Is Leadership an Increasingly Difficult Balancing Act?

Summing Up: Do we long for the days of the conventional authority figure? Jim Heskett sums up this month's column.
by James Heskett

Summing Up

What's the Future of the Authority Figure In Leadership?

Leadership involves the effective management of tensions characteristic of all organizations. Are such tensions exacerbated by today's need for increasing speed and agility required repeatedly to achieve transient strategic advantage in a world of impatient investors, restive employees, and demanding customers? Do they require leaders who have fewer answers, more questions, and a bias for testing and quick action? Are investors, employees, and customers willing to trade yesterday's authority figures for a new kind of leader, one with fewer answers? Those were the questions implied by this month's column. The predominance of responses suggested that the answers to the questions are "yes, yes, and maybe."

Adam Hartung commented that "As technology has increased the speed of market shifts, organizations have been unable to keep pace… in no small part due to the reliance on hierarchy and the dominant position given very highly compensated CEOs." Jackie Le Fevre put it this way: "Short answer to the question—increasingly difficult balancing act? Yes-in part at least due to scale and speed of information flow through social media…"

Respondents described what increasingly will be required of leaders. Kapil Kumar Sopory said that "Leadership these days has become a complex art… people with bias for listening, testing and fast reacting will generally succeed."

Aim, in describing his experience, added: "One common characteristic I encountered … is that (the) vast majority of the leaders were morally stable and people who aspire (to a) high degree of integrity in how they solve the unknown by being honest with all the stakeholders." Several suggested that a heavy dose of authenticity in leadership is what is needed to manage the tension. Michael Leahy commented that "…we are challenged to sort out short term position … and personal self serving ambition versus more genuine leadership…When we are traveling in white water we have to be very aware and responsive but we always have to keep our integrity, values, and goals." Clark Phippen assured us that leadership is up to the task, saying that "true leaders can easily address the challenges you describe without the 'academic' complexity you and John Kotter suggest."

How investors, employees, and customers will react in a business world populated by leaders with these characteristics is another matter. Gerald Nanninga's comment suggests that it may not be an issue. As he put it, "Leaders have never had all the answers. It's about time we admit that." Jeff Schur, citing CEO Bob McDonald of Procter & Gamble and the company's shift to more emphasis on digital media as an example, commented that "it is possible to allow experimentation… trial and error … without the CEO looking foolish because he or she does not know the answers and is no longer expected to in the ephemeral state of entropy we live in, called Digital."

We're left with impression that changes in leadership required for success in the fast-moving information economy will be achieved with limited discomfort. And yet we are confronted daily with criticism of leaders who don't have all the answers. It's as if we—as investors, employees, and customers—long for the good old days of the conventional authority figure. Is there still a need for that kind of leadership? What is the future of the authority figure in leadership? What do you think?

Original Article

Leadership has always required the management of tensions caused by the simultaneous need for such things as short-term and long-term performance, the exploitation of existing ideas and the search for new ones, and the staffing and motivation of leadership teams with people of diverse backgrounds and capabilities.

The notion that organizations increasingly will have to pursue transient strategic advantage rather than rely on strategies that can be sustained over long periods of time intensifies the challenge for some leaders. Several students of these phenomena are studying the nature of the challenge and the kind of leadership needed to meet it.

Eric Reis, a successful entrepreneur, has pointed out that winning competitors in the future will be those that "fast-adapt," practicing continuous deployment of ideas to find the ones that offer at least fleeting competitive advantage. It will require leaders that have little confidence in long-range planning, predictions of others, or their own biases. They will spend less time planning and more time fostering the organizational ability to develop and test new ideas. In a recent e-mail, Scott Cook, the cofounder of personal financial software leader Intuit, elaborated on the importance of these themes for large organizations as well as startups, citing the need for leaders to support what he calls "lean experimentation," centered on the rapid testing of a lot of ideas rather than the slower implementation of a few ideas generated by top management.

