* ISBN: 0-932633-02-1 304 pages softcover

Dorset House Publishing (also Dutch, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean)

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“This is an excellent book for anyone who is a leader, who wants to be a leader, or who thinks only people with ‘leader’ or ‘manager’ in their title are leaders.” —Elisabeth Hendrickson, Quality Tree Consulting

“This book can be described briefly as a guide to developing personal leadership potential, but it is much more than that . . . it is filled with useful insights into personal growth as a professional.” —Journal of Systems Management

“always fascinating . . . focuses our attention on what it takes to make teams of thinking technical people work effectively together.” —IEEE Computer

“twenty-four well-reasoned, thought-provoking chapters on making the change from technical star to problem-solving leader . . . extremely practical and down-to-earth. . . .” —CAUSE/Effect

This book is a personalized guide to developing the qualities that make a successful leader. It identifies which leadership skills are most effective in a technical environment and why technical people have characteristic trouble in making the transition to a leadership role. For anyone who is a leader, hopes to be one, or would like to avoid being one. (This is the “textbook” for Problem Solving Leadership Workshop.)


When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words Banzan became enlightened.

— Paul Reps, “Everything Is Best” from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

This is a book about enlightenment, both mine and yours. Mine is still incomplete, but so far has taken rather longer than a walk through the market. This book, for instance, has been at least fifteen years in the making.

It started around 1970, when Don Gause, Dani Weinberg (my wife), and I spent a summer in Switzerland. Don and I were writing a book on problem solving (Are Your Lights On? or How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is), and Dani was continuing her anthropological research on Swiss Peasant communities. Over the years, Don and I had been studying successful and unsuccessful problem-solving efforts, particularly computing projects. Dani had been studying the ways in which new technology had been introduced into peasant communities. Comparing notes, we dreamed of a workshop that would have the maximum possible leverage on the successful introduction of new technical systems, but where was that leverage?

When we compared successful and unsuccessful systems, we quickly realized that almost all of the successes hinged on the performance of a small number of outstanding technical workers. Some of them were consistent sources of innovative technical ideas, some were interpreters of other people’s ideas. Some were inventors, some were negotiators, some were teachers, some were team leaders. What distinguished them from their less successful colleagues was a rare combination of technical expertise and leadership skills. Today, we would say that they were high in innovation, but with sufficient motivational and organizational skills to use in making ideas effective.

These leaders were not the pure technicians produced by the engineering and science schools, nor were they the conventional leaders trained in the schools of management. They were a different breed, a hybrid. What they shared was a concern for the quality of ideas. Like the butcher, they wanted everything in their shop to be the best. We called them technical leaders.

Don, Dani, and I designed a new leadership workshop, called “Technical Leadership in Computer Programming,” which was first given in Australia at the invitation of Dennis Davie. (It’s now called the Problem Solving Leadership Workshop, or PSL.) Fourteen out of fifteen participants rated it “the most profound educational experience I’ve ever had.” We realized we had found our leverage.

In the years that followed, Daniel Freedman and a few others joined our team and the workshop was given to hundreds of would-be technical leaders all over the world. A few electrical and mechanical engineers slipped in, as did some trainers. Except for some technical material, these newcomers found everything directly applicable to their work. As a result, we gradually dropped technical material and broadened our audience. We also broadened our vision of what was possible.

These people had transformed themselves from ordinary technical supervisors into problem-solving leaders with the power to make things happen. Many of them didn’t understand their own transformation. It seemed as if one day they were supervisors and the next they were leaders, like Banzan in the marketplace. But if leadership were only attained through a sudden, mystical enlightenment, how could one learn to become a technical leader?

Over the years, the biggest lesson we have learned from our workshops is that becoming a leader is not something that happens to you, but something that you do. Often in a workshop, someone seems to attain a sudden enlightenment, but we have no more to do with that than the butcher had to do with the moment that completed Banzan’s lifelong conversion. Our workshops do not teach people to become leaders; they merely give a boost to each person’s unique experiential process of self-development. This book takes the same approach: Consider it as your personal leadership workshop.

From working with systems, I have learned that the process of change is always organic: It’s never possible to change just one thing at a time. Each of my behaviors is the solution to some problem from my past. To learn, I add new behaviors to serve alongside these valuable old ones. Yet, like a seed, I already have all the behaviors needed to grow, so I merely need to cultivate them selectively

I believe that leadership involves a nurturing process, not taking charge of people’s lives, so this book is a guide to the process of taking charge of your own development. Its methods, like the methods of our workshops, are organic, designed to fit with the unique system that is you in a way that is gentle, realistic, and fun.

Nevertheless, the process of change won’t always feel like fun. Because change is often difficult, the book is also designed to provide emotional support. I offer models of leadership, so you’ll have an opportunity to let go of some old myths that may block your path. I offer models of change, so you’ll understand better what’s happening when old ideas fall away. I quote other people’s remarks about their feelings as they’ve become technical leaders, so you’ll know you’re not alone. I know you will find your own unique enlightenment, and I hope this book will be a welcome companion on your walk through the marketplace.