It’s Not About how to Be a Better Leader, but What Kind of a Leader You Want to Be

Listening and speaking with Sir Ken Robinson it became quite apparent I was not going to be given a formula for the 21st Century business leader. What I got instead was much, much more.

sir_ken_robinson-3From the unquantifiable creativity of Beethoven to the collaborative chemistry of the Beatles, from the incremental innovation of Wal-Mart to the false hope of our consumer culture. There was one undeniable message for businesses of the modern era. The world is facing major challenges – so how will you lead your business to rise ‘with’ those challenges?

We began our discussion by reflecting on a previous comment by Sir Ken which prophesied the worthlessness of a university degree. He pointed out that in many countries there’s a growing problem of graduate unemployment. “I mean, when I was a student, that was a ridiculous idea that you wouldn’t get a job with a degree!” He puts this growing phenomenon down to two factors; young people facing historically high levels of unemployment, and a shift from a labour intensive to a knowledge intensive economy. He adds that this is of course not true for all degrees, but that the concept of ‘academic inflation’ is very real. For leaders in business it is clear that they need to understand how the relationship dynamic between higher education, the economy and employment has changed. They must look beyond our educational models designed for the 19th Century landscape.

Lifelong Learning – an Obvious Choice

When the topic of lifelong learning is brought up with Sir Ken, it is little wonder he considers this as fundamental to economic growth. He is a man who believes that education is in the “absolute vanguard” of dealing with the technological change and demographic shifts that are challenging the world in which we live. The issues surrounding the rise in population and mass migration are self-evident, but it is the impact of digital culture and information systems that are shaking the foundations of established ways of connecting and working. From this, two questions arise. Firstly, are business leaders of today able to enact dynamic ways to cultivate a vibrant culture of learning that meet their present needs? Secondly, are they also able to facilitate the long-term growth in human capital that brings the promise of a sustainable future?

For Sir Ken, the answer lies in a company’s attitude towards creativity and innovation. Attitudes that promote efficiency along with performance measurements have their place in the business landscape. However, much like the obsession with standardisation that Sir Ken rails against in the education system, these addictions to ‘metrics’ are suffocating the true potential of employees. Sir Ken points out that we are all imaginative, we can all be creative – just in different ways. He concludes that, “innovation is possible in anything that uses human intelligence and activity.” With that in mind, leadership is about understanding the conditions that make creative work possible. He cites Wal-Mart as a company that doesn’t create ‘products’ but innovates in areas such as supply chain management. The company Zappos, co-founded by Tony Hsieh, have developed a ‘Holocracy,’ and are constantly innovating in how they organise the company internally. “It’s a complicated process and that’s why I think it needs a different style of leadership.

It’s a complicated process and that’s why I think it needs a different style of leadership.

Imagine, Create, Innovate

Sir Ken helps by going into a deeper understanding of the psychology of creativity. He brings up three different terms essential to the creative process, none of which should be ignored. The first is ‘imagination’. This is where it all begins and is “the ability to bring into mind things that aren’t present.” It is something we all possess and often taken for granted. An imaginative idea might be built from experiences or from that which has never happened, but could hypothetically happen (this writer can’t but help wonder how many employees are really given the opportunity to be ‘imaginative’ in their work?). He goes on to say that, “creativity is a step on from that – it’s putting your imagination to work.” This is where imagination turns towards practical application. We use our imagination to look for new solutions to old problems, to new problems, or to ones we didn’t know existed.

Sir Ken points out that the third stage in this process is the one companies are really striving for – the holy grail of innovation! This is not something that you can just “wish into being,” as he points out. Companies have to understand that there is a process interconnecting these elements, and if a culture of innovation is to be created, “we have to help people develop [the] competencies, [the] aptitudes and [the] skills to make that happen.

Lead a Culture of Creativity

In previous talks on leadership, Sir Ken had stated that leadership is essential to creativity as it sets the boundaries in which creative conditions operate. I posed the question that these boundaries allow business leaders, especially in SME’s, the control they need. He was in complete agreement and said, “It’s a normal thing for leaders to want to be in control. I think the question is to ask, what should they be controlling and why.” He warns, however, that some leaders can think that taking ‘control’ means taking ‘command.’ In some situations an authoritarian approach such as this is appropriate, but under normal circumstances it is counterproductive. The common day-to-day condition of a company is trying to grow, and the leader of a growth company must understand how to engineer the optimum conditions for that growth.

One of the key elements for creating this condition, that Sir Ken discusses at length, is the need for diversity. He tells an amusing story of a board of executives for a banking company. All of the board are white, middle-aged men, who consider themselves to be diverse when they interview a female candidate. This is an illustration of how, in some sectors diversity, and the need to embrace truly different perspectives, are under appreciated values. However, despite the very real significance of this story, Sir Ken flips it on its head to point out that this is not always the case. Diversity can come in many ways. The Beatles were “four guys from Liverpool, about the same age, from the same city and they changed the planet.” He points out that although they were outwardly similar, people were later to discover that it was their “different sensibilities, different outlooks and different talents that created [their] dynamic process.

And so, we come full circle to the question leaders need to ask of themselves. It is easy to sit down and scribble on a piece of paper the company mission or values that have all the right phrases and bland rhetoric that one would expect from a corporate statement. The really challenging thing is look in the mirror and imagine what sought of leader you would like to see staring back at you. Then comes the even greater task of projecting that leadership through your company.

nbr_kansiThis article appeared on the August 2014 issue of Nordic Business Report. Read the full magazine here »

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