While acknowledging the growing entrepreneurial demands on leadership, others also recognize the need to simultaneously defend "sustainable competitive advantage." The concept of ambidexterity championed by Michael Tushman and Charles O'Reilly is one response to the dilemma. Rather than abandoning ideas regarding long-term strategic advantage or spinning new ventures out of the existing organization, they propose ways of supporting innovation for future advantage while attending to efforts to meet the shorter-term demands of investors. It requires a different mindset among leaders, different policies and practices, a different form of organization. These are leaders with a congruent vision of critical tasks to be addressed as well as the culture, formal organization, and people with which to do it in essentially two worlds encompassed by the same organization with no second-class citizens exploiting traditional opportunities, not an easy task.

John Kotter recently suggested that large successful organizations in the future will have to support both traditional hierarchies to exploit core businesses and networks that are better suited to pursuing new opportunities. It will require leaders who can build and lead what he terms "dual operating systems," staffing innovative networks with volunteers from the existing hierarchy, comprising a "guiding coalition" that can coordinate the strategic direction of network efforts with the overall strategy being pursued by the more conventional hierarchy. Again, it requires a "believer" in the feasibility of dual operating systems who is able to lead them with an even hand.

This thinking raises questions: If these are the tensions that will become increasingly more important, will they require leaders who have a bias for listening, testing, and fast-reacting? Rather than authority figures, will they have to admit with increasing frequency that they don't have all or even very many of the answers about the future? If so, does this take us a step beyond the humility combined with determination demanded of Jim Collins' Level V leaders in his Good to Great study? No matter how important these qualities may be to future success, are employees and investors still going to look for authority figures?

Are they going to be willing to support someone who doesn't have all the answers and is willing to admit it? Is leadership becoming an increasingly difficult balancing act? What do you think?

To Read More:

Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don't (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001)

John P. Kotter, Accelerate!, Harvard Business Review, November 2012, pp. 44-58.

Eric Reis, The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, (New York: Crown Business, 2011).

Michael L. Tushman and Charles A. O'Reilly III, Winning Through Innovation: A Practical Guide to Leading Organizational Change and Renewal (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997)

    • Michael Leahy
    • Professor of Health Sciences, Linfield College
    As I reflect on your timely topic, I ask myself - how much do we expect our leaders to be good versus do good versus look good? I am struck - at least within health care and health administration - how we are challenged to sort out sort term positioning, fashion, and personal self serving ambition versus more genuine leadership. Transparency is not the same thing as integrity. Short term opportunism should not be confused with long term success. When we are traveling in white water we have to be very aware and responsive but we always have to keep our integrity, values, and goals. Mike Leahy MBA 1974
    • Gerald Nanninga
    • Principal Consultant, Planninga From Nanninga
    Two Points:

    1. There seems to be a disturbing circular argument here. On the one hand, there is the assertion that one cannot create sustainable advantage. On the other hand, the proposed solution to this problem is to create sustainable advantage in the skills of fast-adapting and fast-learning. Am I the only one to see the irony here?

    2. Leaders have never had all the answers. It's about time we admit that.
    • Jeff Schur
    • CEO, ArmoryNy
    P&G, one of the worlds most successful authoritatively led companies adapted to the new social media reality overnight. Too quickly one might argue.

    In 2012, Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald was going to reduce his $10 billion global ad budget because his brands can get "free" impressions on Facebook and Google.

    McDonald said on his (2012 ) Q4 earnings call:

    "... with things like Facebook and Google and others, we find that the return on investment of the advertising, when properly designed, when the big idea is there, can be much more efficient. One example is our Old Spice campaign, where we had 1.8 billion free impressions."

    He went a step further by commenting that "the only measure he cares about now is Facebook "likes". This from the CPG company that invented methodical measurement.

    McDonald is aware that on Facebook and other social media, like Twitter and Google, brands can get plenty of free impressions through Likes, sharing, email forwarding, blog links and so on.

    Ten years ago, P&G would have had to pay publishers and broadcasters for every single one of those impressions.

    Now, millions of them are literally free. For instance: It cost nothing to upload Old Spice Guy to YouTube. And this Old Spice video had over 50 million views.

