago by Michael Sahota where he said that Scrum was more suited to a collaborative, personal development culture, and Kanban was more suited to a control culture that minimized the importance of the person.

What this person obviously did not know is that, today, Sahota has a very different view about Scrum and Kanban and uses Kanban as his default for helping an organization become more agile.  In fact, he said so in the comments on this very blog.  This person is not the only person to have made this mistake, but it is perhaps the most recent example.

What does this have to do with authority?  Don’t we all make mistakes?  Well, sure, but in this case, this person had not been actively engaged with his sources (who are still very much alive and writing) or the community that uses them.  It doesn’t help that most of this person’s perceived authority depends on a ludicrously high Quote to Original Thought ratio, so if your sources actually disagree with you, that’s bad news for your authority.

Authorities don’t just comb the Internet looking for things that sound good.  They use source material as support and inspiration for their own thoughts.  They are engaged with the communities that are using this same source material.

You Aren’t Actively Engaged with Colleagues

I’m pretty active in LinkedIn discussions/debates with other agile consultants.  Some doofus once challenged this behavior, saying that clients don’t care about our internicene debates.

That’s true, they don’t, but that’s not why I do it.  I’m not trying to create the illusion of authority for marketing purposes; I’m actually trying to be competent in my field.  Being actively engaged with other authorities in my field keeps the saw sharp, keeps me learning, challenges my current notions, and keeps me abreast of innovations.  Despite the Internet making this easy, true authority does not come from a client-driven marketing façade.  If you know your stuff, clients will stay with you, and knowing your stuff means being engaged with other leaders, malcontents, gadflies, and straight shooters in your own field.

You Mistake Criticism for Contribution

I have a Philosophy degree.  One of the interesting things about the history of ideas is that people are often very correct in their criticisms, but not so great in their recommendations.  Karl Marx points out a lot of valid challenges inherent in how capitalism works out in history.  His alternate recommendations are not so great.  The fact is, it’s a whole lot easier to point out what’s wrong with a proposal than to propose something of your own.  Almost anyone can do the former; only the truly insightful can do the latter.

Any authority needs to engage in the activity of criticism, but if that’s virtually all you do, there’s no difference between you and the guy yelling at the football coach through his TV screen.  If everyone else is so wrong, where are your bright ideas?  What are your alternate recommendations?  What would you do instead?

That’s harder, isn’t it?  And that’s the difference between being an authority in your field and being a poser.  Criticism is not contribution.  Destruction is not creation.

Most of Your Contributions Can Fit in Tweets

Twitter is cool.  Unfortunately, it also automates a lot of unclear thinking.  It’s very easy to use Twitter to simply link to an article without supporting thoughts, criticize without alternatives, or pose koan-like “reflections” that really make no sense.

The problem isn’t Twitter.  The problem is that thinking, articulating thoughts clearly, expressing arguments, engaging viewpoints, and all the things that actual authorities do takes time and space.  If the vast majority of your “insight” has been communicated through Twitter, you might think about how insightful your insight really is.  Your contributions to the history of human thought can fit in 140 odd character increments.

I’m not saying everyone who could rightfully be considered an authority in their field needs to be writing blogs or publishing articles, but whether they express themselves in public writings or in one on one discussions that no one ever finds out about, there needs to be the kinds of substance that can only come from a deep internalization and synthesis of wisdom.

It’s fine not to be an authority in your field.  If everyone were an authority, no one would be an authority.  But if this is your aspiration, or you wonder why people just don’t care very much what you think, just keep in mind that deep, valuable contributions are a lot more work and take a lot more time to acquire than it might seem.

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  One Response to “Why You Aren’t Seen As an Authority”

  1. Wow! Thank you for such profound thoughts and putting them together for people like me. 🙂

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