Thursday, March 15, 2018

3 Reasons Why Your Company’s “Superhero” Leadership Strategy Isn’t Working

Guest post from Mark Busine:

Would you describe your company’s CEO as Wonder Woman, or your executive vice president as Batman? Do the regional managers remind you of the Fantastic Four?

I’d guess it’s unlikely that you think of your leadership team in this way. So you might be surprised when I say that many companies including yours are following a Superhero leadership strategy. And the research suggests it’s probably not working.

A Superhero strategy is a leadership strategy in which an organization focuses most of its time and energy on developing a small, exclusive group of people who are destined for major roles in the company. Often called a high-potential pool, this group is usually very hard to get into, and once in, people are reluctant to leave it. These people are given the bulk of leadership development resources, get first shot at exciting new opportunities, and are first in line for promotions.

In other words, if you’ve noticed that your organization consistently relies on the same small group of people to take on any and every new challenge facing the company, then your company is probably following the Superhero strategy.

A Superhero strategy isn’t necessarily bad, and it’s certainly better than having no leadership strategy at all. But as companies continue to struggle with employee engagement, a rapidly changing business landscape and the pressures of disruption in nearly every industry, Superhero strategies alone are insufficient. Here are three big problems with Superhero strategies, and how to fix them:

Problem #1: Thinking of leadership potential like a super power
Whether they can fly, become invisible, or run at lightning speed, most superheroes possess natural abilities that no ordinary human could possibly learn. Many organizations approach leadership potential in the same way, assuming that it’s a natural quality that very few people have. That view of leadership potential worked fine in the past when organizations were more hierarchical, and requirements of leadership were left to a select few. But today’s businesses need to be more agile and rely increasingly on shared leadership. They need people to show more leadership behavior across their organizations, not just those who carry the title of manager or leader.

The Fix: Grow leadership potential like physical strength
Start thinking of leadership potential like you would physical strength. In other words, everyone has different starting points and different areas of strength. For example, some may have more leg strength while others have more upper body strength, and some have more stamina while others are faster. But everyone has the potential to get stronger. Organizations that think of leadership potential as a set of strengths and weaknesses that can be improved will be able to build a much stronger overall organization than one that spends its time searching for one or two Hulk-like characters.

Problem #2: Thinking you know who the bad guys are
Whether it’s Superman vs. Lex Luther or Batman vs. the Joker, Superhero sagas often include an everlasting battle between a superhero and an equally-matched supervillain. Knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they could devise clever ways to beat their opponents. This scenario once described the competitive landscape for many businesses, who typically knew a lot about rival companies, enabling them to build a team of people who had the skills and abilities to meet the competition. But in today’s world, companies are more likely to face disruption from a start-up they never heard of or a college student testing a new theory. Their existing group of Superheroes may be completely unprepared to face a new form of disruption.

The fix: Expand your definition of leadership potential
Many organizations have a narrow definition of leadership potential which is often closely modeled after current and past company leaders. These narrow definitions often cause organizations to continuously choose high-potential leaders who look and think like the same leaders that the company has traditionally had. Instead, organizations need to broaden their definition of leadership potential to uncover diverse skill sets and mind sets that may be better suited to meet new challenges facing the company.

Problem #3: Waiting for the superheroes to save the day
The most satisfying part of any Superhero story is when the Superhero swoops in at the last moment to save the day. But while the drama makes for a great movie or comic storyline, it’s a major problem in the workplace. Putting so much pressure on the organization’s Superheroes can cause them to feel overwhelmed and burned out. Meanwhile, the rest of the workforce feel unempowered and becomes disengaged from their jobs as they wait for orders from the organization’s Superheroes.

The fix: Get more people in the game
Getting more people in the game starts with giving more people low-risk opportunities to own and manage a project or initiative. By getting more people involved in these small test scenarios, organizations can keep their workforce engaged and activate leadership potential among a much larger group of people. This approach eases pressure on the organization’s Superheroes while enabling the company to become more agile and innovative.

Even though Superheroes are still bringing in big bucks at the box office, organizations that rely too heavily on a superhero leadership strategy may find themselves unable to rapidly respond to competitive threats and disruption. Companies that expand their focus to unleashing leadership potential among more than just a select group of company Superheroes will better prepare themselves to lead in innovation and handle constant change and disruption in their industries.

