21 May 2001  Research & Ideas

From Tigers to Kaleidoscopes: Thinking About Future Leadership

What's up for leaders next year and in the next century? HBS faculty members Linda A. Hill, Christopher A. Bartlett, and Rosabeth Moss Kanter offer new insights in Management 21C: Someday We'll All Manage This Way, a new collection about 21st century leadership.

 

What do leaders this year and the next need to be doing differently than last year, and last decade, and last century? The rapidly changing business world means dramatic changes are afoot in time-worn notions about leadership, according to the book Management 21C: Someday We'll All Manage This Way (Financial Times/Prentice Hall 2000).

Edited by Subir Chowdhury, a consultant and author specializing in quality management, the book pulls together practical and accessible essays by twenty-six leading-edge academics and business professionals in the US, Europe, Canada, and Australia, all to help on-the-ground managers navigate their changing roles as leaders.

Three of the essays that address compelling leadership issues were written by prominent HBS faculty members: Linda A. Hill, Christopher A. Bartlett (with two co-authors), and Rosabeth Moss Kanter.

Below, we provide a short synopsis of each of the HBS faculty member's recent insights as described in Management 21C.

The genius factor

Mention the word "genius" and what comes to mind? Most likely a lone person gifted with extraordinary intellectual powers, talents, and abilities. But few geniuses thrive in a vacuum, according to HBS professor Linda A. Hill. And leaders at the forefront of top companies in the future, she believes, already know that the key to competitive advantage is their own ability as leaders to nurture and harness the "collective genius," of people who work with them. Leaders, she writes, need to provide opportunities for both independence and active engagement of their most talented employees.

Since many companies can get their hands on the same technology, the same markets, the same production methods and the same distribution channels as other companies, she writes, then the strategic management of talent will be the decisive stroke for top leaders.

In Hill's essay on "Leadership as Collective Genius" in Management 21C, she spells out what the creative process entails at the collective level, as well as ways that several company heads she has studied have leveraged collective talent. Leaders bear a huge responsibility for seeing that creativity is sparked constantly and flows unimpeded, she writes. According to Hill, these leaders actually have three mandates:

  • Clearly state why the collective exists
  • Determine who should be part of it
  • Unleash and harness the collective "genius" of the group

The first two points are not as clear-cut as they might appear. While the leader's standard charge is to set direction, a leader also has to communicate a moral and strategic vision that actually inspires people to give their all. "The vision needs to tap into people's professional pride, the engine for the extraordinary motivation and commitment demanded by creativity. As organizations become increasingly diverse and their boundaries flexible and amorphous, the notion of what brings people together to act as one body becomes ever more critical," Hill explains.

As for the task of selecting members of the collective, Hill rejects the idea that they should be chosen in order to conform to a freeform type of corporate structure, a "one big happy family" mentality. People in organizations of collective genius, she insists, need to protect their independence while also learning how to collaborate.

As for the third point, unleashing and harnessing the collective genius of the group, that's another area where true leadership skill comes into play. According to Hill, managing the creative process of other people means managing four separate paradoxes. Nurture each individual's differences as well as their collective identity and goals, she advises. Encourage mutual support as well as confrontation within the group. Focus on the performance at hand in addition to opportunities for future learning and growth. And finally, Hill writes, "Balance the leader's authority and the discretion and autonomy of the members of the collective."

"The bottom line," she concludes, "is these leaders are an inspiration to be around because they truly believe in people. For them, leadership is about humanity, getting the very best out of people to make progress. They see the extraordinary in people whom most see as only ordinary."

Rejecting the market's rules

"In business circles, a story is often told of two hikers who wake up one night to find a tiger lurking near their tent," goes the opening line of Chapter 9 in Management 21C, co-written by Sumantra Ghoshal, HBS professor Christopher A. Bartlett, and Peter Moran.

"One of the hikers immediately reaches for his running shoes. 'You cannot outrun a tiger,' reminds his partner.

"'Yes,' he responds, but all I have to do is outrun you.'"

