I have the privilege of working in San Francisco as faculty member in the management discipline of a university that focuses primarily on business. Working in this location has provided a “front row seat” to the innovation and disruption that results when new businesses, most often led by driven entrepreneurs, apply their creativity to the design of their organizations. Often, one of the many hallmarks of these successful young entrepreneurs is the way they exercise leadership.
The success of so many of these start-ups has encouraged me to research the leadership styles of CEOs in successful, privately held companies in San Francisco and Silicon Valley for the last 6 months. The participants have provided important data on the way they think about leadership theory, they way they see themselves as leaders, their philosophy that drives the way they lead in their organizations, and what they actually do operationally to motivate, generate creativity, and exercise accountability.
The approach to leadership of many of these entrepreneurs has been nothing short of revolutionary. Why? Because the model often followed stands in stark contrast to the way leadership is “typically” practiced in many of our more traditional organizations where the use of position power, fear, and the power to reward and coerce are the levers of choice to get work accomplished. The impact this has on employee performance is nothing short of damaging and destructive. Furthermore, this style of leadership, expressed through the work of management, can undermine self-efficacy and can actually produce exactly what leadership does not want: diminished levels of morale leading to inadequate performance and increasing levels of employee disengagement.
Another reason why these findings are significant is that they call into question the viability of existing leadership styles that are built around the use of power, the inaccessibility and lack of visibility of the leader. All of these components including inappropriate uses of power, inaccessibility, and lack of visibility are rejected by these creative leaders who have chosen another leadership paradigm. It has been argued that the bubble that is Silicon Valley and San Francisco rewards those start-ups and the more mature businesses originally launched as small start-ups when they engage in “out of the box” and “on the edge” creativity and innovation. Though true, this innovation and creativity, unique to this area, should in no way be an excuse for not paying attention to this region’s emerging trends that are subtly rewriting the way leadership is exercised on a global scale.
The following are seven of the emerging themes, along with a brief description of each theme, that have emerged in my research of successful leaders in this very unique region.
- It is vital for leaders to be trustworthy and transparent. Attached to this is the
importance of being accessible and visible which sends the message that “I am fully
invested in this effort, I am available for conversation and support anytime, and I
will do what is needed to ensure you get what you need to be successful.”
Authenticity is the platform upon which all leadership is exercised:
- While there are exceptions to this rule, it is rare. Leaders want employees who want
to make a contribution and want to exercise creativity. In short, they want to make a
big difference. Expertise is important but can be developed. Education is important
but also can be acquired over time. But passion and creativity cannot be acquired or
developed. When you see it, grab it and then cultivate the other areas.
Hire for passion first and expertise second:
- Get out of the way and let the people you hire bring their best work to the table.
Over controlling and over monitoring creates employee disengagement as well as
suffocates and stifles the creative and inner entrepreneurial spark. Manage less
and lead more. Leading means supporting the success and uniqueness of others and
removing oneself as much as possible from the creative process of your employees.
Open the flood gates for individual creativity and innovation:
- This goes hand-in-hand with the above. Creating space for creativity whether
individual or team-based will lead to attempts and failures so plan on that. Build
that reality into your budgeting. Of course build boundaries too around the process
of failures on the way toward innovation. What is learned through failure increases
efficiencies and product or service development. People will be refined by these
experiences and the debriefs that follow.
Welcome failure and a good deal of it:
- Diversity of every sort is the sin qua non of progress. This is not a particular type
of diversity but diversity across the board. There are few rules in this area because
diversity is a fact, a reality, a way that organizations should be designed, and
the way business should be transacted, and, simply put, the way a global family
Diversity at every level:
- Everyone owns the process of culture creation. Everyone has a hand in defining the
norms and rules that will guide internal operations of the organization. The role
of a leader is to facilitate, not over control, this process. Innovation, creativity, and
passion are typically the three legs of the culture stool upon which all additional
cultural artifacts are connected.
Culture is everyone’s responsibility:
- For those damaged by experience in organizational systems that abused power, stifled creativity, and limited freedom of expression, many of these leaders see their businesses are places of refuge where employees can regain their worth and value. People are accepted, learning and innovation are ubiquitous at every level, and bringing out the best of who people are and what people have to offer is an ongoing priority.
The organization as a place of triage:
Clearly, every organization is different and no one template can be used to evaluate the way a particular organization functions. Yet, as you think about how the above seven themes might be applied in your organization or department, find the core substance in these areas that inform the thinking behind the actions of these leaders and integrate them into your own thinking and practice as a leader. There are no formulas or leadership algorithms here, only signs that point toward a general direction and an emerging future. The application is left to the good judgment of the leader given his or her unique context and environmental/ organizational constraints.
In my work as a consultant and management professor, I want to bring solutions and ideas that will change the way organizations work and the way people will find meaning and new levels of performance. As Bob Johansen (2009) observed, leaders must learn to operate in a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Those leaders willing to innovate and welcome new ways of interacting with people and creating an environment where innovation and people can thrive will find their way forward in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world.
Johansen, B. (2009). Leaders make the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
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