By Eric J. McNulty
The arc of our understanding of leaders and leadership runs from the few predestined heroes of Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory to a leadership development industry that trains millions and generates more than $14 billion in revenue annually in the United States alone. As much as the growth of programs and budgets has democratized the expectations of leaders and leadership development, the idealization of leaders from Carlyle’s days remains enshrined in complicated charts of compulsory competencies.
There is, however, a quiet, ongoing movement that pushes back against such standardization. It rejects many of the tired bromides that cascade through Twitter and populate posters designed to motivate but that are more likely to prompt eye rolls from those they hope to inspire. It draws upon various scientific disciplines to help increase both individualization and contextualization of leadership development. Think of it akin to the maker movement versus industrial production. The former allows for a great deal of customization and iteration while the latter is focused on stamping out millions of identical parts. You can see the divergent expressions by comparing the forced conformity of high school yearbook photos of the 1950s to the dramatically creative selfies on Instagram — they are all photographs of people, though the two sets are worlds apart in appearance and intent.
Two principal drivers are effecting change: One is the increased complexity of the context in which leaders must lead. The linearity of the hierarchical industrial age has given way to the networked dynamism of the digital economy. There has been a shift in the nature of the age, a phrase I borrow from Joshua Cooper Ramo, a corporate advisor who has deep experience in both the U.S. and China. In his best-selling bookThe Seventh Sense, Ramo describes the differences between Western and Eastern approaches to strategy: Westerners ask, “What’s the goal?” while the Chinese ask, “What is the nature of the age?” Is it one of stability or revolution? Discovery or a more inward focus?
In other words, the fundamental considerations are the underlying forces shaping political, economic, and social currents of the time — and the challenges for those who aspire to lead. We have reached an inflection point in a major transition: Political movements have been roiling at least since the 2005 riots in France, the Arab Spring in 2011, and on to today. Economies have struggled since the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Five generations now populate the workforce simultaneously, each with its own history, values, aspirations, and expectations. The U.S. acceptance of gay marriage, battles over immigration, and escalating attention to conflicts between law enforcement and communities of color mark a rethinking of the social contract. The increasingly evident effects of climate change may exacerbate any or all of these stresses.
Amid this turbulence, technology continues to rocket forward, providing ever-greater connections and more robust networks. Almost everyone can see almost everything in almost real time.
These changes are profound for both students and teachers of leadership. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer points to a crisis in trust in institutions and authority figures. Influence has shifted to the masses. One respondent to this annual survey notes, “People have had enough of experts.”
The second force is our increased understanding of how humans think and act through social psychology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, “big data” analytics, decision science, and more. Traditional leadership development emphasizes changing people — both the leaders and, by extension, their followers — to comply with a relatively static set of requirements. Standardization was the key to scale, consistent with other industrial-age undertakings. However, as we learn more about ourselves as a species, what can be changed and what’s hardwired comes into sharper relief. Standard prescriptions are running into increasing evidence that they are ill-suited to us and our times. Just as we are seeing the emergence of individualized medicine, we see an increasing understanding that leadership effectiveness varies depending upon the specific people involved and the endeavors they take on.
I recently sat down with someone whose work is an ideal fit to these pernicious leadership challenges of individualization and contextualization: Linda Ginzel. As clinical professor of managerial psychology at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, her insights and methods integrate the person and the situation to understand the behaviors that create desired change. Ginzel was trained as an experimental social psychologist and decided to teach at a business school because she wanted her work to have practical impact. At the Booth School, where she’s been teaching for 25 years, she received the 2011 Faculty Excellence Award, the Inaugural Global Hillel Einhorn Teaching Award in 2013, and she was named an Impact Professor by the class of 2014.
Ginzel has her own definition of leadership — “behavioral choices we make in order to create a different future” — yet she also encourages students to develop their own point of view. “A lot of it [leadership] is only relevant in the context of your history, your goals, and your aspirations,” she said.
Here, Ginzel and I are in radical agreement: Any approach that tries to reduce the complexities of leadership to a series of standard boxes to be ticked or traits to be emulated will have little enduring impact. No two people are alike, be they leaders or followers. “Everyone is looking for someone to emulate,” she said. “However, you are likely to fail if you are trying to be someone else.” She engages in what she calls “myth busting” around traits such as charisma, noting that it is not mystical; referent power derives from being admired and respected.