That little tale may make for a good joke among colleagues but it's a bad strategy for companies to follow, observe the authors, since more than a few failed companies have run straight into the tiger's jaws while believing that all they had to do was outrun their competition.

Ghoshal and Moran, both of the London Business School, and Bartlett, chairman of HBS Executive Education's Program for Global Leadership, have a better strategy in mind for leaders. In their essay, "Value Creation: The New Millenium Management Manifesto," they make the case that leadership for the 21st century demands that companies forge a different relationship with competition, with the market, and with society, and by extension with their entire staff.

What they have in mind for management, they say, is a "new moral contract" that explicitly chooses value creation over the zero-sum game of value appropriation. Organizations that focus purely on the bottom line and try to act like the market, they believe, will eventually find themselves spending more and more energy fighting for a dwindling supply of resources—and the market will win anyway. Norton and Westinghouse, for example, two companies that lived by the sword—with managers who were compelled to act in their own self-interest, rendering every deal an all-or-nothing proposition—also died by the sword, assert Ghoshal, Bartlett, and Moran.

The authors' proposal for leaders of the future requires a simple yet profound shift in management philosophy. People can no longer be viewed as corporate assets from which to squeeze every drop of value. Instead, leaders should see employees as resources to cultivate through a clearly defined program of support for professional growth, for example, helping to improve their skills and personal satisfaction.

Gone, probably forever, is any semblance of the security of lifetime employment in the same company. The new moral contract also asks a lot from employees, they write. "It requires that [employees] have the courage and the confidence to abandon the stability of lifetime employment and embrace the invigorating force of continuous learning and personal development. They must accept that the security that comes from performance in the market ultimately is both more durable and more satisfying than the security offered by paternalistic management."

"A market is driven by spot transactions, a healthy company is driven by durable relationships," they add. "A market has no purpose or direction of its own; it reflects only the collective outcome of a relentless pursuit of individual gain.

"A company prospers by creating a broader sense of purpose which allows individuals to align their interests and engage in collective action."

Taking aim with a kaleidoscope

"The scene was memorable," confides HBS professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter in the introduction to her essay in Management 21C called "Kaleidoscope Thinking."

"I was sitting in a Singapore ballroom when the British head of a global oil company told his top managers worldwide about what they needed to succeed in their company in the future. Like the other people listening, I squirmed in anticipation of the usual cliches about audacious goals, working in teams, and putting customers first.

"'Brains,' he said. 'You need brains.' And he sat down.

"How unexpected. How refreshing. How appropriate," Kanter marvels.

In the essay, Kanter takes the brains concept one step further, exploring what savvy leaders really need to know how to do: think across borders and through boundaries, almost as if turning a kaleidoscope to examine the same basic set of circumstances in a hundred different new ways. Such "kaleidoscope thinking," she asserts, "is the ultimate weapon to help leaders meet the challenges of the 21st century." Leaders at companies that particularly stress innovative new products and services, she adds, give virtual kaleidoscopes to everyone else in their organization as a matter of course.

Kaleidoscope thinking is the ultimate weapon to help leaders meet the challenges of the 21st century.
—Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Kaleidoscope thinking can be encouraged at all levels through six forms of mental stimulation, writes Kanter. These include:

  • "Regular visits to other parts of the organization and exchange of ideas
  • Trips to new places to experience things quite different from normal practice
  • Discussions with critics and challengers, or just those who hold a different world view, have different beliefs, make different assumptions
  • Trend-tracking by asking everyone what's new, what's changing
  • Reading outside [your] field as well as in it
  • Attending conferences on subjects that are new and unfamiliar"

Leaders who want to stimulate more innovation within their companies need to look beyond the organization's walls, too. Is the company in an environment that counts on high educational standards, at the primary, secondary, and higher levels? Do the local community and national culture value entrepreneurship and have the infrastructure to support it?

A century ago, Kanter adds, an engineer's slide rule symbolized exciting opportunities for the industrial age. Now companies need new symbols for the global information era. "I nominate the kaleidoscope," writes Kanter, "symbol of ever-changing patterns and endless new possibilities, powered by human imagination."