Developing Leadership in Real Time
December 21, 2020
Good leadership isn’t as elusive or rare as many like to claim. To feel better about the state of leadership in our time, I recommend defining it less as a steady state and more as an evolutionary practice that’s accessible to anyone at any time.
What is good leadership? Let’s go big. At this point in history, most would ascribe some must-haves to a good leader: purpose, vision, values, authenticity, self-awareness, empathy, empowerment, a spirit of service, a sound moral-ethical code, then oh yes the truth-telling, and still more. In its highest form, the practice of good leadership takes continuous learning and an ever-evolving worldview. Rightly, it is a long list and a tall order; it is vitally important that we expect much from our leaders.
Deep down, our contemporary canon of good leadership is rooted in tenets of right living contributed over the centuries from both East (self-discipline, humility, community) and West (personal development, a spirit of service, self-efficacy). There are regional differences in how good leadership is practiced, but we can get the gist of it from any serious leadership book (and many unserious). With a few variations of focus — authentic leadership, transformational leadership, values-based leadership — it can be said that there has emerged some generalized “theory” of what good leadership is. We often hear, for example, observers decry “transactional leadership” (a fragile relationship based solely on successive quid pro quos, broken as soon as one party reneges), as a “bad” form of leadership.
Leadership, good or bad, is all about intangibles, and is very hard to measure; that’s why empirical research on leadership often turns to psychology, neuroscience, or most primitively, business results for its analytical tools. Leadership is the quintessential qualitative endeavor; very little about it is quantitative, which is why it’s easy to point to disconnects between what we believe to be “good” leadership and observed flows of financial reward. What the body of knowledge on leadership does indicate is, that good leadership is developed best through intentional, reflective practice over time.
A test for the canon
For some years now I’ve introduced aspiring leaders, most MBA students or corporate managers, to good leadership in concept and practice. I try to do so creatively and meaningfully, to avoid the learner’s experience being one of getting served up an intellectual soup from a can. Nevertheless, this statement is made perennially in my classroom: “It’s very hard to believe that good leadership is possible if you’ve never experienced it yourself.” Sometimes I am the one saying this, sometimes it is a student. Sometimes we’re talking about being the leader, sometimes about being led. Either way, it is always true — because at its most authentic, leadership essentially is a personal experience, both for the “leader” and for the “follower”.
Days after I finished teaching my MBA course at Hitotsubashi ICS, Hitotsubashi University Business School, in Leadership Development here in Tokyo last February (2020), I went with my students to the cinema to see the film 1917. Inspired over dinner following, we talked about a number of the leadership intangibles: the transformational power of personal crucibles; the self-affirming nature of commitment to a purpose (ideally, a purpose rooted in love for others); the heady drive of deep resolve.
Then C-19 proved its own quality of resolve, going global in a few quick weeks. When the pandemic hit hard, and the hygiene protocols and stay-at-home advisories made us all distance from each other and work remotely and people got scared, it struck me that “good” leadership practices may not hold up under the strain. After all, it’s been formalized and refined, most systematically in military academies and business schools, during the post-WW2 period of relative geopolitical stability and economic growth. But although military academies have trained for VUCA situations for some time now, to my knowledge there have been no VUCA readiness programs in civilian or business education. How would the canon of good leadership perform in the vicious glare of the pandemic’s footlights? Would it guide “leaders” and “followers” as intended? Or would leaders ditch it out of panic or frustration, finding false comfort in draconian rules for online work and micromanaging from afar?
Chronicling leadership in real time
Tove Kinooka and Gavin Dixon, co-founders of Global Perspectives KK here in Tokyo, were pondering the same. Together, the three of us resolved to chronicle the experience of leaders in our region as they dealt with the leadership challenges posed by C-19. Our Leadership in Real-Time project took a deep-dive approach, talking with people in a diversity of roles and organizations about their experience of leading during the pandemic, from April to November 2020. We committed to avoiding discussions of business tactics and held the focus on leadership development. We asked, what have you learned about yourself as a leader during this troubled time? About leadership itself? In what ways was your existing leadership practice tested? And we drew out practical takeaways from each guest in the series: What would you stop, start, and continue doing as a leader as a result of leading through the pandemic?
(See the Leadership in Real Time video series.)
A common thread through the interview series that we observed: Our seven different guests in very different organizations describe a leadership response of rapid, high-frequency sensemaking and low-friction relating. The “ability to deal with disequilibria,” which is an economist’s way of talking, may be one of the more marketable job skills in our very VUCA — or FUBAR, to borrow another acronym from the service? — time. Leaders today have to do that, probably more than at any point since the social, economic, and political dislocations of the late 1940’s. To discuss this ability in leadership terms, I marry it to the capacity for “sensemaking,” which comes to us from the field of organization theory. Sensemaking is how we organize our observations of what we see and form those into a story or narrative that allows us to formulate understanding.
As for low-friction relating, it is a leadership essential: the capacity to connect to others without serious interference from an inflated or deflated self-perception. Requisite for relatedness is a deep conviction that every person possesses the same inherent human value that is completely discrete from oneself. People are individuals in their own right. Others are not a function of me.
