The EFMD business magazine

Why complete leaders are unfinished

David Dotlich explains why leaders who are ‘unfinished’ – adaptable, collegiate, and always ready and willing to learn – are the ones who will succeed in today’s complex and paradoxical business world.

Recently, Pivot Leadership ran an executive programme for the top leaders of one of the world’s largest and most successful companies. Each participant received feedback from their team members, and a summary of how they were viewed by their direct reports as a whole.

What was the prevailing request embedded in the feedback for this group of very senior leaders? “Stop micromanaging us!” Or, more to the point: “We wish that you trusted us as much as we trust you!”

This insight instigated a provocative moment of reflection. Why did these executives feel the need to get overly involved in the work of those below them?

Multiple explanations were discussed, but everyone agreed on one simple explanation: as senior executives they were attempting to cope with overwhelming complexity. With so much more to learn and understand and with many more relationships to forge in their matrix-based organisation, these executives were micromanaging in an attempt to achieve consistency, control and closure. They were making lists, conducting reviews, managing projects and asking for financial updates to make some sense of it all. In the end, they were not effective and they were not creating value for shareholders.

Every day, leaders face difficult challenges that generally fall into two distinct camps—puzzles and paradoxes. Puzzles are problems with clear and defined answers such as “How can we increase productivity by 20%?” or “Should we invest x dollars into research and development?”

Paradoxes, on the other hand, are defined by two or more opposing options that can never be resolved. These challenging, persistent dilemmas are now experienced more frequently and consistently by senior executives. They appear in the tension between purpose and profit, short-term returns and long-term investments, maintaining today’s business model while disrupting it for future growth, and standardising processes and procedures while encouraging breakthrough innovation and creativity.

Today, most problems faced by executives are paradoxes. They are tricky, complex and constantly changing and the ability to lead through paradox has become the critical competency required for any senior leader in any organisation today. In our research, we found that leaders who see themselves as learning, adapting and growing, and remaining “unfinished” are best able to navigate through paradox successfully. In our book The Unfinished Leader: Balancing Contradictory Answers to Unsolvable Problems we argue that you need to develop some new mindsets, especially staying “unfinished” when faced with paradoxical problems.

Why complete leaders are unfinished

See more articles from Vol.09 Issue 01 – ’15.

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