Home | MIT Sloan Fellows | Leadership Blog

Problem-led leadership: A new entrepreneurial model

CEO, entrepreneur, and theoretical neuroscientist, Vivienne Ming believes we should—and will—embrace cyborgs. Within the next generation, she recently told a packed audience at MIT Sloan, cognitive neuroprosthetics will “fundamentally change the definition of what it means to be human.” Cofounder of the machine learning company Socos Labs and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, Ming’s goal is to solve sticky dilemmas at the intersection of advanced technology, learning, and labor economics.

Named one of Ten Women to Watch in Tech by Inc. magazine, Ming is renowned for her heady predictions about the future direction of tech, but it’s her leadership model that most intrigues MIT Leadership Center Executive Director Hal Gregersen and Faculty Director Deborah Ancona. They expound on her distinctive style in a recent Harvard Business Review post, because it’s a model they are observing more and more in contemporary C-suites.

Don’t do as I say. Do what I can’t do.

Gregersen and Ancona say that Ming has come to the conclusion that she can make her strongest contributions as an individual, rather than as a team booster. “For a long time, I tried to be the whole package. I put a lot of energy into making certain that I was shepherding everyone along, doing all the right things for my teams. Then I realized: You know what? If I can get some people that are really good at the things that I’m not, then I can focus on my strengths. And my strengths are in creative problem solving — all the way down to writing the code myself.”

As directors of the MIT Leadership Center, Gregersen and Ancona have been trying to get to the bottom of this new style. Is it a trend? A future best practice? “We weren’t sure if it was because we spent so much time with MIT-trained people,” they note in their Harvard Business Review post, “or if there was a much more widespread shift under way, but the people we saw driving impactful, world-changing initiatives just didn’t look like old-school leadership material—and didn’t seem to want to. Cautiously, we called it problem-led leadership and launched into all the interviewing, case studying, and literature review that goes into a leadership research project.”

Gregersen and Ancona found several common threads in the work of problem-led leaders. Most noteworthy, they say, is that none of these leaders appear to harbor any expectations that they will attract “followers” by the sheer power of their charisma or status. Instead, they note, “their method is to get others excited about whatever problem they have identified as ripe for a novel solution.” They take a leadership role only to bring together the problem-solvers necessary to reach a solution. For Ming, the style is simply a tool, a means to an end. “The only reason I do it is because it is an amazingly effective way to have an impact on the world.”

Read more in the MIT Sloan Experts blog.

Read the full post at Harvard Business Review.

Comments are closed.