Getting back to that classroom skepticism: It’s very hard to believe that good leadership is possible if you’ve never experienced it yourself. A leadership truism, and a nicely teachable moment. Because what’s usually said next, again either by me or by a student, is: Well then, maybe you can try offering it to someone else who hasn’t. There you get two more people experiencing it than did before, which amounts to making a difference.
No leadership occurs without 1) initiative and 2) agency. Initiative is taking first action, agency is acting to some effect. Day after day, people do their jobs, try to live a good life, provide for their families, make thousands of undocumented contributions to the stable and blessedly predictable functioning of a society held together largely by intangible ideals, just basic beliefs and assumptions about how people ought to live, to coexist. In this enterprise there’s a lot of busywork; management of the details of life.
But a crisis that disrupts virtually every dimension of our lives, like this pandemic, asks more of us: to lead, to invite others to engage in positive change. It takes only a small act of solidarity (here’s an extra mask) or of inquiry (why can’t we work from home?) or of relatedness (are you OK? a nod to Meghan Markle). Not unlike in preschool soccer, everyone has their own starting point and their own rate of development. The point is to get out there. And every time we do so, we add to a track record worth consulting when our confidence wavers. From Mohandas Gandhi: “Whatever you do may be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”
For really good leadership to occur, even if an action may appear small, the motivating mindset should be big — expansive, transcendent, committed to purpose, perceptive of meaning. A good leader is always sensemaking, trying to understand and relate to the world and people around them, just as each of the leaders we interviewed describe doing as they navigated the Covid crisis. Attendance to the human experience, on our needs for connection, learning, relatedness, reassurance, and community — this is what makes leadership good.
What capacities are uniquely human? ask observers of rapid technological change, prompted by the advance of AI. Here is one: good leadership. The transcendent message emerging from the Leadership in Real Time project is that in the crisis that hit us, good leadership didn’t go on lockdown but presented as a ready response to a call for fundamental human relatedness. It was not a stretch; rather, it was a go-to.
What leadership development really means
For me as a leadership development instructor, doing the interview series was an exercise of pandemic-induced initiative and agency. And it reaffirmed my philosophy that teaching leadership development is far more about offering sound guidance through an evolutionary becoming, than it is about hosting classroom tours through a formulaic landscape of “effective leadership techniques.”
Can there be good leadership without development? is a useful classroom icebreaker. We don’t teach values; we hold ourselves to identify our values, then to practice them. We don’t teach integrity; we seek first to understand it, then to construct it intentionally within ourselves. We don’t teach purpose, or ethics, or vision, or any of the well-known elements of good leadership. People formulate these through a reiterative, often painful process of self-discovery, inquiry, questioning of one’s basic assumptions and their origins, over time and with trusted counterparts. As I say to my students: I can’t teach you leadership, but I can help you learn it.
These are not new insights. This way of thinking is quite ancient, recorded thoughtfully for our benefit from all antiquity. It is simply hard for most people to follow through, at high rates of consistency, on these critical principles of leadership learning. Hard to keep them in the window, to borrow from Commander Jim Lovell and the Apollo 13 crew, always and especially today when we are so pressed for mindshare. So much easier to reach for that can of soup. McKinsey & Co. has a December 2020 piece called “Purpose Not Platitudes: A personal challenge for top executives.” Well, right.
Still I hold: Good leadership is with and among us to develop, in real time. Often it is not found where we expect it to be, and often it hides in plain sight. We must discern it actively and intentionally through the right lens — the lens of relatedness — and then call it out and celebrate it.
In closing, an overture to GenZ
Being a leadership development instructor affords me the profound honor of participating in the leadership journeys of bright young people from all over the world. I will close with a message to them: You are already grappling with seriously wicked problems such as the elusiveness of a shared truth, the eroding sustainability of our planet, the steady march of our economies away from equity, and others that may appear to have become inflamed on the watch of GenXers like me. You may feel that we have little guidance to offer. But as it has been for us as we’ve tackled the problems of our time, the collected wisdom on good leadership, handed down to you through generations and across continents, can help you operationalize your resolve if you let it. As all whirls around you, identify what needs to stop, what needs to start, what is worth continuing. Set your guideposts, declare your non-negotiables, and act to move your world forward.
Jody Ono is dedicated to helping people to characterize and express their leadership as a personal practice, an endeavor to which she has applied herself in policy, business, and academic spheres. For five years, as faculty at Hitotsubashi ICS, Hitotsubashi University Business School in Tokyo she taught leadership development to MBA students from some 20+ countries and in executive education programs for Japanese and global companies. Currently, she serves as an Outside Director for Mabuchi Motor Co., Ltd. and is collaborating on leadership development projects with Global Perspectives KK, Japan.
Earlier, based at SITE, Stockholm School of Economics, Stockholm, Sweden, Jody worked with international teams on talent development in emerging economies, including in the launch of new economic policy think tanks in Russia and central and eastern Europe. Subsequently, at the Bush School of Government, Texas A&M University, TX, USA, she developed the newly founded Mosbacher Institute for Trade, Economics, and Public Policy. With the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library as counterpart, she coordinated executive policy and business leadership awards programs before joining the Center for Leadership Excellence, Texas A&M University, as an instructor.
Jody is a graduate of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs (MPP ‘03), New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (MA ‘93), and American University’s School of International Service (BA ‘89).