Author Digs Deep to Find Top Leaders

By Staff Report

Jun. 19, 2008

Linda A. Hill
Master Series
1:45 p.m.

For the past two years Linda A. Hill has traveled thousands of miles around the globe studying innovative managers and the roles they play in the success of their companies. This means going deeper into organizations than the CEO level. And so most of her subjects aren’t household names. “We’re trying not to simply write about CEOs,” Hill says. “We’re also looking at people in the midst of organizations.”

    Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior Area at the Harvard Business School, has been collaborating on a book on the subject of business innovation with Greg Brandeau, the senior vice president of technology at Pixar, and Emily Stecker, her research assistant. She figures it should be ready for publication by year’s end.

    With a working title of Leadership as Collective Genius, Hill’s book looks at 12 company leaders worldwide who have fostered innovation at their companies. She’ll talk about what those successful business leaders do on a daily basis during her Masters Series session.

    Not all the leaders are in the U.S. and Europe.

    “I wanted to make sure we have [cited] leaders from around the world,” Hill says, “to show we have a global perspective.”

    One leads an Islamic bank in Dubai. Another, Brandeau, manages technology at Pixar. Another runs India-based HCL Technologies, a notably innovative high-technology outsourcing company. Others include the architect of eBay’s success and the successful leader of IBM’s investment strategies to help underdeveloped countries.

    What Hill has learned is that the most successful business leaders call upon the various “slices of genius” among their employees. The goal, she says, is to “unleash and harness the creative talents of a diverse group.” Doing this well is a leadership style she learned from Nelson Mandela: “leading from behind.”She cites it in a passage from Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, in which Mandela recalls how a leader of his tribe talked about the talent to lead:

    “A leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

    The successful business leaders she has studied, she adds, “Don’t all have the same style. But they’re fundamentally more comfortable leading from behind, rather than leading from the front.” They let their specialists do their jobs. And that means leaders “have to get out of the way,” Hill says.

    Knowing that style, she adds, is key to identifying leadership traits among those in the business world, which has been dominated by the “leading from the front” model. People who have the traits to lead innovative efforts are often overlooked, she says, because they don’t fit the stereotypical front-and-center boss.

    One aspect of innovative leadership, she adds, is “amplifying differences rather than minimizing them” among underlings. “Once you unleash people’s talents, you have to harness it to serve the collective good,” Hill says. “A lot of companies never unleash people’s talent.”

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