    But the kind of exposure generated by P&G campaigns like the Old Spice Guy only came after a significant amount of old-fashioned media was bought by the company's ad agency, the venerable Weiden and Kennedy, much of it ironically on Facebook.

    (W&K have a fantastic media planning and buying operation because Dan Weiden never fell into the trap of separating media buying from creative development.)

    But in the end, McDonald did not slash his budget. He astutely allowed his marketing people to balance the new social media world with the more traditional media like TV, which despite predictions of an early death have stubbornly shown growth.

    So it is possible to allow experimentation, the trial and error advocated by Sir John Hegarty, leading to the learning from failure that actually drives much of the science world to enter business in the C Suite without showing weakness, or simply caving into what might be a short-term fad, fashion or transient technology because it's cool.

    And without the CEO looking foolish because he or she does not know the answers and is no longer expected to in the ephemeral state of entropy we live in, called Digital.
    • Adam Hartung
    • CEO, Soparfilm Energy
    Ever since HBS started studying management academically organizations have been hierarchical. No matter what else has been proposed, hierarchy remains the dominant organizational method. And CEOs continue to lead as "commander in chief" drawing enormous compensation.

    As technology has increased the speed of market shifts organizations have been unable to keep pace. In no small part to the reliance on hierarchy, and the dominant position given very highly compensated CEOs.
    • Jackie Le Fevre
    • Director, Magma Effect
    Short answer to the question - increasingly difficult balancing act? Yes - in part at least due to scale and speed of information flow through social media.

    I think the step beyond humility is being talked about very eloquently by Brene Brown in her work on vulnerability. She observes that there is a fine line between disclosing enough about what you do and don't know which enables people to experience you as an authentic individual and therefore one whose word can be trusted (which is pretty central to leadership) and disclosing too much. More than ever leaders need peer support/mentors where they can explore and talk through the complexities and uncertainties that they face without risk of unwitting collateral damage to confidence inside or outside their organisation .

    For me cultural congruence between the leadership and the collection of individuals that make up their workforce is key. As a relatively long lived species humankind is biologically designed to learn and to adapt to change so we can all do it. What helps us want to cope with change and uncertainty is some sense that there is a point to it (we want purpose) and that those who are in leadership positions are doing the best they can with what they know and believe.

    So I am with Michael - we have to hold firm to our values and goals - which does of course also require us to know and understand ourselves very well in the first place.
    • Shadreck Saili
    • PHD Candidate, Atlantic International University
    Yes, leadership is becoming an increasingly difficult balancing act. I argue that the increased dynamism of environments in which leaders now operate are the major contributor. operational environments are in "ICUs" thus the need for continuous improvement strategies that focus on small wins.

    I feel the long range strategy is to invest in assets, resources ( human or other wise) that can easily adapt to changes( at high frequency ) while at the same time focus on the out-mate desired forward position. small wins management is critical and as leaders we should be drifting to managing through projects as a principle rather than the traditional way of leadership/management principles . That way our adaptation to frequent changing situations will be improved. "pilots of all seasons"

    I also feel the training of modern leaders should shift to that where leaders should be skilled to feel that they are war against rapid change.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Leadership these days has become a complex art. The main reasons seem to be cut-throat competition, quicker decision making to reach the goals, regular improvement of knowledge not only of one's core area but of whatever is happening around, risk-prone environment, legal requirements, brisk technical advancements,human resource areas(staff retention, produtivity, incentivisation, etc.) , accounts and audits and, ultimately, achieving various project targets.
    We need authority figures who are basically humane, morally upright and ethically strong who consider work as worship. They are no-nonsense people meaning business at all levels to be their prime consideration for success. They are level-headed while deciding on matters of small as well as strategic importance.
    Hence people with bias for listening, testing and fast reacting will generally succeed.
    • Aim
    • Drilling Engineer, N/A
    @ Gerald Danninga

    Your first point is what I understood from the article.

    I do not see leaders as people with answers to everything, never even had the luxury of encountering a leader in the field who would have majority of the answers; and I am in a technical role.