Learning to Build From Within
As a Chicagoan, Ginzel is overly familiar with skyscrapers. She draws an analogy for fresh thinking from architecture to illustrate her views on leader development. For ages, the height of buildings was limited by the requirement for thick, load-bearing walls. That all changed when William LeBaron Jenney, acknowledged as the father of the American skyscraper, conceived an inner steel skeleton as a way to support a building. The first one was built in Chicago in 1884. With this shift of thinking, the sky literally became the limit. Ginzel sees the same potential in people once they look less to external reference points for strength and work on building their inner core. Much of her teaching addresses the need to shed “load-bearing” assumptions that limit one’s development. Building a stronger internal framework makes it easier to handle ambiguity, change, and other challenges of leadership.
Ginzel’s approach at the Booth School, as part of the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership, aligns with the meta-leadership framework that we teach at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) at Harvard, where we focus on crisis leadership. Its first dimension is The Person: Understand yourself and improve your emotional intelligence and other behaviors. Ginzel’s work goes deeper. She said that while a great deal of personality psychology is used in leadership development, there is a $500 million business in the use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, five-factor model, Clifton StrengthsFinder, and other psychometric instruments that focus on traits of individuals.
While not disputing that some people find value in these tools, she noted that social psychologists look at the person and the environment in which they are operating. “Most of us act as if behavior is solely a function of the person,” she said. “It is actually a function of person and the situation.” She uses an equation developed by pioneering psychologist Kurt Lewin that is central to social psychology: B = f(P,S) — that is, behavior (B) is a function (f) between a person (P) and a situation (S). As an executive, you don’t have control over what’s inside the person, but you do have control over aspects of the situation — incentives, physical space, or teammates, for example. “If you want to change behavior, don’t try to change the people — change the situation,” Ginzel said.
This directive is a dramatic departure from the typical approach that tries to inventory specific traits or behaviors without considering the operating environment. Competency matrices help with global consistency and easy measurement, but in Ginzel’s view, they aren’t particularly valuable in developing leaders. Take a common leader competency: decisiveness. Should leaders be decisive? The knee-jerk reaction is “yes,” although it really depends on the decision the person confronts. In an emergency, a rapid, top-down choice may be the right thing to do. However, in more routine settings, the leader may create more value through teaching behaviors that engage subordinates in a rigorous decision-making process to help them refine their ability to make prudent judgments.
At the NPLI, we also teach about the situation. My colleagues and I approach the situation largely through the perspective of the individual leader with an emphasis on risk perception, heuristics and cognitive biases, and other factors that can either sharpen or distort your situational awareness — an understanding of what is going on and what should be done about it. For example, we studied the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill extensively. A simplistic view of the situation would be a ruptured well and the attendant environmental and business continuity issues. Both aspects of the event needed to be managed. Leading, however, required discerning the complex nuances of the political, economic, public health, reputational, and other facets of the larger picture and determining how to move forward. Again, Ginzel’s perspective is illuminating for this review because it weaves the behavioral interdependencies between the person and the situation even more tightly together.
Thinking beyond traits or characteristics gets to one of Ginzel’s fundamental beliefs about leadership: “To lead” is a verb and should be used that way. She tries hard not to label anyone a “leader” based on position. After all, the dictionary definition of “leader” is just “a person who leads.” The pervasive use of “leadership” and “management” as synonyms, particularly “leader” for “senior manager,” has also caused confusion for both practitioners and those who develop them. Leadership and management are in fact complementary skill and behavior sets: Ginzel noted that Harold J. Leavitt, in his bookTop Down, addressed this conundrum with the term “manager/leader.” Management is how you succeed in the present; leadership is how you move people forward into the unknown of the future, Ginzel said. Each involves specific behavioral choices made by executives. “I use [management consultant] Peter Drucker’s use of the term ‘executive’ to describe anyone who is involved in decisions that affect the outcomes of your organization,” Ginzel said. “Executives decide when to manage and when to lead.” Whether to lead or manage is based on the person — your values and goals — and the demands of the situation you confront.
“Most of the time we are managing,” Ginzel said. “Executives have to do it well. Where can I get a leadership vision? It comes from some dissatisfaction with the present that illuminates the need for a better tomorrow. Management is the platform for the future.” Leadership, she added, is about changing the future. “That makes leadership risky. You build trust in the certainty of the present; you withdraw it when you ask people to follow you into the uncertainty of a future that doesn’t yet exist.”
In a framework she calls “Leadership Capital,” Ginzel makes the distinction between leadership with a capital L — big, transformational change generally seen as the realm of senior executives — and that with a lowercase l — small, daily behavioral decisions made by anyone in the “leadership space” to create a better future. “People lead every day without regard to role or rank. As [organizational theorist] Karl Weick said, you manage with a map and lead with a compass.” It’s about navigating known terrain versus setting a general direction when the terrain is uncharted.
