[Ref] Authentic Leadership Rediscovered

10 NOV 2015 OP-ED

Is becoming an “authentic leader” just an excuse for practicing a rigid management style? Bill George, who pioneered the idea, says critics don’t understand what really constitutes an authentic leader.

by Bill George

“Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership”

—Harvard Business Review, January 2015

In the last 10 years, authenticity has become the gold standard of leadership. This is a sea change from 2003 when I wrote Authentic Leadership. Back then, many people asked what it meant to be authentic.Authentic Leadership was intended as a clarion call to the new generation to learn from negative examples like Enron, WorldCom and Tyco. In it, I defined authentic leaders as genuine, moral and character-based leaders:”People of the highest integrity, committed to building enduring organizations … who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values who have the courage to build their companies to meet the needs of all their stakeholders, and who recognize the importance of their service to society.”Authentic leaders demonstrate these five qualities:

  • Understanding their purpose
  • Practicing solid values
  • Leading with heart
  • Establishing connected relationships
  • Demonstrating self-discipline

The following year the Gallup Institute and Professor Bruce Avolio, a well-known leadership scholar at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, organized a definitive conference on authentic leadership in which the importance of leaders’ life stories became paramount.In spite of widespread acceptance of authentic leadership—or perhaps because of it—several authors have recently challenged the value of being authentic, claiming it is an excuse for being locked into a rigid view of one’s leadership, being rude and insensitive, refusing to change, or not adapting to one’s style to the situation. These arguments appear to demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes an authentic leader. Recommendations that leaders should accept narcissism, embrace their inner jerk, or focus on themselves will not work in the long-run.In light of this public discussion, it’s important to rediscover authentic leadership as well as examine some of the recent mischaracterizations of it.

Authentic leadership is built on your character, not your style. My mentor Warren Bennis said, “Leadership is character. It is not just a superficial question of style. It has to do with who we are as human beings and the forces that shaped us.Style is the outward manifestation of one’s authentic leadership, not one’s inner self. To become authentic leaders, people must adopt flexible styles that fit the situation and capabilities of their teammates. At times, authentic leaders are coaches and mentors, inspiring others and empowering their teammates to lead through the most important tasks without a great deal of supervision. At other times, authentic leaders must make very difficult decisions, terminating people and going against the will of the majority, as required to meet the situational imperative. These difficult actions can be taken while still retaining their authenticity.

Authentic leaders are real and genuine. You cannot “fake it till you make it” by putting on a show as a leader or being a chameleon in your style. People sense very quickly who is authentic and who is not. Some leaders may pull it off for a while, but ultimately they will not gain the trust of their teammates, especially when dealing with difficult situations. The widespread adoption of LinkedIn, Google and increasingly networked communities means that every leader has the informal equivalent of a “Yelp” score that will come to light. If people see their leaders as trustworthy and willing to learn, followers will respond very positively to requests for help in getting through difficult times.

Authentic leaders are constantly growing. They do not have a rigid view of themselves and their leadership. Becoming authentic is a developmental state that enables leaders to progress through multiple roles, as they learn and grow from their experiences. Like superior performances in athletics or music, becoming an authentic leader requires years of practice in challenging situations.

Authentic leaders match their behavior to their context, an essential part of emotional intelligence (EQ). They do not burst out with whatever they may be thinking or feeling. Rather, they exhibit self-monitoring, understand how they are being perceived, and use emotional intelligence (EQ) to communicate effectively.

Authentic leaders are not perfect, nor do they try to be. They make mistakes, but they are willing to admit their errors and learn from them. They know how to ask others for help. Nor are authentic leaders always humble or modest. It takes a great deal of self-confidence to lead through very difficult situations.

Authentic leaders are sensitive to the needs of others. One author has postulated, and I paraphrase, “What if your real self is a jerk?” People are not born as jerks, nor does this behavior reflect their authentic selves. Rather, these individuals likely had very negative experiences early in their lives that cause them to have difficulty in managing their anger, in part because they feel like victims or feel inadequate.Situations like these indicate the importance of processing one’s crucibles: people need not feel like victims or stuff their experiences deep inside themselves. Rather, by understanding themselves and reframing their experiences, they can find the pearl inside that represents their authentic selves. That’s why exploring who they are and getting honest feedback from their colleagues are essential elements of becoming authentic leaders. That’s what Starbucks’ Howard Schultz did in coping with the severe challenges of his youth. It is also what made the difference for Steve Jobs when he returned to Apple nine years after his 1986 termination.For all these reasons, authentic leaders constitute the vast majority of people chosen today for the key roles in business and nonprofits. Their emergence as the predominant way of leading has resulted from all we have discovered about leadership in the past decade.

