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Still Searching for Global Leadership

April 26, 2010


Four years ago I posted a blog entitled The Need for Global Leadership. In that post, I wrote: “Genuine global leadership will only be achieved when enlightened world leaders create and promulgate a set of governing principles that provide guidance for a world with an increasing and significant amount of instability. It must be a sweeping vision that deals with issues from super-empowered individuals to non-state actors to a rising hyperpower. Leadership vision is most poignant in times of instability and is most needed and most effective when providing guidance in times of rapid change.” Looking back, I think those sentiments remain accurate. Unfortunately, in the ensuing four years we have seen lots of change (including the onset of the Great Recession) but no great leaders have emerged to deal with continuing challenges. I’m not alone in making that assertion. Stefan Stern, writing in the Financial Times, is also looking for “leadership that could make a difference” [“Leadership that could make a difference,” 30 March 2010].


Stern reminds us that “on a cold February day in Springfield, Illinois, three years ago, a young US senator announced he was going to run for the presidency. The country and the world faced huge challenges, he said. ‘We know the challenges … We’ve talked about them for years … What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership …'” Having successfully won the presidency, Barack Obama now understands how difficult it is to lead successfully. America remains painfully divided and nobody believes either party is doing a good job. A recent Gallup poll indicated that only 41 percent of Americans thought the Democrats were doing a good job and about the same amount (42 percent) thought the Republicans were doing a good job. Stern’s article, however, is about corporate leadership not political leadership. He continues:

“Now that he is president, Barack Obama knows how difficult it is to bring about successful change. But that does not make his earlier diagnosis wrong. In fact, it was shared by the authors of a working paper produced by three Harvard Business School professors 18 months before he launched his campaign to win the White House. In an article called ‘Moving higher education to its next stage’, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria analyzed the failure of corporate leaders to come up with solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. There was usually no shortage of analysis, they said. But, when it came to offering solutions, ‘we often know more about what than how and who. There is an intellectual gap around solving an emergent class of high-profile problems that cut across sectors’ they wrote. Knowledge from ‘many professional fields’ has to be pulled together to find answers. Leaders rise to the top of their organizations. They may be really good at what they do, within that context. But ask them to work across sectors or disciplines, take them out of their comfort zone, and they find that, to their surprise, the results are often not very good. ‘The things you want to be changed don’t want to be changed by you,’ as Prof Kanter puts it. The bottom line is we are failing to develop leaders who are up to the challenge of grappling with the world’s most urgent problems.”

To be fair, as the amount of new knowledge increases each year, it is impossible for any single individual to be master of all domains. Specialties and specialists are going to increase rather than decrease. So how do you develop leaders with the vision and talents necessary to tackle cross-sector challenges? The simple answer, Stern explains, is to provide them with a cross-sector education and expose them to a range of challenges. He explains:

“This realization drove Prof Kanter and colleagues to launch Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative (ALI). This involved unprecedented collaboration between different faculties at the institution. The schools of business, government, law, education and public health were among the first to come together to devise a new, year-long program of education for experienced leaders, many of whom were leaving their organizations after two or three decades, in search of new challenges. The inaugural program (with 14 executives attending) ran last year, and the second (with 22 on board) is now under way. Fellows, as participants are called, attend seminars and lectures, and can also attend any other Harvard course while they are in residence. The ALI year also includes ‘think tanks’ – two to three day sessions on specific issues, as well as week-long field trips (‘immersions’) to gain first-hand experience in the locations affected by particular problems. The unique part of this program is the inter-disciplinary element: the coming together of usually discrete faculty members, working with seasoned executives who in turn come from a wide range of backgrounds.”

This is an approach that I heartily endorse. I’ve written a number of posts in which I’ve discussed the value of cross-sector collaboration. I’ve gone so far as to state that the most innovative solutions to challenges are almost always found along the boundaries between sectors. The Harvard program obviously believes this to be true as well.

“Executives are sought out and selected by Harvard to join the program. The idea is that, at the end of the year, fellows commit to leading a project that tackles a big, multi-faceted problem that they would not have been able to resolve in their former corporate role. Their leadership skills should have been enhanced and possibly transformed. While conventional leadership may be found in a single organisation, advanced leadership emerges, Prof Kanter says, where ‘problems and issues spill over boundaries, goals are not clear or conflicting, pathways haven’t yet been established, stakeholders are politicized, and no one is clearly in charge’.”

Professor Kanter, Stern explains, is hoping that the Fellows who pass through the program don’t simply return to their corporations in pursuit of greater profits. She would like to see them use their considerable skills (and, hopefully, newly discovered outlook) to do some real good in the world. Stern continues:

“The ‘third stage’ of education, offered by the ALI, deals with that other big question of the moment: what does the capable, experienced 50- or 60-something executive, who wants a change, do with the rest of his or her life? Should all that ability, and potential, go to waste? It is too soon for them to retire. In his poem Sailing to Byzantium, W.B. Yeats despaired of those younger people who, dazzled by the excitement of the day, failed to draw on the insights of their more experienced fellow citizens: Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect. Maybe the answer to this dilemma lies in the university seminar room. Advanced leadership is what the world needs right now. But to develop enough of it, many imitators of Harvard’s model will have to emerge.”

