A new leadership lens to navigate complexity

Sharon Olivier, Viki Holton, Kerrie Fleming and Frederick Hölscher describe Ego, Eco and Intuitive leadership – three capabilities that managers can deploy to successfully navigate complex problems

 

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When, according to the Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report, 2018, 11,000 business and HR leaders tell us that future organisations will no longer be assessed only on financial performance but on the basis of their relationships with their workers, customers, regulators, communities and their impact on society it’s time to sit up and pay attention. We now know that social capital is gaining equal status with financial and physical capital. There are many reasons for this but in the main they are related to the social, economic and political changes that have grown since the financial crisis of a decade ago when trust, that fundamental ingredient of social capital, was severely undermined.

While the demands on leaders are shoulder buckling at the best of times, today they must lead organisations that “serve a social purpose” and workforces where the power of the individual is growing and questioning the very premise of corporate behaviour and economic and social principles that guide it. This, combined with technological disruptions, creates unforeseen impact that can undermine social cohesion. What is the best track for leaders to follow? Do they focus solely on helping to build genuine relationships with those working alongside them or get down to business and set clear goals to navigate this tricky terrain? We suggest that the choice is not binary but similar to building an algorithm. There is a choice to be made depending on the context of the issue leaders are facing. Let us examine this further.

Many theories and tools taught in leadership training programmes focus “above the waterline”, namely changing behaviours, practices and processes. Few address the unconscious default habits, beliefs and the ego identities from which leadership behaviours emerge though these are often the inevitable default positions on leadership programmes even after setting good intentions. Our experience and research with more than 140 leaders and leader-participants in our programmes tells us that leaders are not able to sustain behavioural change unless they gain insights and skills into addressing those default habits, beliefs and identities.

Our curiosity led us to examine what actually happens below the waterline. Over the past 18 months or so, we have collected research data from a variety of sources: questionnaires, discussing the topic with those attending executive education programmes, observations of top team meetings, and company site visits to interview a range of leaders and teams across industries. As the complexity and diversity of leaders’ worlds increase, their capacity to flow and flex accordingly becomes increasingly important. This study explored three sets of capabilities or ‘intelligences’ leaders need to flex between in order to navigate their business in an increasingly complex world. Leadership Intelligences refers to the way leaders make sense and create (or co-create) meaning in their leadership practice.

What emerged was a clear set of three capabilities that when drawn upon offer leader sa means to be flexible without ever become overly dependent on one particular skill to the detriment of the diverse needs of their stakeholders and staff. These three capabilities: Ego- , Eco- , Intuitive Leadership are referred to as “intelligences” and they refer to how leaders make sense of the world and how they (co-)create meaning and purpose.

1. Ego-intelligence (working with and within boundaries)

The ego is one’s sense of identity, one’s own boundaries and separation. Ego-intelligent leaders see themselves as outside the team, using their ego strength, knowledge and vision to shape, control and manage things from the “outside-in”. In other words, they use their ego strength and energy to lead from the front, providing security, direction or speed when needed. Ego-intelligence used with compassion and wisdom is the “benevolent ego” versus the idea of overused ego or an egotist (a self-contained, self-focused person to the exclusion of others). These leaders enjoy being the drivers and can act fast. Their ability to shape and focus is a key strength, often delivering fast results in times of crisis. Overdone however, they may lose the engagement (hearts and minds) of people in the process, missing opportunities because of their laser-beam focus on the goal.

How does ego-intelligence “present” in organisations?
One chief executive interviewed (who is also the company founder) made two interesting comments: “we do not look at what our competitors are doing, but remain totally focussed on what we can deliver to the market.”
“I believe that too many CEOs worry too much about staff happiness; staff should rather encourage their leader, ensuring the leader stays in a good state of mind so that he/she can give the needed direction to thebusiness.”

2. Eco-intelligence (working between boundaries)

Eco intelligence refers to the ability to work with complexities by leveraging the inter-dependencies between teams or stakeholders; creating the context and enablement for the organisation to operate more like a self-organising ‘eco-system. ’Interestingly many organisations today refer to themselves as “eco-systems” yet do not seem to know how to develop their leaders’ capabilities to lead eco-systematically. While ego intelligence brings the ability to think in a clear linear way, eco intelligence brings ‘matrix’ (both/and versus either/or) thinking. They understand the inter-dependencies of social eco systems in business and see themselves as a part of a wider system of interconnected and interdependent parts. Ego-leaders will eliminate what does not fit the goals and objectives while eco-leaders apply the art of inclusion and reconciliation to optimise the value of each part towards the growth of the whole. It relates to the African concept of “ubuntu” meaning: “I am because we are.” Eco-intelligence includes collaboration, cosensing and co-responding with others, working in partnership and taking joint ownership for what happens. Eco-intelligence is not the same as being a democratic leader or an emotionally intelligent leader but rather involves understanding organisations as complex adaptive systems and the ability to create the needed psychological safety and context for such a system to thrive. While recognising the importance of behavioural sciences, this model of leadership draws on the rich conceptual frameworks of complexity thinking.

