In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the terrorists responsible for that act took the life of a police officer, Sean Collier, who worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Those who knew and loved him at MIT resolved to commemorate his memory. J. Meejin Yoon, head of MIT’s department of architecture, designed a memorial to honor Collier’s love of the outdoors and spirit of service, while reflecting the university community he served. The memorial is composed of massive interlocking granite blocks. Making them stand up required a feat of engineering that pushed the technical limits of the material. A multidisciplinary group assembled to figure out how to complete the project. The group included faculty, students, and staff with expertise in architecture, construction, engineering, and masonry, as well as consulting experts in structural and civil engineering, landscape architecture, and lighting design. No one person directed the project from start to finish; instead, teams stepped up and stepped out, forming for just as long as their expertise was needed. The Collier Memorial was unveiled on April 29, 2015, just a few days after the second anniversary of the officer’s death. It stands today on MIT’s campus as a tribute to a life given in service to a community that rises to meet challenges.
When a collaborative project like the Collier Memorial comes to fruition, it might seem to happen without leaders. But in reality, the many leaders involved were following a model of leadership that is hard to spot until you know how to look for it. We call this approach challenge-driven leadership. These leaders are propelled by the intrinsic desire to solve problems and meet challenges creatively. They are not motivated by the trappings of authority, status, or showmanship. They don’t particularly want to lead, and they certainly don’t want to be led. But they excel at choreographing and directing the work of others, because their expert knowledge enables them to spot opportunities to innovate in a way that cannot be done by working alone.
Challenge-driven leadership is not right for every situation. But where innovation and entrepreneurship are required — and in particular where developing a solution requires drawing together diverse talents and perspectives to discover novel approaches — it tends to work well. No wonder we find it in many places where people are dealing with “wicked problems,” a term coined in 1967 by design theorist Horst Rittel that refers to broad challenges with no obvious solutions. This is the kind of leadership that many companies, government agencies, and nonprofits would do well to recognize and cultivate.
When we first encountered challenge-driven leadership, we were looking for something that might explain MIT’s unique impact. MIT-educated people create enormous economic value, on top of their constant contributions to basic science and technology development. According to the Kauffman Foundation, MIT alumni have launched more than 30,200 active companies, employing roughly 4.6 million people and generating roughly US$1.9 trillion in annual revenues. If these alumni made up a single nation’s business community, it would land between the world’s ninth-largest GDP, Russia ($2.1 trillion), and the 10th-largest, India ($1.9 trillion). Beyond the impressive statistics, we saw evidence on a daily basis of interesting, high-impact work conducted by teams at or connected with the school. Yet MIT isn’t often thought of as a breeding ground for leaders of large enterprises the way Harvard and GE are. Clearly, big things get accomplished here in a way people don’t recognize as traditional leadership.
We ultimately found that there is in fact a distinctive kind of leadership taking place at many levels of MIT, evident everywhere from student projects to faculty startups to alumni enterprises. It is based, in part, on the personal qualities that MIT people share. Many arrive as introverts, relative outliers in their past environments, and find joy in becoming part of a community of people more like themselves — those who love science and technology, and who hold the same deep curiosity to solve the planet’s mysteries. But there’s more to challenge-driven leadership than just a scientific personality; it’s also evident in the arts, among many entrepreneurs, and in social ventures. MIT happens to be one place where the conditions are ripe for challenge-driven leadership to emerge, and is thus a good launching point for observations and hypotheses about it.
Read the full post at strategy+business.
Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management, a Professor of Organization Studies, and the Director of the MIT Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Hal Gregersen is Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management.