Linda A. Hill: An interview by Bob Morris


Linda A. Hill



Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. She is the faculty chair of the Leadership Initiative and has chaired numerous HBS Executive Education programs, including the Young Presidents’ Organization Presidents’ Seminar and the High Potentials Leadership Program. She is a former faculty chair of the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School, and she was coursehead during the development of the new Leadership and Organizational Behavior MBA required course. She is the author of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives of Becoming a Great Leader and Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership (2nd Edition).


Dr. Hill did a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Harvard Business School and earned a Ph.D. in Behavioral Sciences at the University of Chicago. She received her M.A. in Educational Psychology with a concentration in measurement and evaluation from the University of Chicago. She has a B.A., summa cum laude, in psychology from Bryn Mawr College.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Being the Boss, you and Kent Lineback identify and then discuss three “imperatives” to become a great leader. The first is “Manage Yourself.” My own opinion is that someone who can’t do that effectively cannot manage anyone else, much less members of a team (Imperative #3). What do you think?

Hill: Management is fundamentally a social activity, something done between two or more human beings. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that management begins with the manager’s ability to relate to others. That doesn’t mean at all that she must be highly social or gregarious but that she’s able to connect with others and generate trust, which we define as a belief in someone’s competence and character. In short, management begins with who you are and how that leads you to relate to others.

Morris: Robert Sutton has much of value to say about a “good boss” and a “bad  boss.” From your own perspective, what are the defining characteristics of each?

Hill: We focus more in the book on how bosses grow from good to great and spend little time discussing “bad” bosses, except perhaps by implication. Using the framework we propose in the book, I suppose you could say “good” bosses (what we would call great bosses) are those consistently proficient at all three imperatives and therefore able to get the best possible effort from others individually and as a group. And I suppose we would say “bad” bosses are those so inconsistent or so lacking in proficiency that they make others less than they could be even as individuals.

Morris: Based on your experience, what you have observed, and what you have learned from others, what do all great teams share in common?

Hill: In a nutshell, I think they share a deep mutual commitment to their purpose, the reason they exist, and the concrete goals around that purpose, combined with a deep sense of “we.” That “we,” which is an entity to itself and more than a simple aggregation of individuals, is more important than any member individually and can be summed up as a belief that “we” will succeed or fail together.

Morris: When I am asked about great teams, I immediately think about those at the Disney who produced the classic animated films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi, those involved in the Manhattan Project, and whose associated with Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. All of them had great leadership. Here’s my question: However different they and their situations may be in most other respects, what do all leaders of great teams share in common?

Hill: They focus on creating the characteristics I mentioned in my previous answer – they focus on purpose, goals, and the importance of “we.” Equally important, they include themselves in that “we.”

Morris: As explained in Being Boss, J. Sterling Livingston had a significant impact on your own thoughts about leadership development. Please explain.

Hill: Actually, I didn’t know Livingston. He left HBS before I arrived. It was Kent Lineback who worked for him and was able to observe him as both a management thinker and a real manager himself. As Kent explains in the book’s preface, it was the disconnect between Sterling’s two roles – he knew what to do as a manager but didn’t necessarily want to do it – that made Kent aware that management and leadership are roles that require conscious effort, will, and courage.

Morris: You and Kent Lineback make brilliant use of the “journey” metaphor throughout the book. Does the journey on which you invite your reader to embark ever end? Please explain.

Hill: It probably never ends entirely. Perfection is always a hope and a goal but almost never a reality. As we say, we know highly accomplished managers who believe they are still learning. We use the word “mastery” in the book to describe the purpose or destination of the journey. By mastery, we mean not perfection but the ability to perform the three imperatives at a consistently high level of proficiency.

Morris: You also identify and then explain eight “inherent paradoxes” of management. Which do most aspiring leaders seem to have the greatest difficulty resolving? Why?

Hill: That’s only a partial list, and it includes the paradoxes that in our experience present bosses with the greatest challenges. I suppose the most problematic is the paradox of taking responsibility for the actions and results of others. We’re so used to saying those words that we forget the fundamental difficulties involved. Most bosses got their promotion into management because they were good individual performers, and yet the same drive and focus that made them so good as individuals can work against them as bosses. It’s a terribly difficult transition that many bosses never quite make entirely. Another difficult paradox, closely related to the one I just mentioned, is that to accomplish the work done by others requires the manager, who probably prefers taking direct action, to focus on the people doing the work. For many managers I’ve met, including some pretty experienced ones, that seems like a horribly indirect, frustrating way to proceed.

