Does America actually need Donald Trump? Was an ego-driven leadership style behind the downfall of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick? Does intuitive wisdom have a role to play in leadership success? Paul Griffith, Head of Open Programmes, gets the low-down on leadership from Kerrie Flemming faculty at Hult’s Executive Education campus, Ashridge.
Q: Are we seeing the end of the hero leader?
There are times when you need a charismatic leader who is clearly in charge to galvanise people and make thing happen – but you only have to look Donald Trump to see how badly it can go when you give too much power to one person. There does seem to be some kind of blind acceptance in business – as in politics – that one dominant person needs to be at the helm. There’s a really strong human need, that’s buried deep in our psyche, to know who is in charge. We want the reassurance that someone will show us the way and are desperately reaching for that one person who will give us the answers. But there’s a big contradiction between that ingrained desire and what is actually needed in today’s complex, volatile environment. I believe it’s time we starting questioning the concept of the one all-powerful person. We need a diversity of people and perspectives to help organisations overcome the unprecedented challenges they are facing and develop the capacity to build something bigger and better.
Q: What kind of new leadership models are emerging?
We are doing some really interesting research here into the impact within organisations of ego and eco-led leadership behaviours. What we are finding is that too much of either is bad. Ego-driven leadership is essential to creating drive and purpose within organisations. But when it’s over-played it can trip over into arrogance. Leaders become self-centred, rigid and judgemental and lose the trust and support of those around them. Witness Uber boss Travis Kalanick, whose leadership style was fundamental to both his success and his downfall. Eco-centred leadership is a more inclusive approach. It’s about giving people space to think and be creative, letting go of some of the formal procedures, encouraging connectivity and seeing what emerges. Too much emphasis on that approach, however, can lead to a lack of focus and an inability to make clear decisions. We’ve been going into companies and examining these behaviours on the ground – and although our research is still at an early stage, it suggests that if companies are able to build cultures where both ego and eco intelligence can thrive, they will reap the rewards in terms of engagement, productivity and innovation.
Q: What skills and qualities do leaders need to be successful in a VUCA world?
Good leaders are self-aware and have a really clear sense of their identity, beliefs and values. This provides a strong foundation which will help to sustain them during challenging times. In an era of constant change and ambiguity, willingness to be challenged by others, and to regularly invite that challenge, is key to success. You need to be able to dampen your ego enough to listen to others and observe what is going on around you. As a leader, you also need to recognise the impact of your leadership on others. If you ask people what they want from those in charge, often it’s quite simply recognition for their efforts. Noticing that they are working their socks off and saying thank you. If you value people and make them feel good, they will stay and give you their best. Some of the most effective leaders I have come across also have what I call ‘intuitive wisdom’ – that innate ability to step back from a situation, understand where everyone is coming from and come up with a solution that benefits all. It’s about being able to step away from the minutiae that often bogs us down and see the bigger picture.
Q: Do we need to change the way we develop leaders?
Locking leaders into a classroom for three days or throwing vast amounts of knowledge at them on-line won’t have a long-term impact. If people are to develop strong leadership skills they need to know what it really feels like to be in charge in a crisis situation or to have to respond on their feet to rapidly changing demands. We are expecting more of leaders than ever before and traditional models of leadership development are simply not fit for purpose any more. We need to see a shift in learning towards experiences that stretch, challenge and ‘stress’ leaders, in a supportive environment. They need to be able to practice their skills safely and learn on an emotional as well as a practical level, so that they can develop the ‘muscle memory’ that will prepare them for managing these situations when they arise in real life.
Dr Kerrie Fleming is Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Ashridge Executive Education. You can see her TEDx talk, ‘What kind of leader are you?’, here.
Paul Griffith is a Professor of Practice in strategy, innovation and customer centricity at Ashridge Executive Education and is responsible for product development. He was a VP at Inmarsat, the satellite operator, where he was responsible for the global portfolio and as a member of the executive leadership team taking the business through a private equity transaction and subsequent initial public offering. He has held leadership roles in the telecoms sector for global enterprises, start-up and turnaround businesses including BT, FirstMark and Datapoint.