Tackling tough problems requires innovation and a diverse range of talent, along with the desire to take an unconventional approach. According to Deborah Ancona and Hal Gregersen of the MIT Leadership Center, these talents and traits are intrinsic to challenge-driven leaders. In a recent article published to strategy+business, Ancona and Gregersen explain that challenge-driven leaders also tend to be experts in their fields and entrepreneurial in spirit.
“They are not motivated by the trappings of authority, status, or showmanship,” they write. “They may not particularly want to lead, and they certainly don’t want to be led. But they excel at choreographing and directing the work of others. Their expert knowledge enables them to spot opportunities to innovate in a way that cannot be done by working alone.” Gregersen and Ancona acknowledge that while challenge-driven leadership is not right for every situation, when innovation and entrepreneurship are required, it can have the greatest impact.
This distinctive form of leadership is a hallmark of MIT students, faculty, and alumni. The authors reference a report by the Kauffman Foundation that estimates MIT alumni have launched more than 30,200 active companies, employing roughly 4.6 million people and generating roughly US$1.9 trillion in annual revenues—a figure greater than the gross domestic product (GDP) of the world’s 10th-largest economy.
Beyond these impressive statistics, MIT Sloan and surrounding Kendall Square is considered the most dynamic, exciting innovation cluster in the world. Innovation and entrepreneurship are core to everything we do here—from designing new business models to fostering entrepreneurial ecosystems around the globe. According to Bill Aulet, Faculty Director of the Entrepreneurship Development Program at MIT Sloan, “This is a school that’s primed to hack the world, to turn it upside down. For innovation and entrepreneurship—and the ability to think differently—this is incredibly important.”
“Big things get accomplished here in a way people don’t recognize as traditional leadership,” write Acona and Gregersen. “MIT happens to be one place where the conditions are ripe for challenge-driven leadership to emerge, and is thus a good launching point for observations and hypotheses about it.”
The authors share how executives seeking a similar level of high-impact, innovation-focused, and challenge-driven leadership can cultivate it at their organizations by fostering the following conditions:
A problem-solving ethos: Challenges are cherished at MIT. They offer opportunities to test and prove one’s knowledge skill and push the boundaries of what is possible. Playfully represented by MIT’s iconic tradition of “the hack” (e.g., putting a police cruiser on top of the MIT dome), the more challenging the problem, the better. The problem-solving ethos doesn’t fade with financial or worldly success. Waze cofounder Uri Levine told a group of MIT students and entrepreneurs: “The exit is not what drives an entrepreneur,” he said. “Rather, it is the tremendous urge for change and challenge.”
Challenge-driven talent strategies: An effective challenge-driven talent strategy focuses on spotting the right people for a project and attracting them to it rather than on motivating and developing people you have been handed. Recruiting in this model means a constant search for people with problem-solving passion and ingenuity. Then, it’s essential to fuel their passion for challenges and allow people to move fluidly from project to project (and in and out of leadership roles).
Teaming on the fly: Beyond specialized proficiency, challenge-driven leaders recognize when a previously intractable problem can be tackled, hone the ability to communicate that vision, and assemble a team of disparate strengths wherein every individual offers “superpower” skills. The fluidity of these teams is key for ongoing innovation in an organization. Unlike permanent groups, where leaders are expected to delegate assignments and design incentives, teams comprising challenge-driven leaders are based on self-organizing collaboration.
A challenge-driven way of life: Experienced challenge-driven leaders develop a big-picture, long-term perspective that transcends the expediencies of the moment. This leadership style is especially well-suited to initiatives and enterprises trying to solve big problems. The authors note that this model isn’t necessarily appropriate for every situation, such as scaling up an already well-designed business or meeting quarterly financial goals with no surprises. But it is a kind of leadership made for pushing technical, scientific, organizational, and artistic boundaries.
Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management and Founder of the MIT Leadership Center. She teaches in the MIT Sloan Executive Education programs, Transforming Your Leadership Strategy and Neuroscience for Leadership.
Hal Gregersen is the Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in leadership and innovation at MIT Sloan. He teaches in in the MIT Sloan Executive Education programs, Leadership and the Lens: Learning at the Intersection of Innovation and Image-Making and The Innovator's DNA: Mastering Five Skills For Disruptive Innovation.