A Human-Centered Approach to Leadership Development

My 2007 book, True North, showed people how they could develop themselves as authentic leaders. Whereas Authentic Leadership was based on my personal experiences in leading, True North was built on field research drawn from in-person interviews with 125 leaders. With 3,000 pages of transcripts, it remains as the largest in-depth study of leaders ever conducted, based on first-person interviews.Having examined the literature containing more than 1,000 studies of leaders, most of which employed third-person approaches of observations and questionnaires, our research team concluded that learning directly from these leaders about what was important to them and how they had developed would give us much richer insights than prior studies. Indeed, this proved to be the case, as we discovered the paramount importance of leaders’ life stories and the crucibles they had faced. We also learned from them how people develop into authentic leaders.In our research, we embraced the richness of understanding leadership as a fully human endeavor.

This approach built upon the pioneering work of Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Douglas McGregor, Daniel Goleman and Warren Bennis. True North assembled this developmental process in an original approach that enabled people to develop themselves as authentic leaders.In order to see how leadership has changed in the past decade, we initiated research in 2014 that focused on 47 new leaders who were more global and diverse than the original cohort. We also followed up on 90 leaders featured in True North to see how they have fared since their 2005-06 interviews. With only a couple of exceptions, we learned these leaders had remained true to their authentic selves, and had performed very well in myriad roles.

This research led to my new book, Discover Your True North, which profiles 101 leaders and describes how they developed. It also draws heavily upon classroom experiences in the Authentic Leadership Development courses at Harvard Business School, where 6,000 MBAs and executives have participated in this developmental process.Most significantly, we learned that authentic leaders are constantly growing and learning from their leadership experiences. By taking on new challenges, they become more effective as authentic leaders. When they find themselves in entirely new situations, authentic leaders draw upon their true selves, what they have learned in past life experiences, especially their crucibles, and they learn from their new colleagues.

This enables them to become more effective as leaders. This approach is similar to Stanford’s Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset.”If you want to be an authentic leader and have a meaningful life, you need to do the difficult inner work to develop yourself, have a strong moral compass based on your beliefs and values, and work on problems that matter to you. When you look back on your life it may not be perfect, but it will be authentically yours.Bill George is the author of Discover Your True North, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, and former chair and CEO of Medtronic.


[Ref] How to Build a Collaborative Office Space Like Pixar and Google

When the Second World War ended, universities struggled to cope with record enrollments. Like many universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology built a series of new housing developments for returning servicemen and their young families. One of those developments was named Westgate West. The buildings doubled as the research lab for three of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century and would come to reframe the way we think about office spaces.

In the late 1940s, psychologists Leon Festinger, Stanley Schachter, and sociologist Kurt Back began to wonder how friendships form. Why do some strangers build lasting friendships, while others struggle to get past basic platitudes? Some experts, including Sigmund Freud, explained that friendship formation could be traced to infancy, where children acquired the values, beliefs, and attitudes that would bind or separate them later in life. But Festinger, Schachter, and Back pursued a different theory that would go on to shape the thinking of contemporary prophets from Steve Jobs to Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

The researchers believed that physical space was the key to friendship formation; that “friendships are likely to develop on the basis of brief and passive contacts made going to and from home or walking about the neighborhood.”¹ In their view, it wasn’t so much that people with similar attitudes became friends, but rather that people who passed each other during the day tended to become friends and later adopted similar attitudes.


Festinger and his colleagues approached the students some months after they had moved into Westgate West, and asked them to list their three closest friends. The results were fascinating—and they had very little to do with values, beliefs, and attitudes. Forty-two percent of the responses were direct neighbors, so the resident of apartment 7 was quite likely to list the residents of apartments 6 and 8 as friends—and less likely to list the residents of apartments 9 and 10. Even more striking, the lucky residents of apartments 1 and 5 turned out to be the most popular, not because they happened to be kinder or more interesting, but because they happened to live at the bottom of the staircase that their upstairs neighbors were forced to use to reach the building’s second floor. Some of these accidental interactions fizzled, of course, but in contrast to the isolated residents of apartments 2 and 4, those in apartments 1 and 5 had a better chance of meeting one or two kindred spirits.

