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Sun 13 Mar 2016 04:54 PM

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One unexpected thing all great leaders have in common

Linda B. Hill, author and professor at Harvard Business Schools, says it's all about development

One unexpected thing all great leaders have in common
Linda B. Hill, author and professor at Harvard Business Schools.

You have described effective leaders as instruments. Why is that?

When you talk about leadership, you are essentially talking about using yourself to get something done. You are the instrument. The reason we use this rhetoric is because you need to figure out how to match your intent with your impact. You can't teach anyone to lead, it is a process of self-development, a lifelong learning project if you will. And each leadership challenge gets harder as you go along. The global economy requires organizations that can innovate or they will die really quickly. It's unbelievable how fast a company can die these days. That's a new leadership challenge all in itself, to inspire change. The other reason it is hard is because the world is more complex. There are more things to think through and have decent judgement about, digital and social media for example. People keep asking how they can accelerate these skills. But because we're talking about an individual in the end, they must be willing to learn. Also, fundamentally leadership is about an emotional connection. If you can't make that connection, then forget about it…

Many people confuse building an emotional connection with their staff as simply being friendly. Is that what you mean?

Obviously, you'd rather have friends then not have friends. But I am talking more about understanding. One of the things we know is that people who are stars within their company have more trouble learning to lead, and that's for a range of reasons. One of them is because they can get a lot done without other people. That means they are slow to learn how to delegate and collaborate. People learn these things out of necessity, not because they are trying to be friendly. Some people have, for lack of a better word, what people call 'natural talent'. They learn very fast. But what happens with those types of people is they tend to be less empathetic. To answer the question, it's not about being liked it's about developing your empathy muscle. To be able to step in to the shoes of another and understand what is going on in their world.

Some might say that's very similar to friendship.

Friendship is tricky, because there are times when friendship may be inconsistent with the enterprise's needs. It's important to understand that you don't want to influence people because they're friends, or because you're the boss. Ultimately, if you are saying 'do this' out of formal authority, people tend to not use their judgement – authority is a kind of coercive source of power. This is particularly negative when it comes to innovation, which is a voluntary activity. You can't make somebody come up with a good idea, you actually need to have trust. Going back to why you are an instrument, fundamentally, you want a relationship to reflect a sense of mutual trust. What we found by studying people who have been on really innovative teams for instance, is that they will report their boss being one of the most demanding individuals they have ever worked with. But they also note they are one of the most generous. It is this mix that inspires others, and produces exceptional work. Some people call this charisma.

Jeff Bezos. (Getty Images)

So how do you develop that?

You don't become the CEO of anything these days unless you're pretty good at what you do. But while you may have many strengths, everyone has potential weaknesses. We talk to many people who are mostly wonderful at just about everything, but the downside is how they approach others.

Everyone talks about personality types for those in leadership positions. Look at Steve Jobs, it seems he was a bit of a hard man to work with. All the stories point to a man who seemed to rule with an iron fist…?

I would encourage you to read Ed Catmull's book, Creativity Inc. Ed is the founder of Pixar, and he wrote a chapter about Steve Jobs. One of the things he says is if Steve Jobs was like the way he's portrayed today, neither Apple nor Pixar would be as successful as they are today. It's just not possible. While there was that side to him, he was actually much better-rounded. In fact, I will tell you a story. My collaborator on Collective Genius Greg Brandeau worked with Steve at Next. When he bought Pixar from George Lucas, he asked Greg to go over to Pixar and help scale it up. They had just finished Toy Story 2, and they lost it.

You mean they physically lost it?

Yes. They had six redundant systems that all went down, and in a 'perfect storm' they lost the whole movie. It was horrible to say the least. When they told Steve Jobs that they lost the movie, if you believe the image he would have blown up at the team. Instead, he said, "this must be a really big problem if you've lost the movie, because you people are really good at what you do". Part of the reason we called the book Collective Genius, is because you need many people to be part of an effective team liked Pixar.

So what happened to the movie?

They found it in the end, because of the trust that was embedded in the company. They had actually paid for a woman to stay on maternity leave, and brought one of the development computers to her home so she could work on the movie. She had a copy of the movie on her system, but everyone had forgotten about it. She was just busy with her baby while everyone at Pixar was going crazy. She totally saved the company, needless to say. But to reiterate, this was Steve Jobs' other company. This was the way that it operated.

Steve Jobs (Getty Images)

So that notion of a powerful, driven boss is actually false?

I think the obsessiveness that someone can have is something I have seen a lot. There are people who have built very, very successful companies on the back of being incredibly driven. However, they would be the first to say that it was a collaborative effort.

So what makes a particularly bad leader?

One of the worst traits is being volatile. People follow the emotions of the leader. Volatility creates a problem in many organizations. Another is being something a former colleague of main refers to as a 'competent jerk'. You can probably guess what that is. She was studying why people come up with seemingly fantastic ideas, and everyone agrees that they should be implemented, but never are. It turns out, it was because there was someone quite high up who was a competent jerk. The idea was blocked. People would rather spend time with a loveable fool than a competent jerk, and so instead of putting in the effort to make an idea happen they didn't even bother. We found that these competent jerks didn't stay in the same place for very long, they were often moved to the periphery of the company.

You can only succeed without collaboration up to a certain point.

We live in a knowledge economy. If you are not interacting, you lose your competence. The can exist, typically in an abrasive corporate culture in general, but they don't do well when collaboration matters. What tends to happen to these competent jerks is that as they become more senior, their peers also have more power.

Richard Branson (Getty Images)

Which all goes back to the ability to connect with others. Does that hold true for networking outside of your immediate business?

Building networks is not about networking. Developing relationships with people requires time and energy. It's not about simply meeting people, it’s about who you do need to stay in touch. It's talking to them often. Actually, if you're not an effective leader it's all going to suffer. If you build a team to leverage yourself, and if you don't develop people in to a functioning team, that leaves little time and energy left to manage your wider network – which you should be doing as you're the formal authority. You won't be able to work on the right things, and you're going to have less resources to get your tasks done. You need to manage yourself, in the end that's the whole game.

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