March 2023 – on core principles, defining success, jerks, and growing as a manager


Here is what “crossed my desk” in the month of March:

  • chatGPT and Chomsky,
  • identifying core principles,
  • defining success,
  • growing as a manager,
  • managers doing culture,
  • jerks winning and losing, and
  • responsibility and delegation.
shop sign that says "perfectly imperfect" with the "e" of imperfect written as an afterthought, i.e. imperfectly


An honest answer from Robin Chase, a former Zipcar CEO:

What is the most difficult lesson you’ve learned in your professional life? In what unexpected way did you grow from it? 

That people — your boss, your board, or your elected officials — sometimes make choices that are not in the best interests of a constituency but are rather in their own best interests. I’ve stopped being so naive. The logical and best answer won’t always be chosen, so I need to look deeper and reposition my arguments.

Can you relate?


Jason Fried has a realistic take on company culture:

Unwinding the new normal requires far more effort than preventing the new normal from being set in the first place. If you don’t want gnarly roots in your culture, you have to mind the seeds.

You don’t have to let something slide for long before it becomes the new normal. Culture is what culture does. Culture isn’t what you intend it to be. It’s not what you hope or aspire for it to be. It’s what you do. So do better.


How to use AI to do practical stuff: A new guide” provides an excellent glimpse into what large language models-LLM can do. The author of the piece is Ethan Mollick, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has been following and testing the evolution of chatGPT. His newsletter is worth following if you want to keep abreast of developments in that field.

As a linguist, I’m interested in what is and what might happen with generative AI. Here’s Noam Chomsky’s take:

“The human mind is not, like ChatGPT and its ilk, a lumbering statistical engine for pattern matching, gorging on hundreds of terabytes of data and extrapolating the most likely conversational response or most probable answer to a scientific question. On the contrary, the human mind is a surprisingly efficient and even elegant system that operates with small amounts of information; it seeks not to infer brute correlations among data points but to create explanations.

“Indeed, such programs are stuck in a prehuman or nonhuman phase of cognitive evolution. Their deepest flaw is the absence of the most critical capacity of any intelligence: to say not only what is the case, what was the case and what will be the case – that’s description and prediction – but also what is not the case and what could and could not be the case. Those are the ingredients of explanation, the mark of true intelligence.”

A must reference in the study of LLMs is Emily Bender:

How should we interpret the natural-sounding (i.e., humanlike) words that come out of LLMs? The models are built on statistics. They work by looking for patterns in huge troves of text and then using those patterns to guess what the next word in a string of words should be. They’re great at mimicry and bad at facts. Why?

LLMs (…) have no access to real-world, embodied referents. This makes LLMs beguiling, amoral, and the Platonic ideal of the bullshitter, as philosopher Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit, defined the term. Bullshitters, Frankfurt argued, are worse than liars. They don’t care whether something is true or false. They care only about rhetorical power — if a listener or reader is persuaded.

I’m aware that I have focussed on the linguistic capabilities of AI. There is plenty more AI does in other fields.


Much is said about “learning”, lifelong learning”, and the like. However little to nothing is said about how one gets there. Reading, listening to books, or attending conferences do not cut it in my view. Having read something or heard someone does not mean I have learned anything. Learning requires work. And that work is studying.

Here is sound advice on studying from John T. Reed in Succeeding:

“When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion things. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles – generally three to twelve of them – that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles.” (h/t)


An alternate definition of success

“For me, success is not a public thing. It’s a private thing. It’s when you have fewer and fewer regrets.” — Toni Morrison

In other words, you define it for yourself.

I mean, now. Do it now. Pull out a piece of paper and write it down. Write down your own definition of success. How fresh is it? How energizing is it? How you is it?


A review of the research on why Jerks might win the battle, but nice guys win the war.


If you are looking for clear, actionable thinking about strategy, be sure to read Roger Martin.

In a recent article, he suggests that

In helping your people make their [strategic] choices [downstream], you can look for various levels of responsibility from each one of them in each particular instance.

And he offers what he calls


The lowest level of responsibility is to make the choice yourself, even though you don’t think you should. Selecting this rung of the Ladder for a choice means that you completely lack confidence in the team member in question. The individual won’t learn a thing by being excluded entirely from the consideration of the choice. The only leaderly thing to do in this situation is to replace the individual, because leadership in choice-making means helping your team members step ever higher up on the Responsibility Ladder. If you can’t get them started, you can’t lead them.

The highest level of responsibility occurs when you offer to help them on their choice, and they decline the help because they don’t need it. Rather, they make the choice and inform you of their decision after the fact. This is a situation of highest confidence because either because it is an easy choice or, if it is a hard one, the team member in question is getting close to being able to assume your job.

When, with your help, they get onto the top step, consistently, you have fully prepared them to succeed you in your job, which means you have readied yourself for your next promotion.

There is a lot here: the manager as a developer of talent, succession planning, staffing, etc. Also interesting is that his ladder mirrors what we often discuss in my workshops with managers as levels of delegation. And that is captured in his reference to situations of low or high confidence.


In other news:

I will be launching an online course on April 28th entitled Being True to Yourself.

I offer it as a tool for people to have practical ways to make sense of who they are. It seeks to help people who have let themselves be challenged by the pandemic and do not want to let a crisis go to waste. It also seeks to help managers who understand that management is about working with people and that who the manager is is as important as what the manager does.

An email system will be sending more details in the weeks to come. It’ll be a separate system from the one that delivers this newsletter so feel free to unsubscribe from these marketing missives.

The six-week course has a group coaching component: we meet every week. Naturally, I’d love to see you there and work with you.

Now, if I can only overcome the embarrassment of having my picture taken and posted on the learning platform…

The course will open for enrollment shortly.

That’s it for now.

Keep it on the one,