Leading Matters

John Hennessy

Posted on December 1, 2018 at 20:50

TL;DR: Humility. This book started talking about humility, and expressed that theme throughout the whole book - for the most part. I remember when applying for the Knight-Hennessy fellowship that one of the criterion they were looking for was humility, but it was beside ambition and independence. I never really understood how ambition could be a trait beside humility but after reading this book, I started to grasp what Hennessy conveys on how to be a leader.

Servant leadership is key.


  • As a leader, you won’t always be the smartest in the room.

The success of an endeavor you are leading depends on the entire team.

The most important instances when you need to practice humility are when you [are] wrong.


Be sure to put your feet in the right place. Then stand firm

Abe Lincoln

  • ID the characteristics you admire, then embody them.
  • Moments of authenticity are when you live up to the ideals you set for yourself.
  • If you can’t trust yourself, how can your team trust you?
  • Know when to leave a losing position.

Leadership as Service

  • You, the leader, are serving your team, not the other way around.
  • The larger the role, the more of a servant you are.
  • Align short/long-term interests with the scope/timeline of your team/tenure.
  • While you serve a large community, learn when to say no.

    If you overextend yourself, the constant mental multitasking will diminish your capacity to engage in the long-term thinking required by your institution.

Three part filter:

  1. How important was the service and inst. being served?
  2. Could I contr. in an impactful way or can someone else do it better?
  3. Would the service contr. to personal learning/growth?

Still hesitant? Think if you want to do this in the future:

if want_to_explore:
    return time.now() + (60 * 60 * 24 * 30) # Maybe in a month?
    return False


Its comforting I guess to know that KH admissions look at the applicant holistically and not just academically - at least that’s what Hennessy says and if he’s authentic then I can take his word for it.

  • Empathy rep. a crucial check on action.

    When a spark of empathy inspires you to action…ask yourself, does this warrant a personal or an institutional response?

When empathy contravenes fairness, it creates problems

  • A technological revolution can lead to temp. unemployment, but does not make a person unemployable.
  • KH is looking for the kind of empathy that:

    changes people as a result of their interaction with each other, the kind that … arises when one sees the world anew through someone elses eyes.


Courage compels a leader to take the right action.

  • Learn when to align core values in times of need.
  • Know when to put on your game face. (You can’t keep this on all the time though!)
  • Try even if you may not succeed, but learn to mitigate risk and total failure.
  • Not all parts of your team will be up to standard.

Effective modern leadership is driven by the ability to manage and grow an organization in an environment of continuous change.

Collaboration and Teamwork

Your team members are your equals and in terms of contribution, some will be you superiors.

I guess I felt this one from time to time but didn’t know how to handle it.

  • What your challenge as a team leader? A Max/Min problem: Maximize heterogeneity, while holding team together.
# What sort of discussions are allowed in a team?
except PersonalCriticismException, AngerException:
    print('You must cultivate a work environment that encourages thoughtful debate!')


Innovation presents great opportunities for smart entrepreneurs not the other way around.

The real power of academic symbiosis lies at this interface between ides and implementation.

Hey, thats what I’m trying to do and what I wrote my essay on! Even Hennessy agrees that bridging the academia/industry gap is difficult.

  • If you found a good leader, get out of their way and don’t micromanage! Let them learn and get the job done!
  • Micromanaging can hamper innovation.

Embracing innovation means accepting and recovering from failure.

Intellectual Curiosity

This one hits me right in the feels. At least you know that not all leaders are masters of all.

Once you accept a leadership position, likely you will no longer have the time to master any particular field of knowledge.

  • Blame others for your mishaps? Good luck getting people to vouch for you. (Read: French in the Napoleonic wars)


If you really want to inspire a team to action, best to engage them with a story.

  • See story on HP Prod. Mgr. ignoring Packard’s choice to abandon a venture, only to have it be successful.
  • As you become a leader, your story/vision more important than the facts and data. I guess this applies to research where you need to give your background and reasoning before you present data and results.
  • Shifting from tech. to leadership role means your job is to now bring people together and data just becomes a tool. Inspiring people via stories is more important.
  • Collect stories from your daily excursions. Look and listen for new stories.
  • Have a ‘quiver’ full of stories.


The early years of your career should be devoted to doing the best job you can in your chosen profession.

Fine, I’ll finish this post and I’ll get back to talking to robots…

To do the greatest good, you need to regularly ask yourself: How can I use my time and my position most effectively.

  • Think about reputation early on, focus on legacy later on.
  • Focus on “transcendent and lasting initiatives and actions.”