The surprising quality needed to be a great leader

Looking at the rise of geopolitical and economic hardships, like Brexit and the rise of nationalism, raises some stark questions about what it means to be a leader: what strategies work, and which only engender more chaos? To learn more about the surprising toll overconfidence can take on leadership, we spoke with Chris Lewis, co-author of The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership in the 21st Century.

ABERMAN: What are the big trends that shape leadership today?

LEWIS: Perhaps the first big trend is the understanding that analysis is not enough anymore. Analysis, and drill-down, and data is only one part of the intellectual process. The other part is the ability to look across, and see a bigger picture, and join the dots. So now, we call it analysis and parenthesis. And perhaps the biggest trend is that you can’t just divine meaning by drilling down into the data all the time, because the data itself is historic, and therefore may not be linear. It might be cyclical. And so, these days, you can’t just rely on an analysis, you have to have a parenthesis.

ABERMAN: Well, indeed. You mention in the book that the Brexit experts were asked by the Queen, what happened? And they came back and said, who knew this was going to happen, right?

LEWIS: That’s right. One of the problems that that highlights is, we seem to have built up a leadership culture based around infallibility, the single infallible leader, this almost Judeo-Christian model, it’s based on Christ or Moses, that there’s going to be one infallible leader, and they’re always going to be right. And we don’t seem to have the imagination to see that they could be wrong. And so, therefore, when the infallible leader predicts something, we’re all surprised when they get it wrong. And the message to leadership these days is: stop predicting, and start preparing for all outcomes, and not just predicting one.

ABERMAN: Because the reality is, as you pointed out in your book, the financial crisis, the rise of nationalism, just people stumbling and tripping, the world’s a random place. And if you present yourself as the infallible font of all predictable information, you’re destined to be mistaken, right?

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LEWIS: Exactly. And this notion of shock at the fallibility of leaders has gone all the way through society. This is not just in business, or even in politics. It’s gone to motion picture industry, it’s gone to the Catholic Church. It’s gone to the automotive industry, where people have lied about emissions. It’s gone to the banking and finance industry.

This is right the way across the leadership spectrum, and the notion that somehow these crises could not have been imagined speaks more to the nature of the boardroom relying upon data, drawing on analysis, because if your analysis was correct, then you would have predicted the rise of President Macron in France, Brexit in Europe, or even President Trump in America.

ABERMAN: Or, as you mentioned, Volkswagen spending years promoting diesel engines, when they fundamentally knew that they were not actually anti-pollutant devices. It is extraordinary. I work a lot with startup entrepreneurs in various ways to help them grow their businesses. What you described to me, I generally see two kinds of leaders.

I see servant leaders, leaders that are willing to take data and delegate authority; and then I see leaders that generally fall back on autocratic methodologies, in my experience, because they’re insecure. Do autocratic people become autocratic because they don’t want to be challenged, or because structures create autocratic leaders?

LEWIS: Well, let’s be clear: leadership is nothing without ambiguity. Leadership is based on uncertainty and ambiguity. And if the leader is the smartest person in the room, then they’re probably in the wrong room. The leader’s job is to make everyone else in the room feel like they’re the smartest person in the room.

ABERMAN: Absolutely. So, we’re heading towards starting to build a mind map, and we want to help people, because a lot of the people that listen to the show, at this moment in time, or in the future, will have to be leaders. What are some of the attributes that you think a 21st-century leader must have to be successful?

LEWIS: They should be uncertain.

ABERMAN: They should be uncertain?

LEWIS: They should be uncertain of the outcome, because if you can prepare for the uncertainty of an outcome, then you’re preparing all of your team for all outcomes. And so, this is one of the most important things that we say in the book, which is, this is the age of the death of certainty. If anybody walks into the room and says they’re certain about something, you can’t call them a leader, because every leader must be prepared for the uncertainty that’s there.

ABERMAN: But in my experience as a leader, when I’ve managed large organizations or projects, I have often found the worst thing I can do is express to the people I’m working with any concern, on my part, that this may not work out. So, how do I balance those two things?

LEWIS: So this is an interesting part of the book, and this also speaks to chapter seven on gender and inclusion. And one of the ideas behind that, this is a bit of a story, but I travel quite a lot transAtlantically, and when I arrived in America two or three years ago, I was sat at a car parking lot at the rental station, and I was there watching people rent cars. When women would come in and rent cars, they would walk around the car, they would put their children in first, make sure that they were buckled up.

They would get into the car, they would check the seat, adjust the mirror, they would look across all of the dashboard, then they’d start the engine, and then eventually they’d move away carefully. The men walk over to the car, get in it, and floor it, often squealing the wheels as they went out of the lot. And the thought occurred to me that, actually, as uncertain that the women drivers seemed to be, actually, I think I’d prefer them driving the car.

ABERMAN: And I’d prefer making sure that every rental car is completely underpowered, based upon the story you’ve just told me. Chris Lewis, I want to thank you for coming to the studio today and talking about leadership. Folks, check out The Leadership Lab. Thanks for being with us.

LEWIS: Thank you, Jonathan.


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