Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center
From Harvard Business Review
Kodak. Sears. Borders. The mere mention of any of these companies brings to mind the struggle to stay relevant amid today’s technology and boundless alternatives. But behind each of them lies a deeper story of at least one leader who is or was “sheltered” from the reality of their business.
This dangerous “white space” where leaders don’t know what they don’t know is a critical one. But often, leaders — especially senior ones — fail to seek information that makes them uncomfortable or fail to engage with individuals who challenge them. As a result, they miss the opportunity to transform insights at the edge of a company into valuable actions at the core.
Nandan Nilekani, an Indian entrepreneur, bureaucrat, and politician who co-founded Infosys and was appointed by the Indian prime minister to serve as Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), believes it’s vital to keep this channel of communication open in any leadership position.
“If you’re a leader, you can put yourself in a cocoon … a good news cocoon” said Nilekani during our recent discussion. “Everyone says, ‘It’s alright, there’s no problem,’ and the next day everything’s wrong.”
So how do leaders keep themselves from being isolated at the top? For Nilekani, it comes down to one vital factor: asking and being asked uncomfortable questions.
The question “Why are we the way we are?” inspired him to write his book, Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation, which discusses the education, demographics, and infrastructure of his native country. Following his work with the UIDAI to help create a government database of the entire population of India (named “the biggest social project on the planet”) and his recent campaign for Indian National Congress, the question “How do you get kids to read and how do you get kids to learn arithmetic?” drove Nilekani to create a scaleable solution to bridge the education gap for younger generations in India and other parts of the world. And the umbrella question that defines Nilekani’s leadership journey is, perhaps not surprisingly, “What is it that I can do to have the best possible impact on the most possible people?”
Read the full post at the Harvard Business Review.
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