    One common characteristic I encountered though, is that vast majority of the leaders were morally stable and people who aspire high degree of integrity in how they solve the unknown - by being honest with all the stakeholders.

    Best regards,

    • Chris Lu
    • Student, Csn
    I agree with the writer as I think leadership is not only a skill but also a kind of art. It dose infect a lot to the act. I'm talking about human behavior here and leadership is to manage sth well.
    • Ned McGrath
    • Management Consultant, IBM
    Thank you, Jim, for generating interest in some 'deep thinking' about the challenges associated with leading organizations.

    Leadership effectiveness is one of those 'eye of the beholder' qualities. Culture--in the sense of ethnic heritage, national experience and organizational experience -- drives the sets of expectations we apply to defining 'quality leadership'.

    I'm a 'believer' in the importance of having leaders who: Empower and motivate the members of their organizations to actively contribute to its strategic direction; Recognize the critical importance of leadership advocacy in communicating and instilling the organization's vision across the enterprise, Understand and leverage the 'voice of the customer', and who foster opportunities for breakthrough thinking (from both within and outside the organization).

    This orientation is reality based (revenue is essential to survival), reflective of the need for collaboration (bridges don't get built by one person), and fosters a culture in which people are engaged in defining and pursuing opportunities that are focused on achieving sustainable productivity.

    The real challenge here is giving leaders the breathing room needed to realize these objectives in the face of extraordinary pressure to focus on short term profitability to the exclusion of sustainability.

    HBS and other leading institutions play a huge role in promoting that sort of transformation...Thanks for promoting the dialog.
    • Donald Shaw
    • President, Donald E. Shaw, P.E.
    I do not see any real contradiction between short term and long term competitive advantage because as change continues to accelerate everything will sooner rather than later become short term. The idea that a leader has ever had all of the answers is a myth. Most of the success attributed to leaders can more realistically be attributed to luck and timing. Leaders do not have crystal balls. They take in information and make decisions then convince others to follow them. The taking in of information is changing rapidly and increasingly needs more and more input. But the actual skills, from which the name leader derives, is that of being followed because it is always the followers that make it happen. And it is that trait that cannot exist without integrity and personal values that others can support including stockholders once they accept the chaotic world we all live in today. It is possible for a leader to be internally constant wh
    ile leading continually changing external processes. The tools of decision making will continue to change, but the tools of leading--inspiring, energizing and engaging--remain the same.
    • Vasudev Das (Bhakti Vasudeva S.)
    • Researcher, ISKCON
    "Is Leadership an Increasingly Difficult Balancing Act?" - James Heskett

    First, I would to thank Professor Jim for his creative thinking in generating a pertinent question in this scholarly forum - to wit, "Is Leadership an Increasingly Difficult Balancing Act?" The bottom of line of the query could be rightly related to "integration" in calculus. Calculus itself could be a challenging course or discipline, and integration in calculus could be a hard knot to crack. Similarly, integrating transient strategic advantage and sustainable strategic advantage could be replete with challenges, but that in no way implies that we should throw away the baby with the bathwater. Traditionally, a mother would remove the baby from the bathwater and throw it away. It's not so difficult to find managers, and of course, more than few people are managers, in the sense that we are managing our families, time, personal lives, etc. However, leadership requires some other type of criteria. Embarking on a monolithic type of leadership is easier than u
    tilizing the multifaceted skills required in the integration of transient advantage and sustainable strategic advantage. The leadership train should run on two tracks of transient advantage and sustainable strategic advantage for a positive social change for a viable future. For the purpose of transient advantage, I may just make all my workers temporary placements, because then I would not be committed to health insurance of workers, etc., but what could transpire is that more than a few of the workers would not align with the organization's goals, vision, and mission, and one of the consequential effects would be low performance due to insufficient commitment. Besides, many of the workers would not be willing to make an extra effort for the organization's increasing development. So, I would be at a loss in the long run. Leadership, be it according to classical models or modern paradigms, could be effective and sustainable if the leader is able to integrate strategic sustai
    nable advantage and transient advantage. Afterwards, the sensory modalities are prone to transitory transactions for immediate gratification and ventures that favor delayed gratification.
    • David Wittenberg
    • CEO, The Innovation Workgroup
    Rapid changes in the environment demand exceptional insight and exceptional agility, not exceptional balance, from leaders.

