Looking for Tomorrow’s Leadersgreat interview this month by Paul Hemp, with Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill. As has been stated before, we need to be looking for leadership from people that don’t traditionally fit the stereotypes we generally apply to leaders. Rightly so, she acknowledges that leadership is not always about commanding but enabling others to do what they are good at. Here are some of the key ideas from that interview:
Are we looking for leaders in all the wrong places? No, but we definitely need to broaden our search. Most companies understand that in a global economy much of their future growth will be in emerging markets. As we look at leadership potential in emerging economies, we risk assuming that leadership models developed in the United States or Western Europe will work elsewhere. Leadership is about making emotional connections to motivate and inspire people, and our effectiveness at doing this has strong cultural overtones. We know from research that people’s expectations of how leaders should behave vary across countries. But we need more research on what is universal about leadership and what is culturally specific.
Stylistic invisibles: These are people who just don’t fit our conventional image of a leader. Because they don’t exhibit the take-charge, direction-setting behavior we often think of as inherent in leadership, they are overlooked when an organization selects the people it believes have leadership potential.
Leading from Behind: It’s also becoming clear that today’s complex environment often demands a team approach to problem solving. This requires a leader who, among other things, is comfortable sharing power and generous in doing so, is able to see extraordinary potential in ordinary people, and can make decisions with a balance of idealism and pragmatism.
This image of the shepherd behind his flock is an acknowledgment that leadership is a collective activity in which different people at different times—depending on their strengths, or “nimbleness”—come forward to move the group in the direction it needs to go. The metaphor also hints at the agility of a group that doesn’t have to wait for and then respond to a command from the front. That kind of agility is more likely to be developed by a group when a leader conceives of her role as creating the opportunity for collective leadership, as opposed to merely setting direction.
But keep in mind that leading from behind doesn’t imply that everyone in the organization has equal talent or the right to lead at a given time. Talent—or nimbleness, if you will—is actually a function of context, which means that different individuals will come to the fore in different situations.
The more you want to get the best out of a group by letting people use their own judgment and take risks, the more you want to lead from behind.
There’s one area in particular that calls for leading from behind, and that’s innovation. By definition, you don’t know exactly where you want to go. And innovation is almost always a collective process, the harnessing of the creative talents of a diverse group.
Developing Leaders: Let me emphasize something here: I’m not saying that if you simply go out and find the right people, your leadership problems will be solved. It’s not just about selection; it’s about development. Leaders of the future must be nurtured by their leaders, who need to make space and provide opportunities for their team members to grow and lead.
The complete interview is available on the HBR web site and is worth the visit.
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