(Gen. David H. Petraeus, here on patrol in Mosul, Iraq in 2003 with Gen. Peter Schoomaker , earned a reputation for both leading from the front in the face of danger and relying on the creativity of his subordinates.)
A recent comment from a CEO had me flummoxed. He firmly stated: “I don’t want leaders, I want managers.” It wasn’t a view I had ever expected to hear from the CEO of a large software company.
I’ve thought much about this comment over several days and have landed on a perspective shedding light on this way of thinking. He wants people “just to execute” and not to discuss or challenge his vision. He sees his value as the authority leader with a well-behaved team of people who get things done. He’s made up his mind that having leaders among his subordinates is only going to mean trouble for him.
And at times, this type of leadership works well. But some circumstances require a different approach to leadership.
There is a myth that getting better at executing and improving operations is all that is needed to improve an organization. This is what the aforementioned CEO is focused on—having direct reports who are good at operational efficiency and effectiveness. This works, to a point, under the right circumstances.
However, it has not helped this CEO and his investors solve the many perennial challenges of the software industry. For example: how to grow internationally and geometrically without compromising the software; how to avoid becoming the next generation of legacy technology; and how to adapt to changing buyers’ habits without having to give up on years of investment in IP.
Leading from the front—this CEO’s preference—can be an effective mode of leadership. However directing talented subordinates from behind is a legitimate alternative. To understand the power of this approach it is worth reflecting on Ronald Heifetz view of modern organizational challenges.
Technical vs. Adaptive Challenges
Heifetz introduced the concept of “technical” versus “adaptive” challenges. Technical challenges are those where the problem is easy to identify and the solution is known. To lose the Christmas weight you have gained, you know you need to eat less and move more. The solution is clear (if not necessarily easy) and it exists. We can use our technical knowledge to do complex things like build hospitals, fix computers and perform brain surgery.
Adaptive challenges are those that have not been solved or not even seen before. These include poverty, healthcare reform or endemic toxic cultural issues. Addressing adaptive challenges requires collaboration, new ways of thinking and usually systemic changes.
In addressing adaptive challenges, leadership does not try to impose a solution. Instead, the leader realizes that everyone has a valid perspective. Constructive dialogue is essential and the final solution has to be created by all the parties at the table. No one party coming to the table will have their solution adopted—rather the final solution is something that no one can actually see at the start of the process, but it emerges during the dialogue and learning phase of the process.
This is called adaptive learning because everyone needs to adapt their perspective to understand the others at the table better, to understand the situation better, and to help create a plausible solution.
To address the serious organizational challenges, we need leadership and not just authority. This is a challenge in itself as most executives have made it to that position of authority based on providing solutions. But the solutions to the adaptive challenges companies face are not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence in the employees. To leverage this knowledge requires a different approach to leadership.
An effective and efficient management team is not sufficient for the challenges we face. We should consider stepping away from the front and an authoritarian style of leadership. We should embrace what Nelson Mandela knew to be true—that a leader can be a shepherd and lead from the back in service of leveraging the individual contributions from and synergies of the aggregate intelligence of the organization.
We do not need to know the solutions ourselves.