Can we design a new form of leadership?

I was rereading some old drafts I wrote last fall of an earlier version of the book project I am restarting now in earnest. One of the draft chapters dealt with the role of leadership, and I was surprised at how conventional a treatment I was pursuing. It occurred to me that I was falling into the trap of imagining the leader as an individual, perhaps even a very gifted and thoughtful one, who had been confronted by the future and been changed, perhaps even radicalized by the experience. And I had enumerated a number of the qualities that such a person would possess, imagining her returning to the office with a new set of values but still planning to lead her company forward in the same old way.

I put down the drafts, vowing that when I returned to the subject of leadership, I would approach it from another broader angle.

Thanks to stumbling across an article today, one that sort of came from behind like a brick to the head, I realized what that angle must be. Leadership has to go through the same sort of transition that work as a whole is going through. And that transition cannot be incremental modifications of the behavior and motivations of the small elite designated as leaders, or even incremental changes in leaders and followers. Leadership must be more than something leaders do for followers.

The article that stimulated that line of thinking is a short write-up of a talk by Bruce Nussbaum, the author of Creative Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect and Inspire. His talk deals with the need for a new dogma for design, and it discusses several earlier dogmas that fall short today. His inspiration was a comment by the economist Frank Wright:

“The chief thing which the common sense individual wants is not satisfaction for the wants that he has, but more, and better wants.”

This is perhaps an unconscious echo of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Nussbaum in essence lays out a hierarchy of  design dogmas:

Gift dogma. Nussbaum states that this is the oldest dogma, and it frames design as a gift to the user from a smarter-than-you designer. This is the embodiment of the Steve Jobs notion that people don’t really know what they want until you show it to them and that it takes consummate genius and secrecy for this to work and it doesn’t always.

Thinking dogma. Nussbaum considers this the most common dogma of design today, reframing the gift model by putting user needs as the starting point and using an analytic design approach to satisfy those needs. This falls short in one critical way, however, since it is limited to needs that are knowable.

Doing good dogma. This approach is inherently philanthropic and attempts to apply design to benefit others. (From my perspective, this is actually an instance of either of the two earlier cases, really, depending on which way the gift-think dimension is pointed.)

What is needed, Nussbaum suggests, is a new dynamic between user and designer, where the need must be defined by the recipient and not the designer.

He suggests a fourth dogma: the creativity dogma. In his talk he presented this slide to detail how it is different:



I will leave a detailed analysis of these ideas to a later date, when I have had a chance to read Nussbaum’s book. I will return to the Wright quote and the second comparison in Nussbaum’s lists: the shift from designer-determined user needs to user-defined wants.

That was the brick to the back of my head.

And I dug out something I wrote earlier this year:

Stowe Boyd, Fast-and-loose means the end of the boss

The latent hostility in power relationships in business is one of the taboo areas in slow-and-tight business cultures, one of those things that everyone knows is a factor in every business relationship, but about which people do not want to talk — or actually find themselves either unable to talk about it, or angry when it is brought up.

The adoption of the fast-and-loose organization form — based on weak ties and cooperation instead of strong ties and collaboration — means that work is more self-organized and people are increasingly self-managed. A project still must have a ‘linchpin’ — a person that represents the project to its sponsor or customers, and who are involved in the coordination of work to make the project go — but they are not the boss of the people involved.

So the strong ties between the worker and the boss become diffused into a skein of loose ties between cooperators, and the push model of direct management is replaced by a pull model of indirect self-management, where individuals decide their role models and mentors, and follow them.

On reflection, I think that leaves something important out of the picture.

There is still a need to ask big questions, teach enduring skills, set direction, define and pursue business opportunities, and to help others to do their best work. But Nussbaum and Wright have led me to see a new dynamic. The leaders in an emergent business, in which rank and role are of significantly less importance (if not completely absent), will be those that inspire new wants in others: more and better wants.

The new management elite will not be those that make the decisions, tell others what to do or how to do it, or who just point at the top of the hill and say, “Follow me!” No, the new leaders will be the ones than reframe the meaning we find in work, the ones that shift the narrative enough to let us reach inside ourselves and find new hopes and dreams and new courage to pursue them.

And the most subtle aspect is that this is not something pushed on the individual, like a company motto or the CEO expounding on a long-term strategic plan. This is instead creating a business culture where each person can move beyond themselves and discover new and better wants.

And, as a result, those who enable that creative context, those who inspire us to enlarge our own world views, they will be our leaders, and they will earn our following. In the new world of business, following must be earned: It can’t be bought or owned.