Why Being a CEO Today Means Something Different Than It Once Did
This piece originally appeared on Darden School of Business—Ideas to Action.
In a previous article, I introduced the 4 Es Model of Leadership (Engage, Embrace, Excel and Enable) as the leadership principles that would facilitate the highest levels of human performance in the Smart Machine Age (SMA). In the SMA, human beings will be needed to do those tasks that technology won’t be able to do well. For knowledge workers, that will be critical, creative and innovative thinking and high emotional engagement with other humans. Those skills do not come easily or naturally to us and generally require that we be in the right kind of work environment, specifically one that is people-centric and values humility; empathy; trust; candor; permission to speak freely; permission to fail within defined financial risk parameters; psychological safety; the devaluation of ego, hierarchy and elitism; and the mitigation of fear.
What type of leader is needed in that kind of environment? It won’t be a command-and-control, hierarchical leader. It won’t be an elitist leader who has a big ego and believes he or she “knows,” who always has to be right. It won’t be a leader who believes individualistic social Darwinism is a fundamental rule of corporate life. And it won’t be a leader who listens poorly, who is better at telling than asking, who devalues differences or who views collaboration as a competition.
It will be those leaders who can create and sustain a work environment that enables the highest levels of human performance in concert with smart technology. They will be the leaders who best role model the 4 Es:
- Engage the world as a lifelong learner with a quiet ego.
Technology will become an integral part of every business function. Artificial intelligence, big data, exponentially increased computer processing power, global connectivity and the Internet of Things will challenge human thinking and our abilities to constantly adapt, innovate and thrive in complex system environments. How does one optimize continuous learning and innovation? It starts with being a lifelong learner who engages the world with an open, curious mind and a quiet ego.
Lifelong learning requires one to constantly stress test one’s mental models and to be wary of insularity, complacency and overconfidence. Engaging with the world and others in this manner requires that we tamp down our “me” lens of the world. We have to accept the science of adult learning that says that we are suboptimal learners by our nature because of our reflexive cognitive inclinations — we perceive the world and filter information in a manner that either confirms our existing mental models or affirms our views about ourselves.
We also have to tamp down our emotional defensiveness. A quiet ego can minimize that self-absorption and our emotional deny, defend and deflect reflexes. That makes it it easier for us to be open-minded, be mindful, reflectively listen to others, connect and engage emotionally with others, and effectively collaborate. And a quiet ego enables critical and innovative thinking because it reduces our tendency to cling to what we think we know, making it more likely that we will take into consideration different views and be open to modifying our mental models — this is learning. In the SMA, the “big ego” will need to be replaced by a “quiet ego,” and “knowing” will need to replaced by “being good at not knowing” and at learning.
- Embrace uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity like a courageous scientist.
The pace of technological change will likely accelerate and the magnitude of the change will at various points become exponential. We will likely see that happen in the near future with artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, nanotechnology, bio- and genetic engineering, and robotics. In that environment, traditional approaches to making strategy and managing organizations will become obsolete. The comfort of “knowing” will be fleeting. Yearning for stability and predictability will in many cases be futile. Being inwardly focused will in many cases be a reason to “short your stock.”
How does one flourish in these types of environments? Just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors did: by having the courage to enter the wild and to iteratively learn, while being wary of big risks. The oldest iterative learning process is the scientific method. Good scientists are trained to embrace the unknown and to acknowledge the magnitude of their ignorance; to learn by hypothesis testing; to look for disconfirming data; and to follow the facts wherever they go. Good scientists are data-driven decision-makers who never lose their awe and respect for the fact that the universe does not revolve around them (the mediocrity principle). In the SMA, business leaders would be well-served thinking and acting more like courageous scientists.
- Excel at managing self and “otherness.”
Leaders of the future will be different than many leaders of today. They will be leaders with high emotional intelligence who embrace and enable “otherness” — a focus on connecting, relating and emotionally engaging with other stakeholders in the pursuit of a meaningful, purposeful organizational mission.
To excel at the tasks that technology can’t do well will be beyond the capabilities of any one person — it will be a team activity. We need others to open our minds and push us past our biases in order for us to critically think at our highest levels. We need people different from us to help us optimize innovation. As a result, we will need to be the kind of people that others trust and want to help.
To excel at “otherness” requires us to excel at managing self, which means managing daily our thinking, emotions and behaviors, as well as taming our ego and fears. Exceling at managing self has two parts: (1) increasing the quantity and the quality of the behaviors necessary to optimize thinking, collaborating and learning and (2) minimizing the behaviors that limit or impede that result. Excelling at managing self requires us to realistically assess our cognitive and emotional behavioral strengths and weaknesses and use the science of “deliberate practice” to engage in continuous behavioral self-improvement. We each will have to train like a champion to develop our cognitive and emotional muscles.
Striving to be our best self in every human interaction requires self-discipline, self-awareness and self-management. Only then can we achieve the highest levels of human performance. In the SMA, the best teams will win. We will all need “otherness” because the likelihood that any one of us is another Einstein is small.
- Enable the highest levels of human development and performance.
In the SMA, integrating the highest levels of human performance with the best technology will be a strategic imperative. In fact, the strategic differentiator in many industries will be the human component because, for example, AI technology will be readily available to all businesses at a low cost via Cloud services. In those cases, the organizations with the best human thinkers, listeners, collaborators and learners will have a competitive advantage. That will require a leadership and talent model that is based on human development, and that means that the human resource function must be transformed into a human development function. SMA leaders will be enablers of high performance and role models for striving daily to live the mindsets, values and behaviors that lead to human excellence. SMA leaders will lead by example in the pursuit of human excellence. Otherwise, why would anyone want to follow them?
Edward D. Hess is a top authority on high-performance businesses, with a focus on organic growth and innovation strategies, systems and processes, and servant leadership.