The Power of Leaders Who Focus on Solving Problems – Deborah Ancona and Hal Gregersen

From Harvard Business Review

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

MIT Sloan Prof. Deborah Ancona

In front of a packed room of MIT students and alumni, Vivienne Ming is holding forth in a style all her own. “Embrace cyborgs,” she calls out, as she clicks to a slide that raises eyebrows even in this tech-smitten crowd. “Really. Fifteen to 25 years from now, cognitive neuroprosthetics will fundamentally change the definition of what it means to be human.”

She’s referring to the work that interests her most these days, as cofounder of machine learning company Socos and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for Theoretical Neuroscience. (“So — can I literally jam things in your brain and make you smarter? If you’re curious, the answer is unambiguously yes.”) But the talk has covered a lot more than this, as Ming has touched on many initiatives and startups she’s been involved with, all solving problems at the intersection of advanced technology, learning, and labor economics.

She’s an entrepreneur, a CEO, and a teacher — all leadership roles — but when we ask her about her leadership style, she demurs. “What I’ve learned about myself as a leader, as an executive, is — I’ll be blunt — I’m a pretty mediocre manager. I try to do the right things, but I’m much more focused on problems than I am on people, and that’s not always that healthy.” While she’s utterly confident in herself, she just doesn’t identify as top management. She’s happier to think of herself as a data scientist, a computer geek. She loves talking about hacks she’s pulled off — like the alterations she made to her diabetic son’s medical devices, so she could merge all their data to produce a predictive model. Now, she gets an alert an hour in advance if a spike or drop is coming in his blood glucose level. This is an unprecedented, and highly valuable, thing. “Turns out, it broke several federal laws,” she laughs.

Ming is a tech optimist, believing that all kinds of previously intractable problems will be able to be solved as the tool kit for addressing them is developed. And she’s decided her best way of contributing to that progress is to keep honing her individual-contributor skills. “For a long time, I tried to be the whole package. I put a lot of energy into making certain that I was shepherding everyone along, doing all the right things for my teams. Then I realized: You know what? If I can get some people that are really good at the things that I’m not, then I can focus on my strengths. And my strengths are in creative problem solving — all the way down to writing the code myself.” Read More »

It’s time to found a new republic – Daron Acemoglu & Simon Johnson

MIT Sloan Professor Simon Johnson

MIT Professor Daron Acemoglu

From Foreign Policy

Most Americans tend to believe that they’ve lived under the same form of government, more or less, since the country was founded in late 1700s. They’re mistaken.

It’s true that there have been important continuities. The American conception of what government should and should not do is deeply rooted in clear thinking at the start of the republic; the country has long preferred limited government and effective constraints on capricious executive action. But this persistence of core ideas (and the consistent use of the same buildings in Washington, D.C.) obscures the dramatic changes that have taken place within the governing institutions themselves.

In fact, formidable challenges at the end of the 19th century were met by fashioning a transformation so thorough it could effectively be deemed a “Second Republic.” This new republic came with significantly different economic and political rules — and, as a result, enabled the American system to survive and even thrive for another century. Today, faced with serious economic and political dysfunction, we are in need of another round of deep institutional renewal: a Third Republic.

The conditions that brought about the first transformation of American society are strikingly similar to those we see today. At the root of the problems confronting the United States by 1900 was a wave of innovation that sped up growth. The direct benefits of these new technologies accrued to a few, while many others became more uncertain about their economic future.

Read More »

A year for leadership in America – Deborah Ancona

MIT Sloan Prof. Deborah Ancona

From The Hill

Let’s face it: 2017 was truly frightening despite being a banner year for the economy. So as we approach the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s inaugural it is worth pausing to reflect. His first year in office has been a difficult one for those seeking leadership role models. It is not just Trump’s inappropriate tweets, the rollback of environmental regulations, and the foreign policy gaffes that have posed a problem.

As a professor of leadership and a news junkie, I have been disappointed in the performances of our most visible leaders throughout the woebegone 2017. Given a never-ending array of unsettling headlines, including sometimes terrifying stories about Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, we have been witness to corruption and toxic leadership that distorts truth and intimidates followers and critics alike.

