Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean, MIT Sloan Executive Education
Leadership can take many forms. Leaders can be humble or egotistic, measured or impulsive, inclusive listeners or single-minded dictators. I believe that it’s important to distinguish between personal qualities that may appear harsh as opposed to truly unethical behavior.
Sometimes obliviousness to the effects of one’s words and actions can be mistaken for deliberate disregard for people’s feelings and possibly even for rules and laws. That “anything goes” attitude where the end justifies the means. The opposite can be true, also: a CEO being nice to everyone at a company picnic doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is making ethical business decisions.
That said, some of my colleagues observe that organizations that have authoritarian leaders at the helm are prone to making business decisions that prioritize profits over other aspects of running a successful business: “I feel very strongly that actually that style of management is not conducive to success in the long run,” says Nelson Repenning, Associate Dean of Leadership and Special Projects and professor of system dynamics and organization studies at MIT Sloan. “There have been many examples in recent past of financial scandals where companies had very numbers-focused managers, tough cultures, and they ended up regretting it.”
Certainly in the U.S., but also in Asia and Europe, taking the hard line seems to be a prevalent model, says John Van Maanen, professor of organization studies at MIT Sloan. He attributes the popularity of this model to its wide exposure. “The soft, quiet, listening leader doesn’t get the publicity and doesn’t stand out. And the sort of a critical boss—everybody knows. It surfaces as a dominant model and people get away with it,” he says. Van Maanen points out that becoming a leader is often situational being at the right place at the right time. Yet the people who find themselves in a leadership position tend to see it solely as their own accomplishment, which only reinforces the notion of self-importance and may lead to more autocratic behavior. However, there is “no evidence to suggest that those are good leaders or successful leaders,” Van Maanen cautions. “Having the courage to do the right things and helping people realize their goals leads to creating a successful business,” he says, expanding on the point about making a choice between “becoming a leader and getting ahead” that Deborah Ancona, professor of organization studies at MIT Sloan, made in Part 1 of this series.
The rule of one vs. the voice of many
Thomas Kochan, professor of work and employment research at MIT Sloan, also emphasizes that successful leadership doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of the one man or woman at the top. “If a business is going to be sustainably profitable and a good citizen and steward of the employees and the community, then you have to really instill leadership capacity and welcome leadership at all levels of the organization,” he says. “This distributed nature of leadership as a process really is critical for producing the kinds of principled leadership results that produce innovation and make this a better world.”
The idea of “distributed leadership” is gaining momentum in the modern workforce. In many industries, workers are becoming more independent in how, where, and when they work, thanks to the advances in communications technology. Worker priorities are shifting beyond just a steady paycheck, as more and more millennials are poised to supplant older generations as both workers and leaders. Powered by young talent, organizations are starting to rethink their management practices. In her recent book, The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media, an MIT Sloan professor of organization studies Catherine Turco illustrates how a tech firm is seeking to “upend traditional bureaucratic hierarchy by giving all employees a voice.” Turco calls this management style a “conversational firm.”
This notion is echoed in the work of Hal Gregersen, the executive director of MIT Leadership Center and the co-author of The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators. Gregersen emphasizes the importance of “catalytic questioning,” which can give business leaders “the ability to uncover and ask questions that will lead them to new and innovative areas.” This type of openness, or even vulnerability, as a leadership style offers a stark contrast with the all-knowing confidence traditionally associated with CEOs. Perhaps it’s time for everyone—from employees to consumers—to re-evaluate our assumptions of what makes a great business leader and to encourage people and practices that go beyond pure profits.
Principled, innovative leadership out in the world
These thoughts were very much on my mind when I attended a leadership development conference called FRED Leadership at the end of last year. If you are unfamiliar with the work of this organization, no better time than now to get to know it. FRED is “an organization whose purpose is to inspire and serve as a catalyst for the development of moral and inclusive leadership across the globe.” Founded in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis, FRED has been working tirelessly to promote ethical and unselfish kinds of leadership across all sectors of society. Now, FRED’s board felt compelled to revise the organization’s mission in response to what it saw as examples of unprincipled leadership in the global political arena and beyond. FRED’s renewed purpose emphasizes “moral and inclusive leadership” as essential to inspiring and cultivating the leaders of tomorrow. This felt familiar to me, given that MIT Sloan’s mission—carved in stone on our wall—is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world, and served as a timely reminder of being true to our mission in everything that we do.