Westgate West as Inspiration for Pixar

Half a century passed, and the Westgate West message began to infiltrate office culture. Steve Jobs famously redesigned the offices at Pixar, which originally housed computer scientists in one building, animators in a second building, and executives and editors in a third. Jobs recognized that separating these groups, each with its own culture and approach to problem-solving, discouraged them from sharing ideas and solutions.

Pixar's office via >a href="http://www.fubiz.net/2010/05/17/pixar-office/">Fubuz

Pixar’s office, designed to encourage collaboration – via Fubuz

Perhaps the animators could introduce a fresh perspective when the computer scientists became stuck; and maybe the executives would learn more about the nuts and bolts of the business if they occasionally met an animator in the office kitchen, or a computer scientist at the water cooler. Jobs ultimately succeeded in creating a single cavernous office that housed the entire Pixar team, and John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, declared that he’d “never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”

Google’s “150-Feet From Food” Rule

Google’s New York City campus capitalizes on many of the same ideas. The growing campus already has a massive footprint, occupying an entire floor (and part of some other floors) in a building that covers a city block in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The elevators that link these floors are notoriously slow, so instead of forcing workers to wait, the architects built vertical ladder chutes between adjacent floors. Workers are encouraged to “casually collide,” an aim that echoes Jobs’ encouragement of “unplanned collaborations.”

When I visited the campus in March, my guide explained that no part of the office was more than 150 feet from food—either a restaurant, a large cafeteria, or a micro-kitchen—which encourages employees to snack constantly as they bump into coworkers from different teams within the company. Even if Google workers aren’t constantly generating new ideas, plenty of evidence suggests that they enjoy their work, and that this enjoyment feeds into motivation and eventually greater productivity.

Festinger and his colleagues were right to focus on physical space when they explored how friendships form—but what made their investigation doubly impressive was how deeply their insights influenced the corporate world’s smartest thinkers fifty years in the future. People with similar attitudes are more likely to get along, those with diverse backgrounds are more likely to generate novel ideas, but none of those interactions exist without the primary ingredient of casual encounters and unexpected conversations.The key features that make for a collaborative office space:

  • An open plan and other design features (e.g., high-traffic staircases) that encourage accidental interactions.
  • More common areas than are strictly necessary—multiple cafeterias, other places to read and work that encourage workers to leave confined offices.
  • Emphasis on areas that hold two or more people, rather than single-occupancy offices.
  • Purpose-free generic “thinking” areas in open-plan spaces, which encourage workers to do their thinking in the presence of other people, rather than alone.

What About Your Workspace?

What office features do you think make for a more collaborative workspace?

More insights on: Office Dynamics

[Ref] Knowledge Transfer: You Can’t Learn Surgery By Watching


Learning to perform a job by watching others and copying their actions is not a great technique for corporate knowledge transfer. Christopher G. Myers suggests a better approach: Coactive vicarious learning.

by Michael Blanding

While some lessons can be learned by watching—a parent’s reaction after touching a hot stove can be a good lesson for a youngster on dangers in the kitchen—other lessons are harder to learn through observation alone. No matter how many times you watch a surgeon perform open-heart surgery, chances are you won’t ever learn how to pull off a triple bypass.

And yet, in business, companies routinely expect employees to pick up new job knowledge through vicarious learning—through reading descriptions of tasks in knowledge-management databases or by observing colleagues from afar. “The predominant analogy for vicarious learning is the photocopier,” says Christopher G. Myers, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School. The idea: Watch what other people do, make copies of the good things and dispose of the bad things, and we are good to go.

But good knowledge transfer doesn’t quite happen that way, and organizations that practice watch-and-learn vicarious learning run the risk of undertraining their key employees, says Myers.

He challenges the theory in a new working paper, Coactive Vicarious Learning: Towards a Relational Theory of Vicarious Learning in Organizations, in which he argues that observation and imitation are rarely the best ways for employees to learn on the job.

“There are some realms of life where that is true, but for the most part, problems in business are more complicated,” says Myers.


The limitations of traditional forms of knowledge management come from two sets of assumptions, he argues.

The first assumption is that the most important elements of a job function are observable, ignoring the crucial tacit knowledge that can influence how someone carries out his or her job. “I could watch a colleague challenge a student and I could think that’s the way I should teach, but what I miss is the backstory, about why he is doing it in that particular case.”

Perhaps even more crucial, those systems assume that the person undertaking the learning wants to duplicate exactly what the other person is doing—despite the fact that they may be perpetuating mistakes made by a predecessor or simply following procedures that may be a bad fit for a person of a different personality and skillset.

