While I have a technical background, my career has been spent working with corporate boards and management teams. I have seen first-hand how critical leadership are to the success of organizations. Organizations filled with competent people can fail miserably if individuals do not have the right interpersonal skills and humility.
I have worried about governance within EA for a while. In October, I launched the EA Good Governance Project and wrote that "We have not yet experienced a scandal / major problem and have not yet started to think through how to avoid that happening again" . Now, 4 months later, we've had our fair share and people are open to change.
This post is my attempt to put some thoughts together. It has been written in a rather rushed way given recent news, so apologies if some parts are poorly worded.
I have structured my thoughts in 4 sections, corresponding to the 4 key ways in which leadership can fail:
1) Bad actor
2) Well-intentioned people with low competence
3) Well-intentioned high-competence people with collective blind spots
4) Right group of people, bad practices
Much discussion on the forum in recent months has focused on the concept of a bad actor. I think we are focusing far too much on this concept.
The term comes from computer science where hackers are prevalent. However, real life is rarely this black and white. Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence (Hanlon's razor).
The bad actor concept can be used, consciously or unconsciously, to justify recruiting board members from within your clique. Many EA boards comprise groups of friends who know each other socially. This limits the competence and diversity of the board. Typically the people you know well are exactly the worst people to provide different perspectives and hold you to account. If they are your friends, you have these perspectives and this accountability already and you can prevent bad actors through referencing, donation history and background checks.
Key takeaway: Break the clique
There's an old adage: How do you know if someone is not very good at Excel? They will say they are an expert. With Excel, the more you know, the more aware you are of what you don't know. I think leadership is similar. When I had 3-5 years of professional experience, I thought I could lead anything. Now I know better.
Some aspects of leaderships come naturally to people, but many have to be learned by close interaction with role models. When you are a community without experienced figures at the top, this is hard. We should not expect people with less than 10 years of professional experience to be a fully rounded leader. Equally, it's possible to be successful without being a good leader.
I think many of us in the community have historically held EA leaders on a pedestal. They were typically appointed because of their expertise in a particular field. Some of the brightest people I've ever met are within the EA community. However, we then assumed they had excellent people judgment, a sound understanding of conflicts of interest, in-depth knowledge of real estate investments and an appreciation for power dynamics in sexual relationships. It turns out some of them don't. This shouldn't come as a big surprise. It doesn't mean they can't be a valuable contributor to the community and it certainly doesn't make them bad actors.
Key takeaway: We need to elevate the importance of soft skills and learn from models of effective leadership in other communities and organizations
The more worrying thing though is how those people also believed in their own abilities. In my career, I have met a large number of company CEOs. I truly believe that the difference between a poor CEO and a good CEO is not their own expertise but their ability to harness other people's expertise. This means knowing who to trust on a particular issue and how to get the right decision out of them. We all have blind spots and we all benefit from decision-making that draws on the right expertise at the right moment. Being open to external expertise is good epistemics. Let's not recreate the errors of others simply because we believe we are superior.
We naturally like and find it easier to work with people who are similar to ourselves. It makes life simpler: decision-making is fast, cognitive dissonance is less, and we get our own way more often.
Key takeaway: Recognizing one's own faults is one of the hardest skills to develop
So how do good leaders get decisions right? They hire people who are different to them. They create the conditions for that person to challenge their views, e.g. by investing time to understand opposing viewpoints, by talking last in discussions if they risk being too dominant. They know when to make a decision
What does this mean for CEOs? CEOs should bring important and difficult questions to the Board for input. They should empower the board by giving them the information and context they require. They should create the right incentives for employees to voice their honest opinions. They should provide the structure for getting decisions made. And they should lead by example.
What does this mean for Board? Boards should understand that they are accountable only to themselves. They should avoid execution (there's a lot of evidence that companies with a single Chairman-CEO underperform). They should talk less during discussions where they are not independent (e.g. they came up with the proposal). They should critically evaluate their own performance and composition.
Key takeaway: Think about how your every interaction promotes cultures for effective decision-making.
I spent a few years earning to give before coming across EA. During that time, I attempted and mostly failed to answer questions about the most effective ways to make the world better. EA provides people with a way to answer those questions and funnel their energy into it. I sincerely believe that EA has had and will have an enormous positive impact. Please don't give up on EA.