There is no magic formula for successful leadership, says Deborah Ancona, director of the MIT Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Instead, each leader needs to figure out his or her own unique leadership signature — one that draws on his or her own strengths.

Deborah Ancona, director of the MIT Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Image courtesy of MIT Sloan.

What does it take to be an effective leader in today’s unpredictable and uncertain business environments?

Earlier this month, I attended an MIT Sloan executive education course called “Transforming Your Leadership Strategy,” taught by MIT Sloan professor Deborah Ancona. While a good deal of the learning in the course took place through interactive exercises, Ancona conveyed many important points about effective leadership through her presentations. Here are a few of those points:

  • Leadership is personal. There is no magic formula for successful leadership, Ancona explained — and no one-size-fits-all best practices, either. Instead, each leader needs to answer the question: “What is the best way for me to lead?” Each person needs to figure out his or her own unique leadership signature — one that draws on his or her own strengths. While charismatic leaders are particularly memorable, there are many other ways to be an effective leader, Ancona pointed out.
  • That said, leadership involves four overarching capabilities. Ancona teaches a leadership framework developed at MIT that involves four key capabilities: sensemaking (in other words, making sense of the business environment in which your company operates); visioning; relating to others; and inventing new ways to get things done. In a 2007 Harvard Business Review article called “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader,” Ancona and colleagues Thomas Malone, Wanda Orlikowski and Peter Senge wrote that leaders often excel in one or two of the four capabilities — but no leader is equally strong in all four areas. As a result, leaders should search for others who can complement them.
  • Today’s leaders need the ability to make sense of complex environments. Sensemaking — the ability to make sense of what’s going on in a changing and complex environment — is a particularly important predictor of leadership effectiveness right now, Ancona explained. Sensemaking in business (a term drawn from the works of Karl Weick) requires executives to let go of their old mental models and some of their core assumptions; to take in data from a wide variety of sources; to use the information they have to construct, with others, a “map” of what they think is going on; and to verify and update the map — in part by conducting small experiments that provide the organization with more information.
  • Leadership is not a solo act. It is no longer possible for companies to thrive with great leadership only at the top, Ancona said. Instead, companies need what she calls distributed leadership — with people at a variety of levels in the organization exercising the four key leadership capabilities skillfully.

3 Comments On: The Elements of Good Leadership

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  • dave | August 30, 2012

    I’m disappointed that MIT has not moved into the 21st Century. Everyone has to figure out their own Leadership signature? Really? Ummm . . . how about, “Just be yourself?” When you say leader it sounds like what we used to call management. Being the top dog doesn’t make you a leader any more than sitting in the garage makes you a car. There are only two types of leaders, the good kind (serve-first) and the not so good kind (lead-first) . . . Greenleaf called out this sharp and evergreen contrast over 40 years ago and in doing so was like Christopher Columbus. After him there was no more need to rediscover America. As for distributed leadership – yes, of course. The very best organizational performers have long ago figured this out . . . this is not new and only furthers the mechanistic view – which is way past its expiration date!

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