New research suggests the best way to transfer knowledge in corporate
roles is to improve upon traditional vicarious learning models.©iStock.com/cacaroot

Instead, Myers envisions a model of coactive vicarious learning.

“The major shift theoretically is moving from a language of transfer, of taking fully formed knowledge and passing it from one person’s head to another, and instead talking about co-creation and building it together,” he says. “What that means practically is vicarious learning must be more interactive. Both the learner and the sharer of knowledge bring things to the table and together create something new.” Myers was inspired to study the topic based on his own experience as an outdoor wilderness instructor, an area in which the cost of failure is too high for people to learn only from their own experience. “Trial and error is not the way you want to learn rock climbing,” says Myers.

When acquiring knowledge is life or death

In his own research, he has spent hundreds of hours studying a similarly fraught industry—high-risk medical transport teams—to learn how they acquire knowledge that can literally mean the difference between life and death. He found that much of their vicarious learning occurred not through studying procedural manuals, but through informal storytelling in the downtime between missions, in which team members related past incidents. “They would dig in with each other and dissect prior cases a little bit, asking, ‘Why did you do it this way, and not that way?’ It’s happening in these more discursive kind of ways.”

By contrast, Myers argues that many companies employ knowledge management systems that favor more independent, rather than discursive, learning. “They say, ‘I am going to write everything down and everyone who wants to know anything about the industry can have that document at their fingertips,’” says Myers. Except this system often doesn’t get used.

That fact was driven home to Myers while interviewing a tech manager. “He said, ‘I use the knowledge management system all the time—but I just scroll down to the bottom and see who wrote it, and then I call them.’”By trying to prepare content that will suit everyone and cover every situation, the authors necessarily strip out the nuance of how things really work in a corporate context. “What we often get in a knowledge management system is the least common denominator,” says Myers. “It’s the bare minimum of what I am willing to share with the world, as I worry about what might get back to me.”

But if coactive learning is key, the difficulty is figuring out how to incorporate it into an organization. Myers makes a distinction between on-line learning, which occurs at the same time work is being performed, and off-line learning, which happens after the fact. Both, he says, can be either independent or coactive.

Watching surgery through the observation glass, for example, may be on-line learning, but it doesn’t give a doctor enough of an appreciation for how to perform a surgery. In order to be successful, says Myers, workers shadowing others must be able to ask questions and debrief in a way that allows them to synthesize information for their own approach and personality.

Off-line learning, meanwhile, doesn’t have to be done alone. The stories told by the medical transport teams—or for that matter, stories told at happy hour by employees at the bar around the corner from the office—can go a long way toward informally educating employees on how the company really works. Managers can help institutionalize this kind of learning in a number of ways. Instead of a knowledge management system consisting of dry reports on job duties, companies can create narrative simulations that are more interactive, allowing employees to debrief with managers about what they did right and wrong.

(Myers notes that Harvard Business School’s own faculty “onboarding” process includes experiences where junior faculty teach a mock class to a lecture hall full of their colleagues, who play the roles of students and mentors in providing feedback after the fact.)

Interactive learning through office norms

Less formally, however, managers can create more interactive vicarious learning through the way they structure the office and create cultural norms. Google built its New York City campus two years ago with the principle that employees should never be more than 150 feet from some form of free food—creating gathering places for workers to interact. “They wanted to engineer serendipity,” says Myers, “creating these kind of casual hallway and cafeteria conversations where the genesis of a lot of great ideas take place.”

Managers don’t have to redesign a building to engineer these encounters. Just by observing where employees naturally congregate and then tacitly condoning those conversations or actively participating in them can go a long way toward normalizing the kind of office culture that encourages employee interaction, says Myers.

Managers can take it to the next level by including a regular time for coactive vicarious learning during meetings, asking for stories about something employees figured out in the past week, and setting expectations for those kind of discussions.

Some senior employees in the high-tech industry set office hours in which they encourage colleagues to come to their office and ask questions. “A lot of this is clearing the brush,” says Myers. By subtly changing office culture to encourage employees to interact in both formal and informal ways, he argues, managers can move employees away from the kind of dry learning that stymies growth and creativity and toward the kind of co-created knowledge that allows employees to really make the job their own.

“Managers can’t say ‘Go sit down and have a good conversation about your past experiences,’ but they can set up structures to let his happen naturally,” says Myers. “And that becomes very critical.”