Politicians, not just business people and bureaucrats, need a fellowship like the one described above. It might make the halls of power more civil and productive. I realize that isn’t going to happen (we don’t elect people to send them to school); but exposing them to that kind of program could help break down some of the partisan barriers that grip today’s legislative bodies. Unfortunately, unlike business people — who are results oriented — most politicians nowadays seem to be ideologically oriented. Politicians and business leaders do seem to share one trait, however, and that is enormous self-confidence. David Brooks asserts that both groups could use a dash of humility [“The Humble Hound,” New York Times, 9 April 2010]. He writes:

“Some leaders are boardroom lions. They are superconfident, forceful and charismatic. They call for relentless transformational change. … We can all point to successful leaders who display this kind of self-confidence. It’s the sort of self-assurance that nearly every politician tries to present. Yet much research suggests that extremely self-confident leaders can also be risky. … Charismatic C.E.O.’s often produce volatile company performances. These leaders swing for the home run and sometimes end up striking out. They make more daring acquisitions, shift into new fields and abruptly change strategies. Jim Collins, the author of ‘Good to Great’ and ‘How the Mighty Fall,’ celebrates a different sort of leader. He’s found that many of the reliably successful leaders combine ‘extreme personal humility with intense professional will.’ Alongside the boardroom lion model of leadership, you can imagine a humble hound model.”

I’m not sure the “humble hound” is the exact animal analogy for which Brooks is looking. Hounds are known for their sense of smell. They use their noses to discover the world around them, but don’t think much about how to change what they find. Their joy comes from the pursuit — a chase whose objective is often selected by someone else. Brooks goes on to describe a leader who is more introspective than the humble hound image conjures up. He continues:

“The humble hound leader thinks less about her mental strengths than about her weaknesses. She knows her performance slips when she has to handle more than one problem at a time, so she turns off her phone and e-mail while making decisions. She knows she has a bias for caution, so she writes a memo advocating the more daring option before writing another advocating the most safe. She knows she is bad at prediction, so she follows Peter Drucker’s old advice: After each decision, she writes a memo about what she expects to happen. Nine months later, she’ll read it to discover how far off she was. In short, she spends a lot of time on metacognition — thinking about her thinking — and then building external scaffolding devices to compensate for her weaknesses. She believes we only progress through a series of regulated errors. Every move is a partial failure, to be corrected by the next one. Even walking involves shifting your weight off-balance and then compensating with the next step. She knows the world is too complex and irregular to be known, so life is about navigating uncertainty. She understands she is too quick to grasp at pseudo-objective models and confident projections that give the illusion of control. She has to remember George Eliot’s image — that life is like playing chess with chessmen who each have thoughts and feelings and motives of their own. It is complex beyond reckoning. She spends more time seeing than analyzing. Analytic skills differ modestly from person to person, but perceptual skills vary enormously. Anybody can analyze, but the valuable people can pick out the impermanent but crucial elements of a moment or effectively grasp a context. This sort of perception takes modesty; strong personalities distort the information field around them. This sort of understanding also takes patience. As the Japanese say, don’t just study a topic. Get used to it. Live in it for a while.”

The important thing about Brooks’ humble hound leader is what happens next. He agrees with Stern and the team at Harvard that what is most important is good cross-sector collaboration. He explains:

“Because of her limitations, she tries to construct thinking teams. In one study, groups and individuals were given a complicated card game called the Wason selection task. Seventy-five percent of the groups solved it, but only 14 percent of individuals did. She tries not to fall for the seductions that Collins says mark failing organizations: the belief that one magic move will change everything; the faith in perpetual restructuring; the tendency to replace questions with statements at meetings. In the journal In Character, the Washington Post theater critic Peter J. Marks has an essay on the ethos of the stagehands who work behind the scenes. Being out when the applause is ringing doesn’t feel important to them. The important things are the communal work, the contribution to the whole production and the esprit de corps. The humble hound is a stagehand who happens to give more public presentations than most. If this leadership style were more widely admired, the country could have spared itself a ton of grief.”

One gathers from Brooks’ last comment that he doesn’t believe there are many humble hounds in Washington, DC. Secrets of good leadership seem to include a greater desire to listen than to talk, to think rather than react, and to collaborate rather than to go it alone. Most people think great leaders are those who have statues made of them — the so-called “man on a horse” — but most of those leaders succeeded because of the people they worked with not in spite of them. My only problem with the humble hound model is that such leaders don’t appear to be leaders with vision. I still believe that a great vision can inspire and motivate. Humble hound leaders need to partner with visionary leaders and together — as a great team — help guide the world to a better future. Ideologues need not apply.

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