Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center
At age four, we’re fueled with curiosity, asking thousands of questions to better grasp what’s going on around us. Already we are aware, at a very fundamental level, that questioning helps us feel our way around a situation and develop entirely new ways of engaging with the world.
It isn’t long, however, before we enter an educational system that rewards answers more than questions. Consider that the average child between six- to 18-years old asks only one question per one-hour class per month. Contrast that with the average teacher, who peppers kids with 300 to 600 questions a day and waits an average of one second for each reply, and you have a recipe for what I call the “Global Questioning Crisis.”
As adults, many leaders perpetuate this answer-centric culture, playing it safe as they get things done. But, based on my research and firsthand conversations with the most renowned leaders of our time, high-impact innovators know that they must question to disrupt, or risk being disrupted. As such, they sustain this critical skillset, not just by asking more questions, but by identifying the “hot” questions – ones that are provocative, emotional and downright uncomfortable – while also encouraging those around them to be passionate about the same. Finally, they actively pursue answers to these hot questions by leveraging several key discovery skills – observing, networking, experimenting, and associational thinking.
We know that two-thirds of large scale transformation efforts fail. But that’s not a terribly helpful piece of information―unless we’re looking for confirmation that this is hard, really hard. What is useful is to understand what leaders can do to substantially increase the odds that their companies won’t be among the two-thirds of those that fail. From my research and work with companies around the world leading large-scale transformation initiatives, here are the four things I’ve found that virtually all successful change leaders do really well:
Recognize embedded tensions and paradoxes
Smart, capable, solid professionals most often perform well in their roles until they reach a level in their organizations at which they are confronted with a series of embedded tensions and paradoxes that make leading effectively much more complicated. The most common paradoxes leaders face when driving a transformation effort are:
Revitalization vs. Normalization. At the core of every change initiative is the desire to breathe new life into the organization―to revitalize ways of thinking, behaving and working. But one change initiative often morphs into many, and before long employees become “change weary.” Thus, we find ourselves in the conflicted situation of needing revitalization but desiring normalization.
Globalization vs. Simplification. Doing business today means doing business globally, but the complexities brought on by globalization are often in conflict with the need for organizations to make it simple for customers to do business with them. Leaders struggle with creating organizational responses that address the need to master globalization while offering customers and employees optimal simplification.
Innovation vs. Regulation. Many organizations, particularly in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, are saddled with trying to do business, let along innovate, under increasingly crushing regulatory environments. This is a stifling tax on a company’s capacity to find creative approaches to solving unmet customers’ needs. As such we struggle with the tension between the desire to boost innovation and the need to operate under increasing regulation.
Here’s a challenge for people who think about organizations in 21st-century America: How do we demilitarize our notions of leadership?
In late January 2016, National Public Radio reported on Urban Warriors, a YMCA of Metro Chicago initiative. Run in cooperation with the Adler Institute of Psychology, the pilot program brings inner-city youth together with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal: to acknowledge the physical and psychological damage occasioned by participants’ prolonged exposure to violence and help them cope. The YMCA staffer behind the program, Eddie Bocanegra, paraphrases the kids’ logic for buying into it: they (the soldiers) have guns, we have guns; they have ranks, our gangs have ranks; they wear uniforms, we wear gang colors; they lived in a war zone, we do the same.
On the face of it, the YMCA program is an imaginative and praiseworthy response to a deeply felt need. Both military veterans struggling to reintegrate with civilian life and teenagers subject to or participating in gang violence have gravitated to the program, sharing their stories and taking comfort from the recognition that they aren’t alone in their difficulties. That said, we might ask ourselves how we have created a “homeland” where combat experience best models the lives of supposed domestic harmony that veterans were originally sworn to protect, and wish now to share.
If you are like a lot of people, your New Year’s Resolution list includes one or more ventures that you’ve been stalling on. Likely you’ve postponed working on this item due to some lack of clarity or perhaps you fear that you haven’t the proper passion for the topic or sector or a compelling vision to start a business. Indeed, how many times have you heard this advice given to people thinking of starting a company: “You’ve got to be passionate about it. You gotta love what you do.” But guess what?
Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center
The title of Chief Executive Officer commonly conjures up images of a sharply dressed, smooth-talking individual who paints an inspiring, mesmerizing picture of their company in images and words. But it is underneath this veiled exterior that an organization’s real story lives.
When the Volkswagen scandal broke, my first thought went to the leaders of the company. Of course, there is the obvious question: Did former CEO Martin Winterkorn and Volkswagen America CEO Michael Horn know about the cheating (both have denied this)? But for me, a leadership scholar, the fiasco raises much more interesting questions about Winterkorn and Horn’s leadership styles: Did the CEO image or illusion they projected blind them from the realities of their own business? Did they perpetuate a culture where employees were fearful of sharing problems with those at the top? Though we may never know how much knowledge these leaders had prior to the public exposé, it is a compelling case of what can happen when leaders become too focused on an image of perfection. Rather than trying to conform to a pre-cast mold, I believe leaders should abandon their bogus two-dimensional views of leadership.