Michael Blanding is a senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

[Ref] Developing Adaptive Leaders for Turbulent Times: The Michigan Model of Leadership

May 9, 2013 • LEADERSHIP, Leadership Development, MBAs & Executive Education

In complex and dynamic times, the Michigan Model of Leadership enables leaders to recognise and effectively manage competing tensions in organisational life. Leaders who utilise the process of Mindful Engagement learn to balance these tensions and make an impact in a world where there are no easy answers. We need leaders with empathy, drive, integrity, and courage – across society and throughout organisational hierarchies – whose core purpose is to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Our generation has been witness to revolutionary advancements in industrial and information technology. Yet, modern organisations face challenges that are unprecedented in complexity and scale. The globalisation of international trade is creating more complex flows of people, goods, funds, and technology across national and political boundaries. Economic institutions that were historically independent are now part of a global ecosystem that, upon its collapse in 2008-2009, erased $14.5 trillion, or 33 per cent, of the value of the world’s companies in only 6 months. Furthermore, the addition of 80 million people each year to an already overcrowded planet is exacerbating the problems of pollution, desertification, underemployment, epidemics, and famine. Two billion people lack access to clean water, 80% of people live on $10 or less per day, only 53% of students in U.S. cities graduate high school, and climate change threatens to alter our way of life. These challenges will define the future of business and society, but how business and society respond to these challenges will define our generation’s legacy. Leadership has always been important, but the need for leaders who embrace this responsibility and can mobilise collective action in service of bringing about positive change has never been greater.

Historically, societies have looked to leaders as heroic figures with the charisma to charm the hearts of people and show them the way forward. Think about Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the United States, or Winston Churchill leading the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Unfortunately, Adolf Hitler had similar charismatic qualities that allowed him to capture the hearts of the Nazi party, leading to the death of millions. To address the political, economic and social challenges of our generation, we need more than charismatic figures. We need leaders whose core purpose in life is to make a positive difference in the lives of others, and who embody the courage, empathy, integrity and drive that is necessary to tackle tough challenges. Moreover, people routinely confuse leadership with formal or hierarchical power, expecting leadership only of those who hold lofty titles or positions of authority. Instead, we need leadership from all corners of society and at all levels of organisations. Today’s challenges are simply too complex and the need too immediate for people to be waiting for direction from a single leader. Leadership is not a right that is afforded to some but not others. Neither is leadership merely a position. Rather, leadership is a set of actions that anyone can engage, and we need each person to have a bias towards action with a commitment to the collective good. Finally, most people look to leaders for answers, but given the challenges we face, leaders must understand that there is rarely a single answer. Rather, there is a competing set of tensions and trade-offs that must be considered, and leadership is about making tough choices and balancing those competing tensions.

We need leaders whose core purpose in life is to make a positive difference in the lives of others, and who embody the courage, empathy, integrity and drive that is necessary to tackle tough challenges.

Our purpose in this article is to introduce a model of leadership that illustrates the core purpose, values and actions that are necessary for leading in today’s complex and dynamic world. In the 1950s, scholars from the University of Michigan — Daniel Katz, Robert Kahn, and Rensis Likert — conducted ground-breaking leadership research that spawned the Human Relations movement. Based on their research, managers were encouraged to adopt leadership styles that were less job-oriented and more employee-oriented by showing consideration for the needs of employees and enabling their participation in organisational decisions. What may sound obvious today was revolutionary in the 1950s, at which point leadership was mostly about providing structure and ensuring jobs were completed within specification. In this article, we hope to stand on the shoulders of Katz, Kahn and Likert (and others) to introduce a new way of thinking about leadership as a means to positive change in business and society. This new model — called the Michigan Model of Leadership — brings to the foreground the core purpose of making a positive impact on business and society, and articulates the values and actions that are needed to balance tensions between stability and change, and internal versus external stakeholders. After introducing the model, we identify strategies and practices for developing responsible, purpose-driven leaders in your organisation.


The Michigan Model of Leadership

The Michigan Model of Leadership (MMoL) explains how people can lead positive change in their lives, teams, organisations, and society. The MMoL is deeply embedded in the leadership research conducted by many prominent scholars across an array of organisations, market sectors and national boundaries.













