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Authentic leadership and digital transformation: Herminia Ibarra at DLD18

People struggle when they move up a leadership level – they find all sorts of reasons to do their old job and avoid the new one. It’s a subject that London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra has been studying for some time – and one she expands on usefully in her brilliant book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, which was deeply useful to me personally as a CEO.

This week I had the privilege of being able to meet Professor Ibarra and hear her speak at DLD18 this week in Munich.

One of the problems we struggle with, she says, is wanting to be authentic, but making the mistake of thinking this means acting the same way we have always done.

“People say they have to be true to themselves to be authentic. But which self? Being authentic is about self-determination, having agency, being willing to try new things, new ways of being.”

This reminds me of my favourite definition of the duty of leaders, laid out by the Warren Bennis in the 90s:

”It is the individual, operating at the peak of his or her powers, who will revive our organisations, by reinventing both self and them.”

You have to brave enough to explore who you could be, the selves you might need to draw on in order to be the leader your company needs.

Ibarra also invoked the concept of growth mindsets (I can learn and change) and fixed mindsets (I am good at some things and will never be good at others) as explored by Carol Dweck in Mindset.

She expanded on the importance of this willingness to try out different ways of being for leaders:

“It’s about being playful with your sense of self, a kind of design thinking with the self.”

It’s a kind of seeking mindset then, in which the individual doesn’t just believe that they can change but is actively engaged in exploring different ways of being.

It’s a crucial difference and one that matters deeply to leaders in the digital age. When organisations need to adapt constantly, so do the leaders – so, in fact, do most of its employees, but you have to start somewhere. We need to train our people, prepare them for a world of constant disruption and change – and the skills training organisations often default to is insufficient.

”[Preparing for digital transformation] is somewhat about technical skills, but it is more about emotional skills. Dealing with fear of change, of obsolescence.”

Fear makes people conservative, revert to old versions of themselves, old behaviours that are less likely to work in the face of radical change. So fear doesn’t just bolster inertia in organisations, it corrodes the ability of its people to even consider changing their own behaviours, a necessary prerequisite for adapting.

This connects with our work at Brilliant Noise around leadership in the digital age and our digital mindset model. Actually, it adds questions and ideas that I am keen to explore with our clients.

DLC18 has helpfully posted videos of all of its sessions – so here’s Herminina Ibarra’s if you’d like to hear more.

By Antony Mayfield

I'm Antony Mayfield - to find out more about me take a look at my LinkedIn profile (see the button on the home page). You can contact me by email at antony [dot] mayfield [at] gmail [dot] com.

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