By Henrietta Morris
“We have to unlearn what we think we know about leadership.”
– Linda Hill
This was the message, in this instance boldly stated by Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill, that pervaded WOBI’s 2014 World Business Forum, which saw 3,000 executives from 55 countries and over 700 organisations gather in New York City’s iconic Radio City Music Hall® for two days of immersive learning. Focusing on the “Provocateurs” of the modern business world, this year’s Forum listed four bold aims: to provoke Innovation, Action, Change and Results. And provocative it certainly was – each of the speakers came to the table (well, the stage) with a unique perspective on the leadership and management challenges executives face in today’s fast-paced business environment, offering expert insights in innovative and often controversial ways.
Clear themes threaded their way throughout the jam-packed schedule of talks. The first, creativity. Day one kicked off with a witty and impassioned Sir Ken Robinson encouraging the audience to rethink creativity. It’s not about being artistic, but about “having original ideas that have value”. Viewing creativity solely through the narrow lens of artistic talent often blinds us to our own creative potential, and to that of those around us. Creativity is one step on from imagination – it’s the action that puts imagination into practice – but it’s a myth that some people have it and some don’t. The reality is, we’re all creative – as Robinson puts it, “if you’re a human being, it came with the kit.” So the real crux of the matter comes down to not if, but how you are creative – because we’re not all creative in the same way. And this a great leader must recognise, because if “imagination is the foundation and fountainhead of all human success”, we can no longer afford to sideline creativity.
This was a message reinforced later in the day by modern design legend Philippe Starck – who, perhaps surprisingly, rejected the label “provocateur”. Being deliberately provocative, according to Starck, demands times and energy, two things he’d rather spend on design. Yet provocative many of the designs he showed us certainly were. A gold Kalashnikov lamp particularly springs to mind; the black shade atop it designed to remind the consumer of the death that goes hand in hand with war.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Forbes’ #6 most influential business thinker, Rita McGrath, likewise spoke of death – in this instance the death of competitive advantage. In today’s turbulent business world, stability is a dangerous thing. To stay relevant leaders and organisations must constantly initiate change and innovation. The message was not, however, entirely one of doom and gloom: in this less stable business environment there is greater scope to access resources. And with less of a requirement for large-scale financial backing, there is far more opportunity for entrepreneurialism to flourish. A point echoed by Linda Rottenberg, stability favours the status quo (which ultimately leads to stagnation), while chaos and change favour entrepreneurialism. And if one thing is certain, it’s that today’s is an age of both chaos and change.
What, then, makes an entrepreneur? According to best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell, the three things that consistently appear in psychological studies of entrepreneurs: creativity, conscientiousness, and disagreeableness. The first to have the ideas, the second to follow them through, and the third to be immune to other people’s judgement; to not care when they call you “crazy”. Indeed, Rottenberg’s message went one step further: don’t simply brush it off, embrace it – “crazy is a compliment”, it just proves you’re thinking big enough. And thinking big, regardless of whether the idea works or not, is the crucial first step on the path to being an entrepreneur.
What’s more, entrepreneurship is by no means the preserve of “techie” teenage boys in hoodies that its popular image might suggest. In fact, the biggest groups of entrepreneurs today are women and over-50 baby boomers. Anyone can be an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurialism has a role to play in every organisation. Indeed, for McGrath, the key to competing in business today is to think entrepreneurially and treat innovation as a core proficiency.
Once you accept that every organisation needs innovation, then, the next challenge organisations and leaders face is how to lead it. The answer? Changing your organisational culture – shifting to a model in which failure is allowed (after all, it took the creator of WD-40, Dr Norm Larsen, 40 attempts to get it right), debate encouraged, and honesty rewarded. A great leader doesn’t shy away from surprises, but embraces them. After all, what is innovation if not the unexpected?
“Leaders Eat Last”
What else makes a leader great? Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, ranked by BusinessWeek as one of the world’s most influential executive search consultants, bucked the trend by turning away from how you lead (as important as it is), to who you lead. A leader is only as good as his or her followers, and surrounding yourself with the best is no mean feat: a candidate with all the right competencies for the job in question may be a good choice on paper, but when that job changes you might well be in trouble. And in today’s volatile world, job stability is by no means a given. While experience is a useful marker, the real trick to finding the best is, therefore, to look for potential. So what are the hallmarks of potential? According to Claudio there are four: curiosity, agile thinking, the ability to sell a vision, and determination.
But, in a world in which jobs are becoming less careers, more “tours of duty” (so says Rita McGrath), the challenge doesn’t end here. Once you’ve succeeded in surrounding yourself with the best, how do you ensure they stay? According to Linda Rottenberg, the answer is simple – remember that they are people too! Yes, your employees want a job, but they also want a life. Simple solution: let them have one! Simon Sinek’s message was likewise a straightforward one: “leaders eat last”. And yes, he does mean literally. In the Marine Corps officers are always last in the queue for the Chow Hall, and this, Sinek argues, is a sign of true leadership: putting your people first. This breeds trust and loyalty, efficiency and productivity, and ultimately, success. The message was unmistakeable; being a leader isn’t simply a job, it’s a lifestyle choice. Sinek’s powerful closing words: “be the leader you wish you had”.
But leadership is not the only thing we need to rethink. For TOMS founder and Chief Shoe Giver Blake Mycoskie, business too should be about the wider picture. Just as the leader who prioritises his or her people over the numbers will ultimately see greater returns, the business that prioritises community wellbeing will ultimately prosper. Mycoskie needs little more powerful evidence to back this claim than the wild success TOMS has seen since its launch in 2006. A business based on Mycoskie’s innovative “One for One” idea, TOMS has not only seen consistent growth, recently expanding its operations into eyewear and optical lenses, but has since 2006 given away over 30 million shoes and helped 150,000 people gain sight. This is a testament to the power of entrepreneurship if ever there was one. And as Mycoskie condluded, “giving doesn’t just feel good, it actually is really good for business.”
A Global Perspective
Zooming out one step further from Mycoskie’s broad community perspective, what role do leadership and innovation play in the global scheme of things? According to international chess champion Gary Kasparov, everything. The only way to free ourselves from “tyranny” is to innovate. This, he believes, is and always has been the West’s dominant advantage over those who threaten it – Russia and Islamic State (ISIS) the most pressing such threats today. While innovation might be unpredictable, uncertain and not fit in with traditional budgeting models, for Kasparov it’s a fundamentally practical necessity, and “while taking risks is a risky business… it’s even riskier to not take risks.”
And what of our global leaders? This was the question starkly posed by Eurasia Group founder Ian Bremmer. We are today, Bremmer believes, seeing a dearth of global leadership on the part of the US and its European allies, and a global economic shift towards the East. Yet while the global economy may be changing we must not, Bremmer maintains, let ourselves be fooled by the shimmering prizes that China’s exponential growth of recent years seems to offer. While its economy might be showing growth for now, this is not to say that China’s government can provide the long-term stability that sustainable business investment demands. And when the global geopolitical situation is as volatile as it seems to be today, stability must be a priority. While every business wants, and needs, to see growth, the truth is that “when life get’s really unstable, what businesses really want is to ensure that every business deal they sign is actually a real business deal.”
The Forum ended on a more optimistic note regarding the West’s position in the global order, with former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke declaring “America is still the centre of global innovation. We are still the most entrepreneurial country in the world.” Yet the overall message was unmistakeable: the world is changing, and to keep pace and stay relevant today’s business leaders must be prepared to change the way they do things; to embrace disruption and uncertainty (the lynchpins of innovation), and, whether running a small business or heading up a multinational organisation, to think like an entrepreneur.