Mark Busine is general manager at global leadership company DDI.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Leading through the Identity Paradox

Guest post from Larry Ackerman:

Change, and the need to keep pace with it, has been a dominant leadership challenge for at least three decades. Maxims such as change or die and change is the only constant permeate organizations, globally, keeping executives up at night as they consider how best to move forward.

There is a counterpoint to these popular sayings, which leaders should also consider: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In short, change is an insidious beast. It calls out to leaders to focus on what’s happening outside of their companies as the way to know what to do on the inside. And, in doing so, many executives – especially, those who run large, longstanding concerns – fail to take stock of what’s going on beneath the surface of their organizations, where vital, foundational factors reside, which explain how the company creates proprietary value – in spite of how the world around it is changing.

A sterling example of a company that takes both of these realities into account – the outside world and the inside world – is Apple. Apple was founded in 1976, powered by its drive to humanize the computer. That was its core identity; a statement that clarified the proprietary contribution the company was capable of making. The company has stayed true to its identity ever since. Forty-plus years later, Apple is still humanizing the computer in ways no one could have imagined back then. From the earliest Macs to the newest iPhones, Apple has constantly changed – by not changing at all. The company simply continues to re-interpret its formative identity in new and meaningful ways. To borrow the title to a famous movie, Apple has succeeded by going back to the future.

Call it the identity paradox: an organization’s ability to change from a changeless foundation. Taking this approach to leadership is the secret to staying relevant, no matter how much change is going on in the outside world. In this way, the identity paradox provides a platform for innovation that fully embraces the world as it changes, while holding fast to who the company is at its core.

Limitations and Benefits

Leading by the identity paradox is not a silver bullet. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it does increase the odds of success, over time. The power of the identity paradox cannot prevent companies from becoming acquisition targets. It cannot assure that every new product – even if they are inspired by the identity of the company – will gain sustainable traction among customers. Nor can it certify that all forays into new markets will turn out well.

The benefits that flow from the identity paradox are many, however: Chief among them is how the organization’s identity constitutes a stabilizing force against VUCA – the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, which shape today’s world. Consider the company’s identity the keel that keeps the ship ‘steady as she goes,’ no matter what the weather brings.

The leadership imperative

The identity paradox imposes an unspoken discipline on all leaders: To not lose sight of the immutable characteristics, which allow each organization to create value in its own special way, even as it responds to the irrepressible, often convulsive changes occurring around it.

Today, wholesale change is often seen as the path to salvation, where nothing is sacred and everything is up for grabs. That isn’t just wrong; it’s dangerous. When it comes to creating value over the long-term, the identity of the organization is sacred.

For leaders, embracing the identity paradox, as a management discipline is the most logical way to ensure that the enterprise will thrive, no matter how much change the outside world imposes on it.

Larry Ackerman is a leading authority on organizational and personal identity and the pioneer of Identity-Based Management. He is the founder of The Identity Circle, a consulting and coaching firm in Westport, CT. His corporate clients have included AARP, Dow Chemical, Fidelity Investments, Lockheed Martin, Maytag, National Geographic and State Farm Insurance. Larry is the author of two groundbreaking books on identity, Identity Is Destiny: Leadership and the Roots of Value Creation, and The Identity Code: The 8 Essential Questions for Finding Your Purpose and Place in the World. He has been a guest lecturer at the Yale School of Management, Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Wharton, Pepperdine, and UCLA Anderson School. He is also the author of numerous articles on identity and its impact on leadership, brand, and culture. Larry is a graduate of LifeLaunch, the initial coaching program of the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara, and holds an Associate Coach Certification (ACC) with the International Coach Federation.  Email Larry at:

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Using Humor to Fuel the Success of Your Organization

Guest post by Jamie Anderson & George Gabor Burt:

In business situations in which collaboration is an important driver of organizational success,
lacking a sense of community can be a formidable barrier to delivering results. This is particularly true in today’s complex and uncertain operating environments in which a culture of solidarity and knowledge sharing become critical drivers of staying relevant. In these situations, the more a group comes together around a shared objective, the more effective it will be. To this end, humor engineered by leaders can shape a culture of empathy and relationship satisfaction and be a foundation for greater alignment. 

But of course, humor can be highly subjective and what one person finds hilarious another person may not. So knowing your audience is paramount, and business leaders who score high in the effective use of humor also tend to score high in emotional intelligence. The global nature of business today means that leaders must also be adept at adjusting their use of the different styles of humor as they cross societal boundaries – an aspect of what has become known as cultural intelligence.