To be clear, we make several assumptions about leadership in the 21stcentury. First, leadership is not defined as a position or title. Instead, it is a set of actions that anyone can engage in regardless of where they sit in an organisational hierarchy. As Robert Quinn (University of Michigan) describes in his research on the fundamental state of leadership, at any time, each of us can choose to be and act as a leader. Second, effective leaders do not lead by commanding compliance of others. Instead, effective leaders empower, challenge, and support others to accomplish shared goals. In this sense, leadership is not something you do to people, but rather is about how you work through other people to enable excellence. Third, effective leaders are acutely aware of their personal strengths and how to leverage those strengths to bring out the best in themselves and others. No leader is perfect. All leaders have weaknesses, but the effective ones understand how to complement their weaknesses and leverage their strengths to enable their own and others’ best selves. These assumptions are important because they make leadership accessible to people young and old, with power and without it. Leadership is a choice, and all of us can choose to lead.

At the centre of the MMoL is a core purpose: to make a positive difference in the world. What do we mean by positive difference? It is about impact and legacy — leaving your team, organisation, or even the world a better place than you found it. Researchers such as Adam Grant (University of Pennsylvania) have shown that focusing people on the impact of their work — for example, the positive impact on customers — is not only motivating and inspiring, but it also results in sustainable performance improvement. We are teaching leaders to visualize the impact of their work, use that positive impact as a calling to mobilise their teams, and ultimately achieve greater performance by embracing as their own purpose to make a positive difference in the world.

What do we mean by positive difference? It is about impact and legacy — leaving your team, organisation, or even the world a better place than you found it.

Surrounding this core purpose — what we refer to as the positive core — is a set of values describing how the mission is achieved. Our research shows that the most effective leaders (1) are empathetic and committed to seeing the world through others’ eyes; (2) are driven and routinely stretch to achieve challenging goals; (3) have integrity and are committed to doing the right thing even if it is not the popular thing; and finally (4) are courageous and consider risk and failure to be necessary ingredients for innovation. These values form a strong foundation for action and serve as guideposts for leaders as they work to make a positive difference in the world.

With the core purpose and values as its foundation, the MMoL then describes the leadership actions that are necessary for thriving in today’s global, dynamic and complex environments. Leadership is not only about painting inspirational visions, or structuring organisational processes for execution, or fostering collaboration and innovation. All of these actions are important, but to be effective, leaders must balance a set of competing forces. Leaders must simultaneously balance the stability required for execution with the change required for innovation. Leaders must balance the need for internal collaboration and community with external performance pressures from outside the team. Building on research by Robert Quinn and Kim Cameron (University of Michigan), we have identified four leadership archetypes that embody these competing tensions. Each archetype has inherent strengths and weaknesses. Only by juxtaposing and managing the competing tensions can leaders create sustained effectiveness over time.

Too much emphasis on innovation and change can produce inefficiencies or even organisational chaos that keeps the organisation from implementing new ideas.

Robust Results (blue) represents the actions that leaders engage in to foster competition, perform under pressure, and deliver short-term results. This archetype is often in direct tension with Collaborative Communities (yellow), which represents the actions involved in building high-quality relationships, empowering people, and cultivating trust and cohesion within teams. In many organisations, competition and an emphasis on short-term performance undermine collaboration and the importance of community. Yet, in other organisations, too much of an emphasis on harmony within the community produces a happy yet under-performing culture where people are unwilling to challenge each other in service of achieving higher performance.

Strategic Structures (red) represents the actions that leaders engage in to establish accountability, ensure reliable processes, and optimize efficiency. This archetype is often in direct contrast with Creative Change (green), which represents the actions required to enable change, inspire innovation and co-create new opportunities. In many organisations, an over-emphasis on structure and process can root out innovation, but at the same time, too much emphasis on innovation and change can produce inefficiencies or even organisational chaos that keeps the organisation from implementing new ideas.

Unlike traditional models of leadership that prescribe a menu of leadership behaviours, the MMoL illustrates how well-intended leadership behaviours can solve one problem while introducing a new problem. Consider the contrast between Steve Jobs, the legendary founder of Apple, and current Apple CEO Tim Cook. Jobs, strong in the green Creative Change quadrant, was a prolific visionary with numerous path-breaking products to his name. But he neglected key issues regarding Apple’s supply chain (witness the repeated problems with Apple’s Chinese suppliers). Cook, in contrast, lacks the brilliant mind of a designer, but he brings important strengths in the red Strategic Structures quadrant. He streamlined Apple’s supply chain, reduced inventory levels and increased margins while building confidence in the integrity of suppliers. The implication for leadership development is profound. Every person has a unique set of strengths, but in line with these competing tensions, those strengths will inevitably introduce a unique set of weaknesses that can undermine sustainable performance. It is a rare person who can perform all of these leadership functions well. What we need are leaders who not only recognize the competing tensions but also understand that their role as a leader is not to resolve the tension. Rather, leadership is about helping the organisation dynamically manage these paradoxes.

