Leadership for a fractured world is a complex topic, and no single theory can do it justice.
Traditional leadership that relies on prominence (“look to me”), dominance (“listen to me”), and tribalizing (“follow me”) to get things done isn’t working anymore. Instead the best leaders are global change agents; they’re men and women who can act with or without formal positional authority to mobilize diverse factions to face reality, participate in interdependent problem solving, and contribute to innovative solutions with focus and speed.
The outdated leadership modal emphasizes operating within boundaries—these leaders protect and manage boundaries. But global change agents, true leaders, aren’t afraid to cross boundaries, bust boundaries, transcend boundaries, and build bridges. Here’s what that looks like:
Interdependent problems necessitate that multiple groups in a social system be mobilized since problems can’t be brought to resolution by one group acting alone or in isolation. True leaders, then, must cross the cultural, gender, geographic, structural, and professional boundaries that separate people and groups.
I recently met with some managers of a large, multinational Silicon Valley IT company. They explained how a group of senior managers in the headquarters were reluctant to cross boundaries and connect with important regional and international offices to include them in important problem-solving processes. Protecting turf and resources had become more important to them than promoting interdependent problem solving.
True leaders must intervene to break up maladaptive practices and counterproductive boundaries that perpetuate silos and tribalism. Groups by nature are tribal and seek to preserve their prevailing boundaries, even at the expense of facing reality and adapting to changed conditions.
Boundaries play an important function in protecting groups and sustaining a group culture, but they become impediments when they reduce the flow of information and resources and keep people from facing changed conditions, dealing with threats, and taking advantage of unique and emerging opportunities.
In 2014 General Motors CEO Mary Barra was called before Congress to explain how a faulty ignition switch led to numerous accidents and more than 2.6 million vehicles being recalled. She made reference to an independent analysis, which revealed that GM had serious cultural flaws such as the withholding of and even the distortion of information, not to mention the “GM nod” and the “GM salute.”
The “nod” was used by managers to indicate they agreed there was a problem but there would be no intention to follow through. The “salute” was the crossing of the arms followed by a finger pointing outward to divert responsibility elsewhere.
People hid behind their boundaries and perpetuated counterproductive behaviors. These practices threatened the company’s credibility, profitability, and customer safety. There was insufficient change-agent leadership at all levels of the organization to call attention to the maladaptive practices and bust the boundaries that had produced the errors.
Real leaders know how to help people leave the safety and confines of their home boundary and embark on an adventure of discovery—the discovery of new solutions and opportunities. The adventure might require going into the great unknown in search of creativity and innovation through the engagement of diverse people and groups. Diversity of perspectives, experience, style, and culture can be a rich resource for the promotion of creative problem solving.
But harnessing the power of diversity is problematic. The default behavior of groups is fundamentally tribal, as people generally prefer their own kind and find it difficult interacting with those who are significantly different—it takes effort. The global change agent, like an alchemist, approaches the challenge by experimenting to discover what the appropriate mix of diversity might be in order to generate a breakthrough result.
It’s vital that leaders reduce the mystery or enmity between groups on behalf of a shared sense of purpose. Humans are fragile creatures, but also competitive creatures. Our feelings easily get hurt, and we often enjoy political game playing and the creation of coalitions to advance our own interests, sometimes at the expense of others.
This game playing leads to fractures in groups and organizations—deep divides and hairline fractures that can expand at any time—where people refuse to collaborate and actively sabotage the intentions of others. The change agent helps groups build bridges of trust and understanding, reduce the mystery of who they are for one another, and establish a connection that opens up a new possibility for shared accomplishment.
This is what Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon did in 1972 when they visited China and started the bridge-building process that led to a significant thawing of, and eventual end to, the Cold War relationship that did little good for either country.
Becoming a global change agent is not easy, but it is essential work that companies must encourage and nurture. They neglect this work at their own peril.
—Dean Williams is the author of the newly released book Leadership for a Fractured World and teaches leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.