Amit S. Mukherjee on leading in the digital world: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Amit S. Mukherjee is Professor of Leadership and Strategy at Hult. Earlier, he taught at IMD, Babson, and INSEAD. Among other professional roles, he has been a CXO of a NASDAQ-listed digital technology company and a practice leader at two major consulting companies. During his time outside academia, he led, co-led, or advised CXOs of global companies on, “can’t be done” digital and non-digital technology projects. Technology projects often led to his developing corporate strategy and addressing leadership challenges.

MIT Press (and Sloan Management Review) published Amit’s April 2020 book, Leading in the Digital World: How to Foster Creativity, Collaboration, and Inclusivity in their “Management on the Cutting Edge” series. Strategy+Business, Publishers Weekly, and HBS Alumni News, among others, have recommended the book. His prior book, The Spider’s Strategy, was named “One of the 30 best business books of 2009.” He has also published articles in the Sloan Management Review, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Business Insider and other business-oriented media.

Amit earned his doctorate from the Harvard Business School, MBA from the Darden School (UVA), and bachelor’s in engineering from BITS Pilani (India). He has lived in five countries and has worked in many more.

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Before discussing Leading in the Digital World, a few general questions. First, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

None, really. Steve Jobs once spoke of collecting a lot of dots in life and then connecting them. That’s what my professional life has been like.

I studied engineering without wanting to be an engineer—and ending up later in life leading projects that created new technologies. My doctoral thesis was one of the first in what’s now called knowledge management; I had to leave academia because no business school knew where to pigeon hole me. That took me into consulting and to my first “can’t be done” technology development project. When we did the impossible, I challenged the CEO to allow me to craft a new corporate strategy, arguing I understood the implications of the technology better than his go-to firm, McKinsey. He agreed.

So, since 1996, I’ve worked at the intersection of technology, strategy, leadership and organization design. I suppose you could call that a turning point but doing so wouldn’t make it true. There were many other twists and turns.

I look for stuff that interests me that I think is being ignored by most others and go do it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I always learn new things and have a ton of fun. When it works, I have impact. This book is a perfect example.

Who and/or what have greatest impact on the development of your thoughts about effective leadership? How so?

I can’t cite any conventional scholar of leadership because I don’t subscribe to the traditionally taught notions that leadership is ageless and has specific attributes. These notions are ethnically-, culturally- and gender-biased.

Instead, I must credit Dr. Ramchandran (“Jai”) Jaikumar, a former HBS professor who was my doctoral adviser. Had Jai not passed away over two decades ago, he’d have retorted, “Not me. I am a technologist.” However, his much-cited research taught the world that historically, transformative technologies change the nature of work and those changes transform organizational structures. In The Spider’s Strategy, I explored how digital technologies were doing these. In Leading in the Digital World, I extended these ideas, arguing that changes in the nature of work and organizational structures created new and unavoidable demands of leadership.

Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

I completely agree. Unfortunately, America worships so-called leaders who do the opposite. Usually male, very extroverted and very rich, they beat their chests and say, “Look at me!” While books are written about them, leaders who enable people to say, “We have done it ourselves” are ignored. So, we develop a biased image of leadership.

I often ask executives if they know of Taiichi Ohno. They don’t, though their companies swear by the “pull system” he pioneered at Toyota. I ask them if they know of William McKnight, who led 3M for 36 years, created many, if not most, of the innovation practices they credit to Google. They don’t. Sadly, this list is too long to enumerate here.

From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Business students still learn Porter’s Five Forces model, which arguably offers limited insight in the digital age, but don’t learn your quote—or Porter’s three orders of fit—which still shape corporate destinies.

In my exec ed classes, I ask, “End of a quarter. There’s a deal on the table which isn’t aligned with your company’s strategy. However, take the deal and you meet your numbers. What do you do?” EVERY single salesperson worldwide answers, “Take the deal!” I tell the rest, “You are thinking they are wrong. That merely indicates you haven’t sold for a living.” Because most strategies don’t clearly embody Porter’s admonishment, most deals can be justified as supporting most strategies.

From Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

My prosaic version of this completely true idea is, “If we are talking of humans and not physical bodies subject to the rules of science, believing there is one right answer is usually very dangerous.” Here’s my corollary: Those who “find” the truth Voltaire cautioned about are usually far removed from the world of science and too comfortable with occult (though they would bristle if you told them that).

From Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Again, agree completely. When I started giving keynote addresses about Leading in the Digital World, a very dear friend—to whom the book is dedicated—created for me a colorful slide that only has three words, “Rethink. Unlearn. Relearn.”

From Margaret Mead: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

Wise words to remember. Those who do, will probably not be narcissists.

From  Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I just finished teaching a leadership course to 70 senior managers and mid-tier executives. After taking them through a wrenching experiential decision-making exercise, I asked them, “How did you feel? The question is NOT ‘What did you think?’.” Later, I asked, “Now tell us, what were you thinking.” There answers were very different. Later, many attendees acknowledged they usually and wrongly conflated the two terms.

Business and leadership education usually stays within the realm of rationality. People are only “boundedly rational.” How we make people feel is one extremely important distinction between “management” and “leadership.”

From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

A vision by definition is a distant, hard-to-reach state. That doesn’t mean it is useless. Edison was a genius, but he would have benefitted from having been exposed to your Voltaire quote (“… beware of those who find it.”) He could also have reflected on the first words of the US Constitution. After 231 years (well after Edison’s passing), we still have not achieved the vision it articulates of “… a more perfect Union …” That doesn’t make it a hallucination.

From Theodore Roosevelt: “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Sadly, this isn’t true in most situations. Organizations routinely hire misanthropes because they know something useful—and not even genius-level useful! It might have been truthful for politics, but here too, the last decade has shown that it isn’t in many countries around the world, including vaunted democracies.

This answer may seem at odds with my answer to your Maya Angelou question, but it isn’t. I urge your readers to make their own connections.

Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

This is true, but its violation is endemic. If I asked you to name a single institution which doesn’t violate this over and again every single day, I doubt you would be able to do so.

There’s a simple reason why: In a wide range of human activity, efficiency is easier to measure than effectiveness. And believing “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” guarantees a focus on efficiency. Renowned 19th century physicist Lord Kelvin is credited with coining that statement, but it isn’t even true for large bodies of knowledge in science. Yet, countless more managers, and not scientists, worship that statement and optimize valueless activity.

A different aphorism from sociologist William Bruce Cameron (often wrongly attributed to Einstein) would help leaders more: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Don’t believe that? Tell me, how do you measure trust, without which much organizational accomplishment wouldn’t get past the idea stage?

Leading in the Digital World prizes effectiveness well over efficiency. We are at a point in time when doing so is existential. I’m sure that during the rest of this interview, your readers will have the opportunity to understand why I believe this.

In your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

The terms personal growth or professional development seem to burden the individual without recognizing that often an individual’s ability to grow is shaped by his or her environment. As digital technologies increasingly make work thought driven, not muscle-powered, leaders must create cultures that engender such growth. Two reasons why.

Digital technologies require workplace cultures that encourage learning. In my doctoral thesis (1992), which addressed how organizations create, store, and use knowledge, I’d written, “Every act of management must be an act of learning.” It took fifteen years before another variation of this idea started gaining acceptance.

The culture must also encourage individuals share their hitherto private knowledge with others. This private-to-public transfer will happen voluntarily only if the culture makes people feel comfortable and empowered to speak up without fear of being belittled or punished.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

I’ll give you two. A 2010 IBM annual survey of CEOs noted that the top characteristic CEOs sought among would-be leaders was creativity. I love this finding but am skeptical about it. To the best of my knowledge, other research hasn’t been supported it. Moreover, IBM didn’t ask the CEOs what they would be willing to sacrifice in order to develop creative leaders. Would they accept not meeting their earnings per share target for two years? How about one year? How about one quarter? It is very easy to be in favor of virtues wihout any cost.

The reality is digital technologies are making creativity existentially important. Most brand name CEOs in the 20th century hadn’t ever created anything novel themselves; most brand name CEOs in the 21st century have. The average CEO is unprepared for this dramatic change.

Second, 15% of CEOs surveyed by PwC (2017) acknowledged they had experienced severe crises in the prior three years; 30% expected to experience severe crises in the next three. Digital technologies are central to this meta crisis: they make it possible to shoot for goals which would simply weren’t achievable in the past. If CEOs don’t create appropriate guardrails, they are doomed be in news media headlines that question their abilities.

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Amit cordially invites you to check out these resources.

My website ( has links to many recent publications that are related to the book and the full texts of my older writings (dating back to The Spider’s Strategy) that are still relevant. There is information on consulting, executive education, and keynote work I do. If you still need to be convinced to buy the book, you can download a couple of its chapters!

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