The Power of Leaders Who Focus on Solving Problems – Deborah Ancona and Hal Gregersen

From Harvard Business Review

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center

MIT Sloan Prof. Deborah Ancona

In front of a packed room of MIT students and alumni, Vivienne Ming is holding forth in a style all her own. “Embrace cyborgs,” she calls out, as she clicks to a slide that raises eyebrows even in this tech-smitten crowd. “Really. Fifteen to 25 years from now, cognitive neuroprosthetics will fundamentally change the definition of what it means to be human.”

She’s referring to the work that interests her most these days, as cofounder of machine learning company Socos and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for Theoretical Neuroscience. (“So — can I literally jam things in your brain and make you smarter? If you’re curious, the answer is unambiguously yes.”) But the talk has covered a lot more than this, as Ming has touched on many initiatives and startups she’s been involved with, all solving problems at the intersection of advanced technology, learning, and labor economics.

She’s an entrepreneur, a CEO, and a teacher — all leadership roles — but when we ask her about her leadership style, she demurs. “What I’ve learned about myself as a leader, as an executive, is — I’ll be blunt — I’m a pretty mediocre manager. I try to do the right things, but I’m much more focused on problems than I am on people, and that’s not always that healthy.” While she’s utterly confident in herself, she just doesn’t identify as top management. She’s happier to think of herself as a data scientist, a computer geek. She loves talking about hacks she’s pulled off — like the alterations she made to her diabetic son’s medical devices, so she could merge all their data to produce a predictive model. Now, she gets an alert an hour in advance if a spike or drop is coming in his blood glucose level. This is an unprecedented, and highly valuable, thing. “Turns out, it broke several federal laws,” she laughs.

Ming is a tech optimist, believing that all kinds of previously intractable problems will be able to be solved as the tool kit for addressing them is developed. And she’s decided her best way of contributing to that progress is to keep honing her individual-contributor skills. “For a long time, I tried to be the whole package. I put a lot of energy into making certain that I was shepherding everyone along, doing all the right things for my teams. Then I realized: You know what? If I can get some people that are really good at the things that I’m not, then I can focus on my strengths. And my strengths are in creative problem solving — all the way down to writing the code myself.” Read More »

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 »

Can Uber evolve – quickly? – Court Chilton

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Court Chilton

From Entrepreneur

I’m a huge fan of Uber and use its services all the time. Still, I can’t deny it’s been a tough couple of weeks for Uber. A blog post by a woman employee who credibly seems to be claiming sexual harassment and retaliation for making those claims was widely covered in the media. Days later, a video that showed the CEO arguing vehemently with an Uber driver about rates went viral. Plus, revelations about “grey-balling” — preventing certain people from accessing the Uber system — put the company in an unfavorable light with a number of different stakeholders.

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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.

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