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May 21, 2021

Technological Maestros: Characteristics of Innovative Leaders

By Gene Kim

In Episode 17 and Episode 18 of The Idealcast, I was blown away by Dr. Ron Westrum’s notion of Technological Maestros, a definition and list of characteristics for a leader that resonates deeply with me.

First, let’s look at Dr. Westrum’s definition of a technological maestro.

This is a term that is used in history of technology a lot.

First of all, you’re dealing with somebody who has very high energy, that’s critical.

The second thing is they know what questions to ask.

The third thing is they’re good at the details too, and that’s unexpected. You don’t usually expect people who are good at the big things to be good at the small things.

But they also have to have a high standard, and they have to be willing to get immersed in the activity itself. So you would find, for instance, the Chief of Naval Operations, if he or she is good, is going to be the kind of person who can ask the questions that could embarrass people at a lower level if they don’t know what they’re talking about.

This is what they told me at China Lake when I was doing the Sidewinder book, they said, we had directors who really knew what the story was, and the example about the Admiral and asking questions, that’s what they expect. They expect people to know what they’re doing.

With a technological maestro, you have a very different situation because here’s the [person] at top who not only knows what the key questions are, but they know in detail what’s probably going on, okay? And so a lot of times you’ll find, chiefs of Naval operations, they’ll go walk around at night and ask people questions at times when they’re low on blood sugar and so forth, and they’re going to tell you the truth. You need people at the top who are highly knowledgeable, and that also will attract people below them.

At China Lake, for instance, one of the biggest mistakes they ever made was if they had some guy they didn’t know what to do with, they’d keep promoting him upward.

But Jack Rabinow‘s Law about the boss being an [dope] is that basically the whole organization eventually became infected by the sin of ignorance because the [person] at the top didn’t know what they were doing.

When people below him were hired, it was this person who was making the decision.

That description gave me goosebumps twice.

The notion of a Technological Maestro struck me as an utter revelation, you need a person with high energy, and high standards. A person who’s great in the large, and great in the small. And someone who loves walking the floor, which I interpret as understanding the daily work of others.

When I say revelation, I don’t say that lightly. It seems something that is so very important. Once you see it, it’s difficult or maybe even impossible to unsee it. After all, how can you have greatness if the person at the top doesn’t know what they’re doing?

This is made even more profound by something else that Dr. Westrum mentioned, which is Rabinow’s Rule Number 23 of Leadership. As Westrum puts it, if you “have a dope at the top, you will have, or soon will have, dopes all the way down.”

I mean, holy cow, right? Does that not summarize so well the conditions when things are going so incredibly well because of who’s at the top, or when things are going so frustratingly and maddeningly not well, again, because of who’s at the top?

Of course, we have great examples that we can cite from popular culture of technological maestros, like Steve Jobs. This obviously goes much further than someone with a high popular profile or charismatic appeal. What this concept reminds me of is a Harvard Business Review article that Dr. Steven Spear and I have discussed at length from Dr. Joel Podolny and Dr. Morten Hansen called, How Apple is Organized for Innovation. It’s a paper that, among many things, describes the functional nature of their organization and the need for leaders to be very technical.

There’s lots of caveats, but one paragraph that stuck out to me is this:

One principle that permeates Apple is that leaders should know the details of their organization, at least three levels down, because that is essential for speedy and effective cross-functional decision-making at the highest levels. If a manager attends a decision-making meeting without the details at their disposal, the decision must either be made without the details or postponed. Managers tell war stories about making presentations to senior leaders who drill down into cells on the spreadsheet lines of code or test results on a product.

And these results seem very consistent with the concept of the technological maestro.

Dr. Westrum and I discuss the concept of a technological maestro more in the rest of the interview, where I try to understand how the technological maestro concept would apply to Captain David Marquet, author of the book Turn the Ship Around, where, arguably, he didn’t have any expertise, because, as the story goes, he was trained on an entirely different class of submarine, what then?

Listen to the rest of the interview and discuss on technological maestros in Episode 17 and Episode 18 of The Idealcast.

- About The Authors
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Gene Kim

Award winning CTO, researcher, and author.

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