But let us focus on the United States, where leaders on both sides of the aisle have noted this dysfunction. Worse still the negativity cascades from the top throughout the government, business and society at large. Toxicity is catching.

The narcissistic tendencies and fear-mongering tactics of our leaders, plus a series of revelations of noted sexual misconduct in many fields, made the events of 2017 read like a leadership Greek tragedy. In the past year, our political and business leaders have been exposed as both out of touch, unable to act on major issues like global warming and drug addiction, and, too often, acting badly if not outright bizarrely in support of their own self interests.

Yet surprisingly, psychologists and political scientists alike have shown that in uncertain times we often gravitate toward these Trump-like authoritarian leaders who promise a better future. When the promise is not forthcoming, however, or the pain worse than we feared, we flip-flop between two states: paralysis and over-reactivity. In doing so, we become ineffective in solving problems where real solutions might be available. Read More »

Risking your life for corporate camaraderie – Neal Hartman

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Neal Hartman

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Neal Hartman

From the Huffington Post

Imagine being submerged inside a downed aircraft in icy water, knowing that to reach air and safety you have to work with fellow passengers. Of course, you understand this is only a training exercise, aimed at honing your capacity for trust, collaboration, and team building. Here’s the question: Will defying death succeed better than the rope courses, scavenger hunts, tug of wars and other standbys of traditional corporate team building?

The Groton, Conn.-based company Survival Systems USA is betting that undergoing realistic disaster training is the new trend in helping corporations enhance teamwork, improve leadership and build skills needed for 21st century workplaces. The company is adapting its aquatic survival training into a program for companies seeking to push the envelope in employee team building.

The Survival System training, which involves a mock plane or helicopter crash in nasty conditions, is but the latest in moves toward intensive team-building exercises that go far beyond the classic “trust fall.” Exercises may range from rock climbing, rappelling, wilderness camping and sailing to sophisticated “geo hunts” in which teams use GPS to follow clues.

Read More »

MBAs can front a revolution in collaborative leadership – Deborah Ancona and Hal Gregersen

MIT Sloan Prof. Deborah Ancona

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

From The Financial Times

There seems to be growing unease with the value we place on leadership. Susan Cain, author of Quiet, a best-selling book about the power of introverts, offers an example in a New York Times piece “Not Leadership Material? Good”. In it, she is specifically focusing on how college admissions favour applicants with leadership credentials.

She worries that too many slots are being offered to high-school seniors who are status and power-seekers. She bristles at the implication that students do not deserve merit scholarships or places at elite schools if they do great work as team players or solo artists.

Ms Cain deplores the fact that people who fall into the latter categories feel pressured to pretend they were born to run things. “If college admissions offices show us whom and what we value,” Cain says, “then we seem to think that the ideal society is composed of Type As.”

Good points, but let us not fall too far into the trap of saying that some people are leadership “types” and others are not. The really damaging thing for a society is to signal to people that “leaders” are different from those who are contributors and team members — rather than the same people at different moments and in different modes.

To understand the point, consider this example. A couple of years ago, a large, diverse group of people on MIT’s campus rallied round a project they all agreed deserved their best efforts: creating a memorial sculpture to honour the life of Sean Collier, a campus police officer who was murdered by terrorists in 2013.

Who led this project?

It is impossible to name one person. Professor J Meejin Yoon, head of MIT’s architecture department, designed the sculpture knowing that to make its massive interlocking granite pieces stand would require a technical feat of engineering.

As Prof Yoon commented, “developing and constructing the memorial requires a coming-together of like-minded, like-spirited people from many different disciplines to create something singular in the world”. She called it a “very MIT project”.

Throughout 2015, different contributors led efforts at key moments when their expertise was most relevant to making progress. Just as readily, they stepped aside when some new aspect of the project came to the fore. Combining those minds and hands did not bog the project down: an effort that should have taken three years was accomplished in one. Read More »