Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Role of Ideas in the Leadership Role

Leaders add value through the ideas that they bring to the game. At least, I hope that that's the case!

In fact, like nearly everything else, it's not entirely clear about how ideas work in effective leadership. Think for a moment about leaders you have known. How many of them are associated in your mind with "leading through ideas"? While certainly some jump out immediately, there are an alarming number for whom the notion of ideas would not necessarily be associated with their leadership role. In far too many instances that I can recall, the wordaction is the first characteristic that comes to mind. Mind you, I have no argument with "action" if it is purposeful and thoughtful, but all too often it appears to be spasmodic and reactive. In fact, all too many leaders that I know are neither reflective nor curious.... both devastating liabilities if we are hoping for "smarter" organizations!

The other day in an IMD program designed for CEOs, I asked the participants to describe how their association with "knowledge" and "ideas" changed as they had moved through their careers. Using the "leadership passage" model proposed by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter, & James Noel [The Leadership Pipeline, 2nd edition: Josey-Bass, 2011], we explored what sorts of ideas they had needed at each stage in their careers, and how they learned such things. The image above shows a blackboard shot from the discussion.

At the start of their careers, the CEOs that I was working with felt that their idea-contribution was largely "technical" [by "technical" I am referring to the detailed practice of their profession, and not to "technology" per se.] in nature, often resulting from solitary investigations, and where they had little need to explain their recommendations beyond it's technical effectiveness. Their task was to recommend what to do, and their biggest challenge as an idea-worker[although I don't believe any of them would describe themselves this way] was to "be heard." They also spoke of "generational differences" as both a reason they were asked to submit ideas [presumably, it was recognized that those just out of school might have newer/more ideas], and as a source of impotence in the advancing of their ideas.

The career advance to "managing others" brought along with it a need to delegate idea-work. The new focus became how to do this, and the leadership role was more of an "aligner," with a need to now explain "why" ideas were needed, along with more listening to the proposed ideas of others, which is not necessarily natural nor straight-forward. As they then next moved on to "managing managers", they were required to listen to not only more people, but more different people. There was also a real shift away from working with technical ideas to more working with political ideas: the issues are bigger, and more complex, and the risks are greater.

In the upper reaches of corporate leadership, where they were managing large organizational units, or the corporation itself, my participants saw their idea roles as largely that of inspiring and convincing. They had experienced a real transition from "classical" learning to "learning by experience." They found themselves engaged in long visions and helicopter thinking and were now relying on "processes" for the acquisition of the ideas of others. Their biggest fear at these upper-reaches of corporate life was the loss of entrepreneurial drive and a fear that action at that leadership level was so heavily influenced by incentives. In addition, they admitted that they heard only problems in their jobs, and far less about opportunities. All this cries out for a need for preparation in order to make the transitions in idea-work that accompany the leadership transitions, yet it was also clear that nothing like this had been provided for the people in the class.

Perhaps the most sobering reflections of the day were the lack of responses as tohow they actually acquired the ideas that were necessary to perform successfully at each level of their advance. The first level was the easiest: technical skills obtained in school were the basis for their ideas. Above this, however, one gets the feeling that it is much more happenstance, unless the leader maintains a discipline about "Idea-Hunting" that can serve them well as an alternative to unconscious dependency upon others who have strong personal and political agendas in advancing their own ideas. Acquiring that discipline, however, is a personal initiative, and there was really little or no "education" about how to become a more effective idea-worker at each level of their career advance.

We all agree that we are moving into a knowledge-intensive era, where better ideas will become the ultimate competitive advantage. Presumably, the effective leader of the future will be one who has a facility for working with new ideas -- theirs and the ideas of others, and who is both thoughtful and engaged in the pursuit and support of good ideas. This is a role of strategic importance and considerable responsibility, yet for the most part it would appear that we provide little or no conscious preparation in such facility for the leader-aspirant as they move upwards through their leadership passages. Since our work on The Idea Hunter argues that successful idea-work is more the result of behavior than of brains, it would seem logical to work with future and incumbent leaders to develop their idea-behaviors so that their organizations will, in turn, become effectively smarter.

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