Building leaders with the cognitive and behavioural complexity of the Michigan Model of Leadership is difficult. In this next section, we introduce our approach — called Mindful Engagement — to developing leaders who learn from experience how to navigate the choices and trade-offs required to thrive in today’s complex and dynamic environment.


Mindful Engagement: A Process for Developing Leaders Who Thrive in Complex Environments

Drawing from research in for-profit companies and governmental agencies around the world, with Susan Ashford (University of Michigan), we developed an approach to leadership development called Mindful Engagement. This approach is appropriate for developing leaders who thrive in complex environments where there is no single answer and the primary source of learning is experience. The process of Mindful Engagement is based on three basic principles: (1) Readying for Growth, (2) Taking Action to Learn, and (3) Reflecting to Retain.


Readying for Growth
Readying for growth is about preparing oneself to learn in complex, dynamic environments. It includes three specific steps: (1) building an awareness of strengths in context, (2) identifying specific, learning goals, and (3) developing a learning mind-set.

Leaders must be aware of and understand how to leverage their own strengths. To build this awareness, we use a series of strengths-based assessments and exercises such as the Reflected Best Self (http://www.centerforpos.org/the-center/teaching-and-practice-materials/teaching-tools/reflected-best-self-exercise/). Best-self stories help individuals discover their strengths and realise their own potential and possibility as leaders. At the same time, leaders must understand that too much emphasis on any particular strength can create an opposing and countervailing force. For example, we are currently coaching an executive who has insatiable drive and an unparalleled commitment to results, but his singular focus on results is reducing cohesion in his senior management team. In complex and turbulent environments, leaders must find a way to leverage their strengths while making sure those strengths do not escalate to become the singular focus of their leadership. For many, this process is difficult because their strengths are exactly the reason they have been so successful. To address this mental hurdle, in our assessments, we not only identify individuals’ strengths but also provide real-life examples that offer insight into the potential risks and trade-offs associated with those strengths. We also routinely pair leaders with contrasting strengths to help them develop an appreciation for the risks of their own leadership style.

The second step is the development of specific learning goals. Clearly, if someone is strong in the red Reliable Results quadrant, a natural learning goal will be to learn the core skills in a different quadrant, maybe the green Creative Change quadrant. But we emphasise a different approach. We ask leaders to commit to learning goals that emphasize, not a particular quadrant, but rather goals focused on learning how to navigate the tensions and trade-offs among the four MMoL quadrants. Learning does not happen within quadrants — learning occurs as leaders focus on and navigate the tensions across quadrants. A recent example comes from an executive who focused her learning goal on stakeholder analysis as a way to understand the distinctive and sometimes conflicting needs and concerns of different stakeholders.

We ask leaders to commit to learning goals that emphasize, not a particular quadrant, but rather goals focused on learning how to navigate the tensions and trade-offs among the four MMoL quadrants.

The third step is to develop a learning mind-set. Carol Dweck (Stanford University) suggests that people either have a performance mind-set (focused on achievement focused on proving yourself) or a learning mind-set (focused on the belief that everyone can change and grow through experience). A performance mind-set values perfection or looking smart. A learning mind-set values experimentation and pushing the boundaries of our comfort zones. In a world where competing forces and trade-offs are the norm, perfection is a myth and thus a performance mind-set impedes leader development. A learning mind-set, in contrast, encourages leaders to get out of their comfort zone and trying new things. Mistakes in today’s complex world are inevitable. The challenge is to make sure you and your team learn from the mistake, and never make the same mistake twice.


Taking Action to Learn
Taking action to learn is about transforming the leader into his or her own R&D lab, where the leader is proactively experimenting with new ways of leading and taking steps to learn from those experiments. It is “skunk works” for proactive, self-directed leader development. To motivate taking action to learn, follow these steps:

First, leaders need to see, feel and experience the competing forces inherent in the MMoL. High-impact experiences are high-stakes (blue quadrant) and require individuals to organise diverse groups of people with limited time and resources (yellow and red quadrants) in service of facilitating innovation and change (green quadrant). At the Ross School of Business, for example, we created the Ross Impact Challenge where 48 student teams have six days to develop a new, for-profit venture that creates economic and social value in Detroit, MI. The teams are composed of 500 people from 36 countries, granted limited time and resources, and challenged to create real impact that is visible in the Detroit community. To excel, the teams must navigate the need for innovation with the need for structure, and the need for team cohesion with a need for results. As individuals work to transcend above the competing tensions rather than compromising amongst the competing tensions, deep learning occurs.