Now throw the instant and global reach of social media like Twitter into the mix, and we might soon be talking about digital intelligence for leaders too. In a digital world, a comment or joke that can potentially reach millions is only a screen tap away. Leaders have never before been able to achieve this kind of mass intimacy so they need to think carefully about how humor can and should be used over the digital medium.

It is well understood by psychologists and social scientists that people who laugh together generally have stronger feelings of empathy and bonding. Humor can be used as an especially effective approach to build group cohesiveness, with a leader as the role model of projecting a relaxed and fun attitude, sharing occasional jokes, anecdotes and stories that inject a playful aspect to day to day interactions. A highly successful Irish CEO is known for whistling tunes as he walks around the office, projecting an energetic, fun and relaxed demeanour.

In situations where a leader needs to increase sociability across organizational hierarchies, self-deprecating humor can be used. At a recent employee event, Alain Dehaze, CEO of the Adecco Group, was joined on stage by a young British intern who was shadowing him for the month. The intern was describing how much time the two were spending together, having visited six countries in just eight days. The intern quipped: “Just about the only thing I don’t know about him is the color of his pyjamas.” As quick as a flash, Dehaze responded, “That’s probably a good thing, because I don’t wear any pyjamas!”

But while self-deprecating humor can reduce social distance and make leaders seem more collaborative, participative and open, it must be used with caution. Humorous self-criticism works much less well as a tool to engage with peers and superiors, and can even reduce one’s credibility with subordinates if used excessively.

When used effectively, self-deprecating humor can also be beneficial in addressing criticism and resolving conflict that might negatively impact collaboration. Applying humor in such difficult situations has less to do with being funny and more to do with a leader’s ability to react to others with understanding and imagination.

Humor can also be utilized to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines, targets or crises. Social humor is best leveraged in these situations, not to make deadlines or challenges disappear, but to improve morale, to help individuals avoid feelings of isolation, and to increase the solidarity of purpose needed to overcome adversity. We recall a joke told by a regional CEO in a European-based telecoms equipment company to open an employee meeting: CEO: “Knock, knock.” Audience: “Who’s there?” CEO: “China!” The firm had recently lost some important contracts to Chinese competitors, so everybody in the room immediately understood the punch line. The CEO went on to speak about why there was a need for greater agility, alignment and collaboration.

Due to its tendency to trigger negative emotions, strong humor should be used sparingly or avoided altogether, and only ever directed at external targets where there is an urgent need to overcome complacency or strong internal inertia. During a difficult period for the company, the then CEO of Yahoo! Marissa Mayer was widely condemned for joking sarcastically at an employee gathering: “I’m not here to announce lay-offs (pause)…this week.” In years gone by, strong humor might have gone beyond sarcasm to involve humiliation, ridicule, sexist or even racist overtones but these kind of jokes, anecdotes and stories have no place in today’s world.

The Internet is a new frontier for all styles of humor, but leaders should carefully think through their personal social media strategy before tweeting photos of their belly button. While having a sense of fun is acceptable in high Power Distance Index (PDI) societies in which individuals with authority are expected to have feelings of high self-worth, in these societies people of high authority might be expected to maintain or even increase power distance. So in these societies the leader should be careful in using self-deprecating and social humor. Of course, this becomes complicated for leaders of truly multinational corporations – a tweet posted in good humor in the USA could be perceived as completely inappropriate in Japan.

Time and time again in our interactions with leaders in some of the world’s most successful and innovative companies we have been struck by a recurring experience – not only are these leaders intelligent, talented and forward-thinking, many of them are also very funny. And it is not just that these senior executives are able to deliver a flawless punchline at a cocktail reception or town hall event – they are able to leverage humor as a strategic tool to build a sense of community within their organizations.

May the farce be with you.

About the authors:
This post is by Jamie Anderson and Gabor George Burt. Jamie Anderson is Professor of

Strategic Management at Antwerp Management School, and Visiting Professor at INSEAD. He has been named a “management guru” in the Financial Times, and included on Business Strategy Review’s list of the world’s “top 25 management thinkers”. Gabor George Burt is a leading business transformationist and creator of the Slingshot Platform, enabling organizations to overstep perceived limitations, re-imagine market boundaries, and achieve sustained relevance.

Jamie Anderson’s TED Talk “What is Success, Really?”

George Gabor Burt’s TED Talk: “Beyond the Wall of Our Imagination.”