When to change how you lead

It’s fashionable to say we live in fast-changing times. Does that mean leadership itself must change?

Here is a brief excerpt from a transcript of a group discussion of these issues in another “classic” article for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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Is leadership an immutable endeavor in which we learn as much from Alexander the Great and the Bhagavad Gita as from GM’s Mary Barra or Apple’s Tim Cook? Or does the role of the business leader change with the changing times? This ageless question formed the starting point for a wide-ranging discussion at a recent meeting of advisors to McKinsey’s Leadership Development Practice.

The group included Helen Alexander, former CEO of The Economist Group; Robert Kegan, the developmental psychologist and author, from Harvard University; Nadir Mohamed, former CEO of Rogers Communications; and McKinsey partners Claudio Feser, Mary Meaney, and Tim Welsh. Quarterly editor in chief Allen Webb moderated the discussion. While conclusive answers may have been elusive, the conversation generated insights into a number of key aspects of leadership, including the effect of success on leaders, the benefits of failure in developing resilience, and the role of maturity and self-awareness.

Is leadership timeless? This is one of those issues where it is easy to say both yes and no, so Claudio and Tim are going to kick things off by staking out relatively extreme positions.

Claudio Feser: The case for leadership being a timeless endeavor, in my opinion, rests on the fact that the ability to lead is strongly linked to personality and character. Several studies suggest that open-minded, conscientious people who are emotionally tuned to take charge tend to be stronger leaders than people who aren’t. And while leadership skills can be learned, personality and character are pretty much given by the time you enter the workforce and don’t change much over time. In this sense, one could say that some people are more predisposed to lead than others, and that hasn’t changed in the past 50 or 100 or 1,000 years.

Having said so, we all can lead better by developing a better understanding of ourselves, so we can make the best of what we have. Our research suggests that leaders who are self-aware—who know themselves or, as we put it, are “centered”—are up to four times more effective in managing change than people who aren’t.

Tim Welsh: I think the case for a more flexible model of leadership rests on our understanding of the elements of leadership. Clearly, you have to have some sense of who you are as a person—that’s always an element of leadership. A second is to have the skills required for the job. And a third is to have the knowledge that is relevant for the job. In order for leadership to be timeless, we’d have to believe that those three elements are immutable.

There’s a reasonable case to be made for the first one being timeless: leaders have always had to have a strong sense of themselves. But there’s almost no case to be made for the second or the third elements being immutable—in fact, quite the opposite. We know that many jobs today didn’t even exist 40 years ago, so a lot of people had to learn a whole set of new job-related skills. And then, from a technical perspective, we know that there’s never been so much data created in any given year. By definition, you’re constantly having to learn new things about even the most rote professions—and leadership is far from rote!

So you can say that, yes, one element of leadership is timeless: the “know who you are, lead yourself” element. But the other two can’t be timeless, and therefore leadership in itself is not timeless but more of a contextual set of attributes.

The Quarterly: Anybody want to articulate a balanced perspective?

Robert Kegan: You might think about leadership as having to do with the intersection of psychology and business knowledge. All leaders have both an agenda they’re driving and an agenda that’s driving them. The agenda you’re driving is the business part of it. The agenda that’s driving you is the psychology part.

The agenda that you’re driving seems to me highly mutable because it’s dependent on lots of things: the context of the organization, the bigger epochal life cycles, and the smaller life cycles of an organization. You can see that different leaders are called for at different times, with different kinds of agendas.

An awareness of the agenda that’s driving the leader—that, to me, is a more timeless dimension. The self-awareness and understanding needed would seem to have been needed hundreds of years ago and will be a hundred years from now. “Leader, know thyself.”

Mary Meaney: I agree. There’s a core of leadership that is timeless while other aspects evolve, depending on the external context. So a focus on achievement, results, inspiration, and setting a vision—those attributes of leadership are relatively constant. Whereas agility, the ability to change, and participative decision making—those elements are particularly important in certain contexts and less so in others.

Helen Alexander: Leadership is about learning. It’s about taking in the signals—recognizing and creating patterns—and I don’t think those sorts of things change. The primary leadership trait for me is to have the antennae up. You have to be looking outside the organization, learning all the time, seeing patterns, and trying to bring them into the organization. And that seems timeless to me.

There are people and organizations that don’t have those antennae up. I mean, take the media industry. There are still many, many media companies really struggling with going digital today, and this is 15 years on.

Nadir Mohamed: Yes. In my own view, one of the most important attributes of a leader is to understand when a cycle’s about to change, so that you can embrace the changes required. That is quite fundamental in business. And these cycles, to me, are getting shorter. And so it’s really a big leadership attribute to actually be able to say, “OK, I get it; there’s a change happening. You know, we have to approach life differently.”

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

This roundtable was moderated by Allen Webb, editor in chief of McKinsey Quarterly, who is based in McKinsey’s Seattle office.

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