Morris: What is “the fundamental nature” of management? To what extent (if any) has it changed during the last decade?

Hill: The fundamental nature of management – influencing others in ways that make them individually and as a group more productive – probably hasn’t changed, but the context in which it’s practiced certainly has changed and continues to change. Formal authority has never been a great tool of influence, but it’s effectiveness continues to diminish for several reasons: an influx of younger workers less in awe of pure authority, an increasingly multi-cultural workforce that brings to work widely different attitudes about authority; the sheer difficulty of wielding authority and direct control over a distance, as happens in virtual work groups; and the fact that organizational structures today are more fluid and dynamic. We wrote the book for “the boss,” but it can also be read as a description not of what bosses do but of what groups need in order to be effective.

Morris: Why is self-assessment so critically important?

Hill: Bosses make progress on their journeys, they grow from good to great, only by learning from their own experience. All development is fundamentally self-development, and that’s especially true for managers and leaders. However, contrary to popular wisdom, learning from experience does not happen automatically. Too often we learn the same wrong lesson over and over. We only learn from experience by looking at ourselves and assessing what we did versus what we might or should have done, which means we need some sort of standard against which to measure ourselves. That’s the purpose of the three imperatives

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) about whether 360º feedback should be anonymous or transparent. Some people want nothing to do it. What do you think?

Hill: I understand the arguments for transparency. In a perfect world of mature bosses and direct reports, transparency may work, but in the real world I think the chances of abuse and retribution are too great for total openness. But I do believe in the value and power of 360-degree reviews. What I think they should include that they typically don’t now are the following features. The boss would see aggregated feedback along with some sense of how varied the responses to each question were. That is, does everyone think he’s a jerk or is that opinion only held by a few direct reports? In addition, I believe each direct report should see the group’s aggregated responses, so he or she could compare their individual responses to the group’s overall response. That would be valuable information for the individual direct reports – someone may learn he’s the only one who thinks the boss is too much this or too little that. Then they should all meet, perhaps with a facilitator present, to discuss the ratings. Standard practice now has each direct report rating the boss on a host of questions and then never hearing anything more unless the boss deigns to bring up the subject.

Morris: Daniel Goleman is among those who have a great deal of value to say about emotional intelligence. In your opinion, why specifically is it so important to effective leadership and management?

Hill: For the reasons given in my last two responses. We cannot learn from our own experience and make progress without self-assessment and without understanding the perceptions of us held by others. That requires emotional intelligence or, as we say in the book, a strong ego rather than a big ego. We tried to describe the three imperatives as activities, things you do, but they’re activities that, to be done well, require great character and courage.

Morris: I have read and reviewed all of Fred Reichheld’s books and also interviewed him. As you already know, he sees trust as a “glue” that holds individual relationships, groups, and even entire organizations together. Here is my question: Today, is it easier, more difficult, or about the same as it was (let’s say) a decade ago to earn and then sustain trust?

Hill: I mentioned earlier some of the reasons formal authority is even less effective today than it was years ago. Those same factors probably make trust more difficult as well. We define trust as people’s belief that you will do the right thing, a belief based primarily on confidence in your competence and character. “The right thing” is obviously subject to constant, usually tacit, negotiation. And that negotiation is more difficult when dealing with a workplace that is trans-generational, multi-cultural, virtual, and organizationally fluid. The interpersonal processes by which these matters were navigated in the past were often subtle and implicit. Now they probably need to be much more explicit, especially in virtual work groups.

Morris: How best to “weave a web of influence” within an organization with which one is associated?

Hill: I think you have to do this the old-fashioned way – by reaching out using all possible means of connection – email, phone, video links, writing, contributions to a collaborative community (social media) – but always striving to include some form of face-to-face contact. That’s the first point – reach out. The second point is to reach out very consciously and proactively. Make a list of all the people you need, or need you, and make sure you connect with them and work to sustain an ongoing relationship. Many people foolishly hate this idea because they misconstrue it as being manipulative. They think they’re being asked to form relationships only because they want something from others. In fact, what we’re suggesting is not manipulative if you’re open about what you want and if you strive to make your relationships work for everyone involved. Reaching out with openness while striving for mutual benefit is the secret of creating the “web of influence” every boss needs.

