Problem-Led Leadership

| By TMA World

In our very connected organizations, a different type of leadership is made possible: Problem-Led Leadership.

In a recent HBR article (“What Kind of Leadership Works Best at Your Company?” March 19, 2018), Debora Ancona and Hal Gregersen share the results of a study of MIT-trained leaders. 

The MIT Hyperloop Team was recently awarded a student innovation competition.  ‘Hyperloop’ being the name given by Elon Musk to a revolutionary means of city-to-city transportation in which passengers are hurled at speeds exceeding 700 per hour through elevated tubes.  The team was pulled together by two MIT undergraduate engineers.  Members came from various disciplines including students from the Sloan School of Management.

Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that if the active companies founded by MIT graduates formed an independent nation, their revenues would place them between the ninth largest economy (Russia) and the tenth (India).  Something seems to be distinctive about MIT leaders.

MIT leaders seem to be “allergic” to the term “leader”.  It is associated more with those maneuvering for leadership roles (ambitious, self-promoting, political, power-hungry); individuals more interested in being perceived as rising stars rather than in helping people make progress toward goals.  Leadership at MIT is a kind of anti-leadership.  As the authors of the article say, “People here don’t follow leaders, they follow problems.”  Working the problem is always the focal point rather than the status or personality of the “leader”.

The leader at MIT identifies a compelling problem, often by reframing a question in a way that demands new thinking; a problem that attracts and inspires.

What MITers come to realize quickly is that they can’t do it alone, they must collaborate.  Solving hard, edgy problems won’t get done “with people who most resemble you.  They will be people who complement you.”  All MIT students build their capacity for teaming, as well as an appreciation for diversity.

What Distinguishes an MIT-Style Leader?

  1. Anti-Leadership Affect – they approach the traditional role of leader with reluctance and skepticism
  2. Passion for hard, edgy problems – identifying a wicked challenge, and getting others excited by it
  3. Deep expertise and broad working knowledge – they have “T-shaped” knowledge combining (often technological or scientific) expertise about the problem, with knowledge of other domains across which that expertise needs to contribute
  4. Stepping up and stepping out – belief that the best person to lead on any initiative (or phase of a project) is the one who understands the near-term objective the best.  He or she cedes control easily when it’s time to shift a group’s focus
  5. Low interest in trappings – devotes every brain cell to the work at hand, not the work environment 
  6. Distaste for office politics – most concerned with getting things done.  They often could use more political acumen
  7. Limited focus on teams’ social and emotional needs – time and energy should be spent on problem-solving.  They may discount the importance of leading with emotional intelligence
  8. High tolerance of team members’ idiosyncrasies – what matters is team member strengths to solving the problem, not that they look, act, or think alike
  9. Boredom with status quo operations – have passion for translating a brilliant strategy into an effective solution, not every day operations
  10. Hopelessly analytical bent – primary question is where’s the data?
  11. Most likely to be leading an entrepreneurial venture – for example, a skunkworks team within an organization or a startup based on latest technological breakthrough

Creativity and innovation play a key role in today’s economy.  Which of the above distinguishing features of problem-led leadership do you think your organization could benefit from the most?  Are there parts of the organization that could benefit the more than others? 


TMA World support the world’s biggest brands by developing the skills and capabilities needed to succeed in today’s workplace. Click here to view our success stories.

If your organization would like to develop a truly borderless workforce, we would love to hear from you. 

Interested in how introducing a cultural intelligence tool in your business could help to create a more borderless workforce? We’d love to show you our groundbreaking platform.