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The 11 calling cards of a problem-led leader

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The idea was revolutionary and ambitious, and it came from a person many consider a visionary: Elon Musk’s high-speed city-to-city transportation system, dubbed “Hyperloop.”

The biggest problem came in the form of designing a pod that could carry people through the system at speeds of more than 700 miles per hour. When the company announced a student competition to engineer the vessel, MIT’s 30-member team emerged as the victor in the first round.

So what sort of leadership qualities did that team possess that set them apart for their competitors? Deborah Ancona and Hal Gregersen, the founder and the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center, decided to find out, and their results have been published in a recent white paper, “Problem-Led Leadership: An MIT Style of Leading.”

Notably, they found that members of the MIT community tend to have an aversion to being labeled as leaders and that leadership emerges organically among them as the problems they’re working on require it, rather than for sake of personal ambition or ladder-climbing.

“If the key talent of another type of leader is the ability to delegate and motivate people to do work they would not otherwise do, the mark of the MIT leader is the ability to identify and articulate a cool problem that will inspire people to contribute their best efforts,” Ancona and Gregersen write.

Through a series of interviews with faculty, undergraduate students, graduate students, and alumni, a review of hundreds of news and opinion articles, and observation of conferences and workshops, Ancona and Gregersen identified 11 different aspects that problem-led leaders exhibit:

  1. They approach assuming leadership roles with reluctance and skepticism, a sort of “anti-leadership” bent.
  2. A passion for hard problems that tend to require them and others to step into a leadership role.
  3. A combination of top-level technical expertise for the problem at hand and a broad knowledge of the other domains across which their expertise must contribute.
  4. A willingness to step up as a leader when their talents are most needed for the task, but also to give that control up when someone else’s talents become more relevant as the project proceeds.
  5. Placing a higher premium on getting the work done rather than doing it in a lavish office. Don’t expect to see a problem-led leader gunning for the corner office.
  6. A distaste for office politics — even when being good at it could help get things done.
  7. A limited focus on their teams’ social and emotional needs.
  8. A high tolerance for their teammates’ idiosyncrasies as long as their strengths contribute to solving the problem, but …
  9. ... a low tolerance for the status quo. MIT leaders want to turn good ideas into effective solutions but have little interest in overseeing the resulting operation on a day-to-day basis.
  10. Decisions are driven by data first or delayed if there isn’t enough of it.
  11. They’re more likely to be found at the head of a startup or entrepreneurial venture than a large, established corporation.

“Call it anti-leader leadership if you want. It’s the kind of leadership that emerges when someone is intrigued by a difficult problem, develops the determination to see it solved, and recognizes that will never happen by his or her efforts alone,” Ancona and Gregersen write. “Leadership is a choice that at some point they are forced to make, and a necessity they finally step up to, with a team that pushes boundaries — technical, scientific, organizational, artistic.”

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