    The leader's four jobs are fixing the vision, communicating the vision, equipping the followers to achieve the vision, and obtaining feedback to guide course corrections. When competitive advantage is harder to sustain, the importance of vision setting and feedback gathering are increased.

    The gold standard is to lay out a vision that will outlast changes in tastes and technology. However, when markets are in flux, the leader must assure that his or her finger is on the pulse of the market. He need not have all the answers, but if the team is aligned with the vision and equipped to do its work well, the market signals will be received and processed, and the response to changes will be appropriate.
    • Mrityunjoy Panday
    • Test Lead, Cognizant
    I don't see this as dual operating system. it is extending the matrix organization in the third dimension. since exising functional and project oriented all needs to encourage enterpreneurship and innovation across board. it is how you hire and manage people, with the three dimensions in place, will define how you proceed.
    • KA
    • Systems
    It's important the "believers" in a dual operating system have the understanding that leaders have the authority to make the decisions. This understanding will allow the processes to work it's way through the systems without dissentions and inefficiencies. Our modern day leaders will need to depend on the successes and failures in a "listening, testing and reacting" enviorment. But the great leaders will emerge only if they truly understand the "systems" and lessons learned from past experiences.
    • Col (Retd.) Surendra S Arya
    • Chief Mentor, Perspectives Unlimited
    The Newtonian Laws of motion often do not apply to organizations as most of them are people-based but the fine laws of Guidance do apply. What it implies is that the the most critical job of the Leaders is to notice, understand and correct things timely in the ever changing environment of the organizational dynamics. This needs unfailing alertness, continuous feedback through knowing the other perspectives and then find, workout and apply required corrections for keeping things on course.

    The reality of like is that we all are human and go to sleep when it is expected least and/ or care little about what others are able to see and understand.
    • Clark Phippen HBS '62
    • Professor, Sacred Heart University
    There are many vague definitions of "leadership" out there; looks like your paper might be using one. Having taught leadership in a major corporation (and,
    incidentally, now working with venture firms where true leadership is common currency), true leaders can easily address the challenges you describe without the "academic" complexity you and John Kotter suggest.
    • Shirley Lyons, M.S.
    • Facilitator - Lead Faculty, Univ. of Phoenix
    As a Manager of a large social service organization by day and a facilitator of management students by night, I find your question intriguing. For me, the answer is yes and most of us have been balancing this for years.

    Change is coming at us at an amazing rate, and I work in an industry that is changing it's paradigm. This requires one foot in the current long term strategy to get the work done and one foot in the new - the challenging and the blurry future. Work must continue to get done while trying to find the key to the future. I have found that seeing the future is a key and allows me to lead towards the change. For example, my field is moving towards more "in the community" individualized services at a time when funding promotes "in a building" group services. How can one do both? By straddling that line and giving options for employees to try new things while maintaining the current funding.

    A balancing act? Absolutely. My goal at night when teaching is helping students see that this will be happening more and more. The more innovative and willing to explore other than standard options will be a key to their success in the "new normal" of the changing world.
    • Edward Hare
    • Retired Director, Strategy and Planning, Fortune 250 Manufacturer
    What kind of leadership is needed is, fundamentally, highly situational. Authority figures work, at times, because that's what an organization needs and external influences may require.
    What's needed is a very good match of a candidate's skill set, functional competencies and style to the time and circumstances. That's not easy to do and very often people wind up in "leadership" positions where that match isn't very good.
    Selecting leaders shouldn't be a process of rationalizing the selection of a candidate based on politics and familiarity, but it often is. A sound and objective assessment of what an organization needs at the moment would likely be a much better starting point. How often does that happen? And how often are selections made based on superficial impressions about prospective leaders or inaccurate judgments about what an organization will best respond to?