With a shift in the nature of the age, the leadership situation may be changing, too, but that does not mean that human nature evolves in synchrony. Yet while basic human traits are slow to change, behaviors can be intentionally developed. Behaviors are the basis for skill development, and skills benefit from practice. This is the thrust of Ginzel’s Leadership Capital approach. “If knowledge doesn’t translate into changes in behavior and action that improve outcomes, how is it useful?” she asked.
Ginzel uses a classic normal distribution to illustrate the leadership capacity of people: Two percent come by it naturally. Two percent will never get it. The other 96% lie in between. The job is to move people forward in a productive direction — to help them “be wiser, younger.” It is the same task that executives must undertake with the people who report to them. She said that it is a matter of developing insight skills that help people extract value from their everyday experiences so they can move up the curve faster. “You must collect the data of your experience because if you don’t write it down, it doesn’t exist. When you do, it becomes data that is observable to yourself and others.” From this, patterns emerge. Then a person can experiment with contingencies for one or two action skills they want to improve and track the results. “It’s the scientific method applied to personal leadership development,” she said.
Leadership: Not So Easily Taught
“Understanding leadership and how to teach it with integrity is hard,” Ginzel said. “Simple solutions do not exist.” Ginzel’s training as an experimental social psychologist is quite helpful in this regard. She requires students to create frameworks for how they can learn vicariously by observing the experiences of others. “People always want a lot of structure and direction,” she said, “but the assignment is to figure out what you want to learn and what data you need to collect for analysis and action. It’s about becoming your own coach so that you can continue your learning beyond the classroom.” In essence, she asks them to design a social science experiment.
I found this exercise useful as well. Too many executive students I encounter assume they will be told exactly what is expected of them. With a blueprint, they execute well. Challenge them to create the blueprint, however, and many struggle. Ginzel’s approach is an interesting way to stimulate this learning. “It’s about increasing their capacity to handle ambiguity by harnessing creative tension and managing anxiety — giving them the runway to figure out a different kind of future for themselves,” Ginzel said. “It’s moving them into the leadership space.”
Ginzel puts her students through another exercise to bring them into the leadership space. She asks them to write an essay following the submission guidelines of NPR’s “This I Believe” program, which aired from 2005-2009. Those who were regular listeners of the show know that the on-air essays were powerful statements of belief. They required introspection and a bit of courage. Those are both good things to instill in aspiring leaders. She noted that it can really push people out of their comfort zones. Exactly the point. I recommend a similar exercise called The Personal Manifesto. It is a less structured collection of beliefs and quotes designed to help you connect to your personal definition of success through an intense, ongoing conversation with yourself.
Each of these methods is a way of grounding yourself through enduring values, aspirations, and principles — attending to the person. With that solid foundation coupled with acquired wisdom, it is possible to more confidently survey the situation and deploy the behaviors most likely to lead to your desired outcome.
There will be increasing pressure for leadership development to catch up with people’s and organizations’ expectations of those who aspire to lead. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently said inThe Economist that the company needs “a culture that allows you to constantly renew yourself.” Nadella is not alone in that thought, nor is the need unique to Microsoft. The static model of leader competencies no longer serves the needs of the person or the company.
With the shift in the nature of the age has come a need for executives to be as comfortable asking questions as they are with giving answers. They need to be more tolerant of mistakes as potential learning experiences. Increasingly, they are embracing stakeholders beyond shareholders as worthy of their attention. These expansions can be linked back to the need to decode meaning in the increasing turbulence of their situations. Coming back to Lewin’s equation, effectiveness emerges from the ability to match behaviors with the person and the fast-changing context in which the person is operating — behaviors that build adaptive capacity, foster resilience, and engender trust.
Ginzel’s work demonstrates a facility with imparting these skills to would-be leaders. Drawing upon the centrality of experiments to social psychology, she has developed concepts and techniques that can help executives approach the riddle of turbulence with a sense-making mindset just as makers create sequential prototypes as they hone in on essential features and functions. The personal framework she emphasizes fosters strength and resilience. In a time of turbulence and change, this is far more useful than trying to force-fit people into models that give false comfort of conformity and predictability. Though we may tire of the gyrations generated by politics, technology, markets, and more, we will find Ginzel’s insights increasingly relevant and helpful.
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This content was originally published by MIT Sloan Management Review. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By MIT Sloan Management Review