MIT for Managers: Lessons in Effective Leadership Styles

Our biweekly exploration of new business ideas from the corridors of MIT.

Non-traditional leadership styles have been showing up in all types of organizations in recent years — not just in edgy companies like Google but even in established powerhouses like GE and Citibank. Distributed leadership, flat organizational structures, and more “radical” forms such as servant leadership are becoming more popular — and more accepted — than ever before. It’s all part of a desire for more authenticity on the part of leaders that has been well documented in a video series by the MIT Leadership Center, under the direction of Deborah Ancona, the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management, and a professor of organization studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

In order to lead effectively, Ancona believes that leaders need to strengthen or develop four capabilities, particularly in times of uncertainty and change (which, like it or not, seem to be part of the everyday environment). The first capability is “sensemaking,” being able to make sense of the world and understand the context you’re operating in. Leaders do this, she says, by getting out to see what is going on in their environment; creating a mental model or map of that environment with and for other people in the organization; and then revising that map or model as things change.

The second capability is “relating.” Leaders demonstrate this by being visible; communicating constantly; and being direct and honest about what they know, what they don’t know, and what their plans are for the near future, particularly in times of stress or crisis.

Ancona’s third capability is something she calls “visioning,” which she considers a core leadership competency. A good leader needs to be able to articulate or paint a picture of the possibilities that exist for the organization and make sure that this is a shared vision — something created and shared by many people, not just top management.

Her fourth capability is “inventing,” which she defines as inventing the future by enabling others in the organization to create new processes and structures that will help move the organization forward.

Many of the video interviews Ancona (and others at the Center) have conducted with executives and leaders cover aspects of one or more of these capabilities. In “The Dangers of the ‘Good News Cocoon’,” Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and former CEO of Infosys, talks about the importance of having an open culture that encourages two-way conversation. Without it, he believes, leaders can be isolated and have a skewed understanding of the reality of the organization and the environment it is operating in.

Similarly, “Building Empathy Into Your Business” features Kailash Swarna, an associate partner at IBM and MIT Sloan fellow, who discusses the power of questions in creating a culture of transformative and empathetic conversations. Questioning, says Swarna, helped him build trust with his team and avoid a costly business error during his long career as a pharmaceutical executive.

Ancona’s conversation with Eileen Fisher, the founder and chief creative officer of the privately held women’s clothing company that bears her name, illuminates the ways in which she uses listening and collaboration. In “Empowering With Distributed Leadership,” Fisher describes how her positive experience of being part of a big family — and her early jobs in severely hierarchical environments — led her to understand that being inclusive and engaging was not only natural for her but also, in her view, common sense. Creating the sense that “we’re all in this together,” she says, especially as the company moves in new directions as part of its commitment to sustainability, is what she is striving to achieve.