Inventive companies like Amazon and Tesla are constantly churning out new products and services, but there is something else that they, and other distinctive enterprises, are also in the business of producing: their version of leadership.
A research project we just completed suggests there might be something important and innovative going on in this department, too. The “challenge-driven” leadership we found in our study of MIT leaders might not be right for every kind of enterprise, but we suspect it will spread to many more in years to come.
The idea that high-performing organizations might have something distinctive going on in their leadership behaviors, and not just their marketplace offerings, is not new. Firms like GE and Procter & Gamble have long been seen as crucibles of managerial talent development, in which certain kinds of leaders tend to be forged. Scholars including Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood and Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner have explored the concept of building “leadership brands.” Headhunters dine out on these differences. This means, for one thing, that it’s good to develop some self-knowledge on this point. If an enterprise can figure out what kind of leader reliably emerges from its ranks—and especially if it doesn’t like what it discovers—it can start doing something about it.
If it’s not clear what kind of leadership works best at your company, here’s one strategy for figuring it out. Pay attention to who quits or gets fired — especially new hires — because it can signal what leadership skills matter most. One senior executive did just that at her global firm where creative output counts. She said: “If you’re not interested in being provoked to act creatively, then you’ll have a boring life here. But if you like being provoked and it opens up your creative capacity, then you have an opportunity to react to the provocation. If you don’t react though, sorry, but you’re at the wrong address and I’ve seen many people being at the wrong address here. You either belong here or you don’t and many people leave, voluntarily or involuntarily, after three to six months.”
If you like the kind of leader your organization typically produces, protect that kind of leadership. That was the desire that motivated us to venture into a year-long research project at our own institution, MIT. We had the strong sense that there was something distinctive about the “MIT style of leadership”—some behavioral line that we could trace from the students’ infamous hacks to the alumni’s entrepreneurial ventures. That sense was redoubled when we started interviewing people we saw getting big things done here. To our surprise, they weren’t typically comfortable talking about themselves as leaders. Some even seemed to have a kind of allergic reaction to the word, associating “leadership types” with overly confident climbers, eager to rise in the careers and start delegating the real work. If we were looking at a new version of leadership, this was one with an anti-leadership strain running through it.
As we dug deeper, we discovered the key to those attitudes—and to much else about how teams get work done at MIT. People here don’t follow leaders, they follow problems. The most important work, then, of what we would call the “leader” in a situation is to seize on some intriguing, inspiring, barely-solvable problem, and frame it in a way that draws other smart and skilled people toward it. In this “problem-led” version of leadership, moreover, the person taking charge often changes with the phases of the effort. Through a fluid “stepping up and stepping out” process, team members take on more responsibility when the need for their particular knowledge or skill is greatest. A lot of things turn out to work differently when leadership is challenge-driven — as we saw from the winning MIT Hyperloop Team to the work of the Langer Lab to the community that pulled together to erect the Sean Collier Memorial. Along the way, we also realized that what we had been calling the MIT style of leadership was actually bigger than MIT; we recognized its earmarks in other organizations, too, that are known for taking on big challenges.
Leadership styles, or brands if you prefer the term, are always contextual. Different kinds of leaders are minted in different organizations, and whether they can succeed elsewhere is always a question. And leadership styles have their times as well as their places; perhaps challenge-driven leadership is particularly well-suited to our current moment, with its high levels of ambiguity and opportunity. It seems, too, like a leadership style that becomes more workable where high degrees of connectivity make it easier to assemble ad hoc teams and have them be productive. In other words, it seems like the kind of leadership the twenty-first century—the digital age—has enabled and will increasingly demand.
By Deborah Ancona and Hal Gregersen
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