Second, taking action for learning requires that leaders commit to personal experimentation. At Ross, we encourage our students to see each and every experience, no matter how big or small, as an opportunity to experiment with new ways of leading. Recognising that experimentation will sometimes result in failure and mistakes — think about a pharmaceutical firm experimenting with new drug possibilities — we encourage leaders to commit to multiple, small experiments and to fail fast and early. Of course, the organisational culture and reward systems must allow and even support failure when that failure is in service of learning.

Third, leaders must commit to a set of actions focused on seekingfeedback. Learning only occurs when leaders have deep insight into how their actions affect, positively and negatively, the willingness and ability of others to achieve organisational goals. The problem is that most organisations provide too little feedback, or feedback that is not constructive for learning how to lead in complex, dynamic environments. Rather than trying to change the feedback system, we find that a more effective point of intervention is teaching people how to proactively seek feedback that leads to deep insight and personal change. Basic principles include (a) create a routine question or prompt for feedback such as “What input can you give me on…?”; (b) seek feedback as close to the event in question as possible; (c) make it routine and part of your “style”; and (d) seek input from people besides your supervisor or subordinate, such as your customer or peers.


Reflecting to Retain
Reflecting to retain is about practices that enable people to capture and apply the lessons of experience for self-improvement. The roadblock to learning for most people is themselves — the psychological biases that create excuses, flawed attributions, or blinders that get in the way of learning from experience. To address these challenges, we developed and validated a structured reflection process that attacks the biases and enables people to learn in complex, dynamic environments. Most people and organisations avoid reflection altogether, focusing instead on the next task or the next emergency without giving much thought to the past. Even more problematic is that, according to our research, the typical reflection conversation (“What happened? How did it go? What did we learn?”) does not foster learning. Drawing from the military’s after-event review procedure, we develop a new structured process for reflection. The process asks leaders to: (a) describe the experience; (b) explain their reactions to the experience; (c) discuss “what if” scenarios that test alternative explanations for their performance; (d) identify insights about new behaviours that would improve performance; and (e) commit to at least two behaviour changes and specific milestones for making those behaviour changes. We have begun using this structured reflection process to build learning communities of peers where they routinely discuss their experiences, test assumptions about their own performance, and help each other identify insights and actions steps that will enable positive behaviour change in the future. The holy grail for most organisations is building a learning culture where individuals commit not only to their own personal growth but also the personal growth of their colleagues. Our research shows that building structured reflection practices into the normal course of work is one way of building a learning organisation that cultivates leaders who can thrive in complex, dynamic environments.

The holy grail for most organisations is building a learning culture where individuals commit not only to their own personal growth but also the personal growth of their colleagues.

Our world is filled with challenges. More than ever before, we need leaders who commit to living a life of mindful engagement in reach of their best selves. We need leaders who understand how to leverage the competing values inherent to business, who elevate society to higher ideals and standards. Finally, we need leaders with empathy, drive, integrity, and courage – across society and throughout organisational hierarchies – whose core purpose is to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Are you that kind of leader?

About the Authors
D. Scott DeRue
is a management professor at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. Reported by CNN/Money to be one of the top 40 business school professors under the age of 40, Scott’s teaching and research focus on how leaders and teams learn, adapt, and develop in complex and dynamic environments. (dsderue@umich.edu)

Gretchen Spreitzer
is a management professor at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.  She is the author of four books on leadership and is a thought leader in the new field of Positive Organisations.  Her research focuses on employee empowerment and leadership development, particularly within a context of organisational change and decline. (spreitze@umich.edu)

Brian Flanagan is managing director of the Ross Leadership Initiative at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business. His work applies cutting-edge leadership research to development programs for students. He is interested in developing leaders who mobilize the highest potential in people, organisations, and society. (btflan@umich.edu)

Benjamin Allen is former assistant director of the Ross Leadership Initiative (RLI) at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and current talent management specialist at Chrysler, LLC. During his tenure at RLI, Ben developed, planned, and executed leadership programs for students. He seeks to maximize the potential impact of all leaders and organisations. (BMA15@chrysler.com)