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.
This is a version of leadership that even an introversion advocate like Ms Cain can get behind. It does not glorify anyone’s desire to preside over a hierarchy, command resources, and make others answer to them.

But neither does it deny that leadership is essential to getting big things done. All around us, we see initiatives and enterprises operating in this new way, whether by spontaneously organised citizen brigades or by innovators in companies, increasingly working on ad hoc teams and special projects. In an era when innovation is possible, and progress needed, this is the kind of leadership we require most.

The implication is that the human race is not naturally divided into two camps: leaders and followers. Having more people comfortable with toggling between the two modes would help us build a better society. To “step up” and to “step aside” — as needed — is the new way to lead in a world of distributed information and talent.

Does this approach work for MBAs and business people operating in a political and hierarchical world? Absolutely. In a time where toxic leadership and power abuse are increasingly common, it is time to shift the narrative.

Read the full post at the Financial Times

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.

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