Interview with Jack D. Wood*) about leadership in a digital world.
Why is continual higher learning like the GEMBA the appropriate way to battle an increasingly complex global economic environment?
I don’t think you want to ‘battle’ the complex global economic environment; I think you want to understand it so you can work within it without fearing it and without losing your humanity.
Executives and the business press today overestimate the importance of technology. Companies, and countries, fail not because they don’t have technology or money or because of the perception of complexity, they fail because of failures in leadership.
The CEIBS GEMBA, like the IMD MBA that ran from 2001 until 2012, was unique in its focus on leadership. Without first-rate leadership, businesses cannot compete and public sector organizations will flounder.
Usually it’s the other way round….
That is right. Most employees entering businesses have technical skills and technical training. They end up working in companies for five or ten years, and then it becomes clear that their technical skills and technical training are not enough. They need leadership skills.
These managers are trained in a cognitive and rational way, and they look at situations as if organizations with people ran like an engineering system. But businesses don’t run like automobiles. They are full of people.
And these people have to be treated differently than you treat circuits on an assembly line. Military organizations actually work differently: first you become an officer, then you learn how to pilot an airplane or command a ship. Leadership skills come first and technical skills come later.
You mean that in industry there is a big gap between technical training and leadership training?
In industry you end up with technically trained people who after ten years end up managing people at work and having families at home and none of their technical skills help them to do either. Leadership and behavioral skills are central.
So why is there a leadership focus on the GEMBA? If you can get the leadership stuff right, you will be positioned to have much better decision-making in all business areas--whether it’s a question of accounting, finance, operations, whatever. If you don’t get leadership right, you always make a mess of all other organizational decision-making.
However, not everybody is born to be a leader…
There is a widespread misconception about the distinction between ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’—the one is a formal role and the second is a behavioral process. Conventional thinking mistakenly assumes that the person on top of the organization is ‘the leader’. But leadership is a process that occurs throughout the organization.
A German HR exec was planning a program for young high potential managers, and she came to see me and asked me what I did. I gave her my assignments and readings. A few months later she came back and said that she liked my readings and assignments but could I remove the words ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ from the material.
I asked why she wanted me to do that. She said that she didn't to want the young managers to come back from my course and think that they would be leaders. I said, “Let's go to the kindergarten and look through the big window.” It was a wall of glass. Behind it were dozens of kids. I asked her if she could see any leadership being exercised among the children in the kindergarten? She said yes.
Some of the kids were organizing the others, initiating games, leading. And so I said to her: Ok, let's talk about what leadership is and what it isn’t. There is a difference between a ‘leader’ which is a formal role, and ‘leadership’ which is a process that occurs at all levels of an organization—or any group, including one’s family.
Is your personal-development aspect, similar to the one which you established at IMD, which distinguishes the GEMBA from other EMBA programs?
All business schools that ‘teach leadership’ focus on a personal or individual level. Mostly the focus is in the classroom and sometimes there are a few hours of personal ‘coaching’. The main differences with leadership work I do is that we don’t just focus on the personal, individual level, we work on the group and organizational levels—and we work in depth.
All leadership is exercised in small groups. Even if you are a President or a Prime Minister you still work in a small group. So, we focus on the small group. Most schools and organizations do individual coaching but in fact you never work with somebody as an individual only.
If you’re thrown into a group, and you think it’s just a collection of individuals with their own traits, you just don’t understand the unconscious dynamics of how the group works. If you don’t understand why people are subgrouping, why the agenda on the table is not the real agenda but the agenda under the table is, then you’ll never be an effective leader.
But is leadership not mostly about motivating people?
Traditional ‘leadership’ is based on dominance, hierarchy and obedience. But dominance is not leadership. Dominance—authoritarian behavior—is a kind of archaic or primitive leadership. It works with baboons but it doesn’t work with humans very well—unless there is a crisis.
This is why authoritarian leaders create and exacerbate crises, to permit them to behave in an authoritarian manner. This is true in Switzerland, the US, Russia, China, everywhere. Dominating your subordinates with your formal authority may bring compliance, but it will never bring commitment. Authoritarian leadership is the same everywhere.
The collective desire for dominant and authoritarian leadership is more pronounced in times of insecurity and fear. Today is an example. And it’s dangerous.
What would be a more behavioral approach?
If you understand what drives people’s unconscious behavior, you can exercise leadership in a deeper, more effective way. Nelson Mandela’s name comes up often as a great leader. Mandela spent 27 years in prison.
He went into prison as an angry young man, but after a while he realized that his anger way toxic to himself, so he became curious about why the whites treated the blacks so badly. He started talking to his jailers to understand them. He learned that the reason whites treated the blacks badly was because they were afraid of the blacks—that’s why whites were persecuting blacks. And when he got out of prison, his advisors were telling him they could not take revenge on the whites.
But Mandela said no, and he addressed the fears of the whites, not the bitterness of the whites. That’s why he was a remarkable leader, because he could address the unconscious and irrational elements. Robert Mugabe in former Rhodesia did exactly the opposite, and Zimbabwe is a mess now: same kind of history, same kind of resources, same legacy of white rule, different black leadership, so different results—success in South Africa and failure in Zimbabwe.
Not everyone has what it takes to be Nelson Mandela…
Well actually almost everyone does. In today’s environment you get a lot of would be leaders playing to fear and exaggerating it, basically manipulating people into supporting them because of fear, so that they can justify behaving in an authoritarian manner.
Hitler and Stalin did that. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are examples today. It’s an old trick: generate and exacerbate fear among the people, and manipulate them into following your fabricated solutions—it’s narcissistic and pathological. There are lots of ‘top executives’ who operate this way too. There is a lot of current research that identifies that the character traits of many CEOs are the same as those of psychopaths.
If you exercise leadership today, you can’t understand things by only working on yourself—like getting personal coaching—because you’re trapped in a system that you don’t understand. Of course you have to understand the psychological dynamics that drive you, but you need to understand what drives those around you too.
And how shall we escape the system in which we are trapped?
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Jack D. Wood, Professor of Management Practice and Organisational Behaviour at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai, China; Emeritus Professor of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at the International Management Development Institute (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Visiting Professor at the Moscow School of Management (Skolkovo) in Russia.