Birkinshaw: Leadership an unnatural act


I agree with the need for both bottom up and decisive initiative. Hence we need both support for cooperation as well as enforced collaboration. And conversations as well as processes. They key for me ...

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Adhocracy is key to transforming organisations to operate in a turbulent world, asserted London Business School's deputy dean of executive education speaking at an event

“Leadership is an unnatural act for many of us,” according to Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and deputy dean of executive education at London Business School.

Speaking at London Business School’s HR Strategy Forum on how to lead transformation in today’s digital world, he explained that “for most of us the skills we need to show as leaders require us to do things that don’t come naturally to us”.

Birkinshaw cited three current business-world paradoxes. These were that: the more we create the more we destroy; the more connected we become the more unpredictable the world gets; and as the amount of collective knowledge grows, we as individuals “become stupider”.

On the latter, he explained that “as the amount of knowledge in society grows, collectively we as individuals are slightly stupider than the day before” which is “why collaboration is more important”.

These disruptive threats and a less predictable future mean that organisations need to transform to operate in a turbulent world, said Birkinshaw. While it is tempting to “fight complexity with complexity”, instead organisations should “fight complexity with simplicity”.

He described the shift organisations are making from left to right – so from traditional bureaucracies (“privilege in position”), to meritocracies (“privilege in knowledge over position”), towards adhocracy (“privilege in action over knowledge or position”).

“Adhocracy is about deliberately stepping back and giving control to others,” he said. “But, as leaders, if there’s an issue, we want to take control. So we have to work very hard to step back.”

Birkinshaw pointed to research by Google which found that employees rated leaders most highly who were good coaches and who empowered the team rather than micromanaging. Technical skills ranked much further down the list.

However, leaders need to find balance in the way they lead people, he said: “Leaders have to do two very different things in this new-look organisation. On the one hand, a huge amount of the job is about empowering and enabling others and building a psychologically safe space.

“But if that was the only job of leaders, organisations would get stuck as sometimes we need to take decisive action,” he said, adding that sometimes waiting for group consensus means organisations are too slow to respond.

This means leaders must strike a balance between a “bottom up” style and using their “decisive initiative”.

“Adhocracy here is about three things: setting direction, enabling others and being decisive,” he said.

Despite “the trend being to the right”, Birkinshaw conceded that “traditional models of leadership are still relevant in pockets of the business world”.

Also speaking at the event was Stephanie Houston, director of talent acquisition, Europe, Israel and Australia, at WeWork. She explained how individuals from bureaucratic businesses can still be suited to working for innovative adhocratic start-ups such as WeWork.

She shared how she moved from the oil and gas industry, which “is quite red tape”, to WeWork where there is “more of a sense of trust and [she doesn't] have to worry about the red tape”.

So-called 'bureaucratic processes' are necessary in some parts of any organisation, however, she explained: “We can’t have a company full of entrepreneurs and only innovators, so we do need those people who can add in that structure. I say the word 'process' and people recoil. But we need process to get to the end goal.”

In her talent acquisition team this means having conversations with people in the business around doing things better, but not using the word 'process,' she explained.

“We know we have a process to follow and compliance comes in, but that’s all speech that the business doesn’t want or need to hear,” Houston said.


I agree with the need for both bottom up and decisive initiative. Hence we need both support for cooperation as well as enforced collaboration. And conversations as well as processes. They key for me is the development of both of these sides, not the denial of either one. Eg it's going to be really hard to develop effective processes when the organisational norms don't even allow you to refer to the fact that you have processes to follow! And it's going to be impossible to have great conversations if leaders think they can make all the decisions.

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