Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Three Surprising Leadership Skills

MIT is looking ahead, trying to figure out what skills the next generation of scientists, engineers, applied social scientists, designers and managers will need.  After careful consideration, and a close review of numerous studies of the future of work, MIT believes it will have to complement the depth of the training it currently offers in dozens of technical fields with an equal commitment to developing the breadth of each individual’s leadership capabilities. To build this necessary breadth, it will be necessary to focus on helping learners know themselves (e.g., improve their emotional intelligence, adaptability, resilience, ethnical awareness, reflective capacity, etc.), work with others to get things done (e.g. motivate others, give and receive feedback, build teams and networks, communicate effectively, resolve conflict, and negotiate with difficult people); and build organizational capacity (e.g., manage change, manage crises, help organizations learn, implement user experience design and better marketing, and commit to process improvement).  No one can learn all these things at once; so, we’ll all have to commit to life-long self-improvement. The university’s job will be to make it easy for everyone to acquire both technical depth and leadership breadth as they need it.  In all likelihood, this will involve a range of new teaching and learning formats.

As I listen to successful individuals say what it took for them to achieve their goals (at every level, in every sector), many seem to be stuck on an old-fashioned view of a leader as someone with a strong personal vision who can command others to do what needs to be done.  In my view, this model -- derived mostly from accounts of military, sports, political and business victories -- is not likely to work in the future. More distributed or facilitative models of leadership-- that emphasize knowing how to work in partnership with others and build organizational capacity -- are likely to be more valuable.  When I look at the way ideas about leadership are changing at MIT, shifting from top-down to facilitative models, three specific leadership skills stand out for me: setting a constructive problem-solving tone, facilitating group efforts and negotiating in a value-creating fashion. These are likely to surprise traditionalists, but I think we can already see how these capabilities will define a new generation of leaders.

Setting a constructive problem-solving tone

What do leaders need to be aware of at the outset of a venture?  Not just their own goals and vision, but the way their behavior influences others. Efforts to establish one’s firmness or strength are less important than an ability to model or set a joint problem-solving tone. Whatever the organizational context, technical managers, team leaders and CEOs must be able to motivate and inspire others to work and think creatively. The more everyone is ready to share responsibility for the success of the group, the lighter each person’s load will be, and the greater the collective wisdom available to apply to problem-solving.   Leaders are people who are able to put themselves in the shoes of others.  They are in sufficient control of their ego to be able to share responsibility and applaud the good work of others. Emotional intelligence and self-awareness are crucial to the ongoing success of teams or organizations in an era of flattened hierarchies and distributed leadership. If a leader can’t inspire a problem-solving tone, commanding that everyone perform is likely to backfire.

Facilitating group efforts

The general presumption in the world of management is that technical experts will be able to collaborate with each other; it turns out, though, that collaboration is a learned, not an innate capability. Launching multifaceted high-performance teams is an important leadership responsibility, and it involves being able to facilitate group interactions, not just leaving everything to the team members.  In my view, facilitation is a crucial leadership skill. Those of us who teach facilitation know that it involves selecting the right mix of team members, designing the work plan properly (including parceling out assignments and setting ground rules regarding the way members will interact with each other), holding a mirror up when the group members are not working well together, mediating among contending individuals and serving as a scribe so there is a reliable record of what transpired.  While it is possible to contract out for many of these facilitation services, leaders better understand exactly what the facilitation assistance is that they want and need. And, sometimes, only the leader can resolve internal team disagreements.

Negotiating in a value-creating fashion

The success of many organizations hinges on the ability of their leaders to negotiate effectively with representatives or leaders of other organizations. Supply chains work that way, as do inter-organizational partnerships. Leaders who think that these kinds of negotiations are like traditional win-lose bartering in the market place, do their organizations a terrible disservice. Negotiating when long-term relationships are important, requires a different (i.e., “mutual gains”) approach to deal-making. The Mutual Gains Approach (MGA) to negotiation requires finding trades or ways of reframing disagreements that add to, rather than just divide, value. The most successful leaders know how to do this.

As colleges and universities re-organize to enhance the breadth of the leadership skills they are imparting, I hope they will realize that the learning involved is probably not best presented in traditional semester-long courses, nor delivered in lecture format. Helping students learn from their own experience, and engage as co-learners with others (often online), will require new pedagogical strategies.  And, when this happens, learners are likely to demand certification: not just an indication that they have completed the required work, but a guarantee that they have achieved mastery of the skills involved.


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