Over the last few months I have been thinking a lot about leadership skills in anticipation of the graduate seminar I am teaching at MIT this Fall - Technology-based Business Transformation. In this course, I want to examine how to leverage disruptive innovations to significantly transform a business or even a whole industry. I want to focus, in particular, on what a company has to do when faced with a disruptive innovation so that it becomes the disruptor rather than the disruptee.
The course started last week. At our first meeting, I told the students that the overriding objective of this course is to develop or enhance their leadership skills so they can better deal with complex systems, complex markets and complex organizations. This entails a subtle balance of at least three kinds of skills - technical, management and social or people-oriented skills.
Can leadership skills be taught, or are these things that you are born with - you either have them or you don’t? If they can be acquired, how do you develop such skills? Each of us is better at some things and less good at others, but we can always improve our talents in a given area if we work hard at it. This applies to leadership as well.
My approach toward working on leadership skills in the class is through lots of discussion focused on three key areas. The first is the material in our reading list - including The Innovator's Solution by Clay Christensen and Michael Raynor, and Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? by Lou Gerstner. Second, I’ll focus on my personal experiences leading technology-based businesses, in particular IBM's Internet Division. Third and perhaps most important, we’ll explore the students' own experiences and feelings, gained through whatever jobs they have had in their young careers, as well as their education and outside reading.
Let's take a moment to reflect on what we mean by leadership, especially the kind of transformational leadership that we need to have in order to deal with disruptive innovations. It is interesting to look at the Wikipedia entry for transformational leadership.
"Transformational leaders offer a purpose that transcends short-term goals and focuses on higher order intrinsic needs," it says, and then goes on to list four main dimensions of transformational leadership: charisma or idealized influence; inspirational motivation; intellectual stimulation; and individualized attention. It further says: ". . . a leader can, in effect, change the psychology of the group and change the culture of the organization."
I recently wrote in my blog about a study on MBA education that found significant gaps between the skills companies are looking for, and the skills being taught in business schools. What companies generally want from MBA programs are graduates with people-oriented skills who are good at leadership, communications and innovation. However, the students frequently complain that such soft skills will not get them the kinds of jobs they want, and they pressure the schools to offer them courses that are functional, analytical or technical in nature. While this particular study focused primarily on MBA programs, I have no doubt that similar, perhaps wider, skill gaps would be found in graduate programs in engineering and other disciplines.
Now, notice the language used in the Wikipedia entry on transformational leadership, the kind of leadership companies so badly need to help them cope with the fast-changing, complex, global society in which we live. It is far beyond soft: inspirational motivation, transcending purposes, emotional perceptions. We are talking passion here. Businesses are desperately looking for graduates who are brilliant as well as passionate, so they can assume positions of leadership in the future, including, over time, at the most senior levels of the company. We must somehow get the word out to the students.
If such a gap exists in business programs, the gap turns into a vast gulf when it comes to engineering and other technical programs. I think that our educational system has somehow equated the kind of discipline, structure, objective and analytical approaches that underly good science and technology with a lack of passion. Emotions are suspect - that is selling, marketing, or worse, something of which no self-respecting engineer would ever want to be accused. In the process, I am afraid that we have turned off countless boys - and even more girls – from pursuing their interests in science, technology, and curiosity-driven problem solving before they discovered that good scientists and engineers are supposed to be serious, objective, and somewhat passionless people.
We discussed in the seminar whether engineers had the proper communications and social skills to sell their ideas within the company and beyond, as well as to lead the efforts needed to transform advanced lab inventions into disruptive marketplace innovations. Are these jobs best left to business school graduates, who somehow have the proper skills, perhaps even the proper genes to handle such people-oriented tasks?
I have very strong feelings on the matter. Technical talent is more important than ever, given that technology is increasingly permeating all aspects of business, society and our personal lives. We are developing highly sophisticated, technology-based businesses, industries and economies that are also exceptionally complex, integrated global systems. New technologies are both disrupting and creating whole new opportunities in industry after industry, from media and entertainment to healthcare and bioinformatics.
To succeed in such a world, you need the ability to analyze and solve problems, including ones you never saw before. You need the ability to identify potential innovations before others do. The more disruptive they are, the more urgent it is to do so. You need to leverage innovative technologies to bring to market new products and services ahead of the competition. These kinds of skills require a very solid technical foundation. But they also require a high degree of commitment, creativity, passion . . . and leadership.