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 »

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 »

How to Cultivate Leadership That Is Honed to Solve Problems – 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 strategy+business

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.

Read More »

How to get employees to be more entrepreneurial — Deborah Ancona

MIT Sloan Prof. Deborah Ancona

MIT Sloan Prof. Deborah Ancona

From Fortune

Organizational change has never been easy, but in the past it was a little more straightforward. Fifty years ago, companies followed a basic blueprint. They had heroic leaders — a CEO and an elite top layer of management — who had tremendous authority and made all the important decisions. When they wanted to make a change, they set a direction and it cascaded down through the firm.

Today things are different. As companies compete more on speed, agility, and innovation, decision-making needs to get pushed down. Sure, there remain some old-school companies that rely solely on top-down leadership. But in an increasing number of firms, leadership is shared across the organization, often in teams. Command and control is out; collaboration and teamwork are in.

These are positive developments, but they don’t make organizational change any easier to pull off. The key for managers is to create an environment where teams and individuals — even those lower in the organization — have the latitude and autonomy to recommend and try out new ideas, be it a new environmental initiative, a new technology, or a way to seize some new opportunity in a different market. The goal is an entrepreneurial workforce at all levels of the company. Here are some ways to achieve that:

Think beyond the official job title.

Managers tend to put employees into neat little boxes according to their place on the corporate organizational chart. But these boxes make it hard for someone lower down in the organization, without an official title, to vet and test a new idea. There’s a prevailing attitude of: “We need a formal manager to do that.” To combat that tendency when assigning people to projects, consider who has the passion, knowledge, and networks to succeed — independent of that person’s title. If this is not politically possible, then think about creating two-person teams or small groups that include people with the necessary expertise.

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Deborah Ancona — Occupy Wall Street: Where are the leaders?

MIT Sloan Prof. Deborah Ancona

MIT Sloan Prof. Deborah Ancona

From CBS News

The President of the United States, major news media, bloggers, bankers, stand-up comics, and people all around the world are shaking their heads and wondering what the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest is all about. Is it a display of leadership or anarchy, revolution or Sunday in the park? And the answer is, we just don’t know yet. This is a new form of drama that is just beginning to play itself out.

Many pundits argue that this is a leaderless protest. But this view of leadership is stuck in the old model of the single heroic leader in command and control mode. What we are witnessing is a different leadership model-distributed leadership. Here multiple leaders take on various leadership activities in an attempt to move toward the collective good. Read More »