How does eco intelligence “present” in organisations?
This style is ideal for complex situations, optimising the benefits of diversity to create new, innovative solutions. It is about opening up spaces for “generative” dialogue and enabling the active participation of all. Because of its “appreciative” and non-judgemental nature, eco-leaders create a safe space to discuss difficult topics, where people feel comfortable enough to speak honestly. They cultivate a climate of curiosity instead of fear and this takes time and practice.

3. Intuitive-intelligence (working beyond boundaries)

Essentially, intuitive intelligence refers to the ability to “sense into” a situation, see the bigger picture, often beyond the boundaries of the specific problem, and then to draw on an inner wisdom, gut feel or “knowing.” Most of the disruptive technologies like Uber and Airbnb is the result of intuitive insights that came from thinking beyond the boundaries of business as usual. The impact of intuitive intelligence however relies on the leader’s confidence and courage to speak out their intuitive sensing in the moment, knowing that they may be challenged or ridiculed.

Many of the leaders interviewed said that they do often intuitively “see” solutions to problems, but are then challenged by colleagues to come up with facts and figures to substantiate their ideas, which often becomes a very cumbersome exercise within which the intuitive ideas get lost. Aptly expressed by Einstein, “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

The greatest gift of intuitive intelligence to an organisation lies in its out-of-the-box freshness and creativity. Whether or not intuitive ideas thrive or die is largely dependent on the receptiveness of the organisation culture. Our research shows that leaders use either their ego or eco intelligence to express their intuition. For example “this is the wrong direction so this is what we will do instead” (ego intelligence bringing shape and speed), or “I am feeling uncomfortable with this direction and am wondering if others feel the same? Could we explore an idea I have?” (eco intelligence opening it up for generative dialogue).

How does intuitive intelligence “present” in organisations?
Intuition is not always easy to express; it needs to be blended with ego- and eco-intelligence to bring out its full value. A CEO of an insurance company explained he often has a “belly feeling” about decisions or direction. “I become silent in board meetings because I am pondering/thinking. My colleagues felt that I was judging them and have asked that I at least say that I am busy puzzling so they can understand why I am reacting like this”.

 

Leaders use either their ego- or eco intelligence to express their intuition. For example, ego-intelligence: “this is the wrong direction; this is what we will do instead”; or eco-intelligence “I am feeling uncomfortable with this direction and am wondering if others feel the same? Could we explore an idea I have?”

A choice or a blend?

We have found that the most effective leaders are those who are able to draw on all three intelligences appropriate to the context they are in. A blended approach of the three leadership intelligences can create a more engaged work force able to self-organise, leverage inter-dependencies, be more innovative and take ownership for the outcomes of their work. It offers a leadership lens more flexible for today’s unpredictable and fast-paced complex world. A few, but by no means a majority of the leaders we interviewed demonstrated a blend, in that they feel comfortable working with more than one of the three intelligences. It is also clear that experimenting with another intelligence requires courage. One leader’s style changed when he “reached his limits” – a financial project went badly wrong, key processes did not work and the customer complained loudly. At that moment he realised that any extraordinary situational ways needs a broad set of competencies, and “not only from one person”. Dividing the tasks and instilling ownership in everyone meant he had to relinquish much, almost all, of his usual control. He says it was initially scary but quickly he could see the potential in the team.

Sometimes life events prompt leaders to embrace a new style. For example, one leader observed: “I ran out of plans and was humble or desperate enough to turn to my team, and they came up with solutions I would never have thought of, which gave us all the needed shape and focus.” This incident was his defining moment of expanding his intelligence from ego across into eco. We would encourage you to examine what is happening below the waterline of your organisation during volatile periods. We suggest that those leaders who find themselves at a point of stagnation may well have dug a deep trench and are stuck with a limited repertoire of one intelligence that limits their navigational ability to move through the storms of complexity.

For more on this topic, check out our TEDx Talk on What Kind of Leader are You? by one of our research team, Kerrie Fleming https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GB9SL3jUMOg

Viki Holton

Senior Research Fellow at Ashridge. Her interests include surveying current trends in management and management development, best practice in career development, HR, equal opportunities and the development of women managers. She co-authored with Fiona Dent Women in Business: Navigating Career Success published in 2012.

Latest posts by Viki Holton (see all)

Sharon Olivier

Sharon Olivier, Senior Faculty, Leadership Development, at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International
Business School, UK.

Latest posts by Sharon Olivier (see all)

    Kerrie Fleming

    Kerrie Fleming is Associate Professor of Organisational Development;
    Sharon Olivier, Senior Faculty, Leadership Development; Frederick
    Hölscher, Adjunct, Leadership; and Viki Holton, Senior Research Fellow
    and are all based at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International
    Business School, UK

    Latest posts by Kerrie Fleming (see all)

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