Morris: To what extent can such a web be expanded externally into all areas of one’s life?

Hill: The concept certainly applies to all areas of our lives. We already have many such webs, though we may not call them “networks.” We have a family network of relatives. A social network of friends. A health network of dentist, internist, dental hygienist, chiropractor, therapist, pharmacist, and so on. A professional network of lawyer, CPA, tax preparer, plumber, electrician, and so on. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding what you mean about expanding a web into “all areas of one’s life,” but I think these are all different networks, though there will be some overlap and we as individuals will be members of each. In fact, at work we say you need three networks – an operational network to deal with the daily, ongoing work; a strategic network to deal with the future and what’s coming over the horizon; and a developmental network of those who can give you personal support and help in your work and career.

Morris: How to survive what you characterize as a “problematic” boss?

Hill: Try to be clear about why the boss is problematic and see if you and your colleagues can compensate. He doesn’t know the business? You and your colleagues may need to coach him gently. She doesn’t connect well with others outside the group? You and your colleagues may need to do some of this relationship-building yourselves and coach her toward relationships only she can create. He doesn’t take the steps needed to create an effective team? Some of that can be done by team members. The truly problematic bosses are those with deep insecurities for whom the work and all relationships are personal, whose primary concern is their own status and reputation, who believe their authority and position are about them personally. They may be technically competent, but they can’t see beyond themselves. They have big egos instead of strong egos. These are the bosses you survive until they leave – or you leave, which may be how you ultimately survive them.

Morris: How to build a great team?

Hill: Same answer as before – compelling purpose and clear, worthwhile goals, combined with clarity about roles and responsibilities, how “we” do work, and how “we” treat each other. With one final element: Recognition of individual needs and contributions but in the context of the team.

Morris: Here’s a related question. How to sustain one?

Hill: With constant work to maintain the characteristics just enumerated in a changing world. Goals, even purpose, don’t last or remain relevant forever. Roles, responsibilities, work processes, team norms and beliefs all need constant attention and updating. It’s the boss’s job not to dictate or impose all these, but to make sure they’re all in place and that everyone is on board with them.

Morris: To what extent can the future be defined?

Hill: Well, no one can define it in terms of predicting it. But a boss always needs a clear point of view about what the future is likely to bring, based on the latest possible information from a diversity of sources, even if that point of view is constantly shifting, as it should be.

Morris: What are the most important benefits from doing so?

Hill: It’s not our predictions but the ongoing, never-ending process of defining and redefining the future that prepares us. We like the Eisenhower quote: “The plan is nothing. Planning is everything.”

Morris: Most change initiatives fail. Why?

Hill: Because, I suspect, in spite of good intentions and rhetoric to the contrary, most big changes are in the end imposed. Because no one really thinks about the losses they’re asking people to take. Because too many “leaders” cook up a beautiful “vision” and then sell it to those who have to make it work. Real change probably requires a more organic approach that ties back to the notions we discussed under teams – purpose, goals, “we.”

Morris: Here’s my favorite passage from Lao-Tzu’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. ”

Here’s my question: How specifically can and should aspiring leaders apply what Lao-Tzu advocates?

Hill: I think it’s all the elements we’ve already discussed that are necessary to create the “we” felt by a group of people, including a boss who considers him/herself a part of that “we.”

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Hill: Two-part question: “Why does everyone involved seem to have such high hopes and low expectations of a boss, including the boss’s boss, the people reporting to the boss, and the boss her/himself? Why doesn’t everyone involved demand a better level of management performance?” People seem to think short-term performance is a proxy for good management, but it’s an uncertain indicator of long-term performance and management skill. Answer: I don’t know why this is so. It’s a mystery. Maybe they don’t know better.

*     *     *

Linda Hill invites you to check out the resources at these websites: and The first is our Web site for the book. Anyone can contact us there. The second is the publisher’s microsite for the book. It contains the book’s full bibliography and other useful information.

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  1. Patrick in Canada on September 10, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Thanks for the recommendation and supporting material. Bought the bood this morning.

  2. Author Interview by bob morris on June 4, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    […] Here is an excerpt from the interview. To read all of it, please click here. […]

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