In Conversation with Gianpiero Petriglieri

In Conversation with Gianpiero Petriglieri

Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor INSEAD, shares his views on leadership, adult development and experiential learning.

“I have always had a passion for understanding and assisting the unfolding of human lives in social contexts.”

“People don’t necessarily expect or even desire to have their whole career in the same organization or even country. That makes work more precarious. At the same time, people want work to be an expression of who they are, of their true selves, whatever that means. That makes work more personal.”

What is particularly striking about your résumé is the move from psychiatry into management academia. It seems an unusual leap.

Lots of people ask me that: Why spend 10 years training, do all this work, and then change career? But personally I don’t feel I have changed direction that much.

I have always had a passion for understanding and assisting the unfolding of human lives in social contexts. At the broadest level, all my work—whether it is research, writing, teaching, coaching, consulting, and in the past my practice as a psychotherapist—has gravitated around two endeavors. The first is to examine how people’s history and aspirations, along with the dynamics of the groups and social systems they are in, affect the way they think, feel, and act in personal and professional roles. I am interested in how those forces, consciously and unconsciously, shape human being as well as human becoming. The second is to help people take their experience seriously without, however, taking it too literally so that they can make new meaning out of their experience and develop more options for dealing with it.

When I trained in psychiatry, I was very interested in groups. In Italy there’s a long tradition of social psychiatry. It is one of the world centers for systemic family therapy, for example. I had witnessed my dad’s work in a psychiatric treatment community growing up, and there was a lot of focus on the importance of communities in my own training, on how families, social groups, work groups, and organizations contribute to making individuals more or less sane, how they help us thrive or keep us struggling. That stayed with me.

Through my interest in groups I got to meet Jack Wood, a professor at IMD in Lausanne who became a mentor, close friend, colleague, and coauthor and introduced me to the British roots of systemic clinical work applied to management and organizations. The United Kingdom has a long and lively tradition of people who bridge the world of psychoanalysis and the organizational world, both at the Tavistock Clinic and at the Tavistock Institute.

Toward the end of my residency, I enrolled in a two-year program at the Tavistock to study organizational consultation and also started my own personal analysis. Both were instrumental in my transition out of Italian psychiatry and into an uncertain and attractive future. I also became more involved in interpersonal approaches to clinical and organizational work, such as transactional analysis and the work of the NTL Institute in the United States.

After I finished my residency, I worked at IMD as a coach and consultant in leadership development programs and as a psychotherapist within the context of their MBA program. Meanwhile, I read, studied, wrote, trained more, and became familiar with the promise and perils of being “in between,” a state that continues to fascinate and puzzle me to this day.

Those years were formative. I was working at the boundary between clinical practice and leadership development, and that made me aware of the need to look at, write about, and practice leadership development with more depth and breadth, focusing both on the richness of what we bring to work every day and on the complexity of the organizations and communities in which we work.

In 2004 I was invited to design and teach the leadership course in the MBA program at Copenhagen Business School, where I began to experiment with bringing into the classroom some of those personal and systemic concerns. My course included both cases and a large experiential component, and its success was a big hint that I was becoming a management professor, if not a traditional one. INSEAD took an interest in me a couple of years later. I was delighted, and I had no idea of how much it would stretch and deepen and support my work since it became my professional home.

That was my trajectory so far. My interest in helping people be more effective and bring more of themselves into the workplace has remained constant. I may have changed context, but the things that make me curious or trouble me remain largely the same. People laugh when I make the joke that training in psychiatry is a great foundation for working in a business school, especially these days, when work is so personal and confusing. But it is only half a joke.

Think of the place of work in contemporary civilization. It’s very central. Work organizations and businesses occupy a place in the popular imagination similar to what the church or the military did historically. Consider the figures people look up to and celebrate or blame. Who are they? CEOs and entrepreneurs. In many ways they have become beacons of virtue. We look up to them not just as exemplars of how to do well but also to point toward how to live a good life.

I’m interested in the way organizations and business schools in general, and whatever goes under the banner of leadership development in particular, function as what Jennifer Petriglieri and I have called “identity workspaces.” We look at organizations not just in terms of what they make individuals do but also in terms of who they make people become.

This function has always been there. Once you would go and work for IBM, General Motors, or General Electric, and if you did well, that gave you a solid identity and a trajectory into the future, often stretching over your whole work life. These days, however, organizations and careers have changed profoundly, and that trajectory cannot be taken for granted.

Organizations are still important to many people; don’t get me wrong. There is often a profound commitment, but there isn’t necessarily an expectation of loyalty. In today’s workplace two kinds of boundaries have become less clear. The first is the boundary between organizations and sectors. People move around more than they used to. The second is the boundary between what is personal and what is professional.

People don’t necessarily expect or even desire to have their whole career in the same organization or even country. That makes work more precarious. At the same time, people want work to be an expression of who they are, of their true selves, whatever that means. That makes work more personal.

This decoupling of commitment and loyalty and this mixture of precariousness and personalization are phenomena that require us to rethink not just the relationship between organizations and individuals but also the meaning of work, leadership, and leadership development.

What does it take to have successful and meaningful careers in this context? What does it mean to lead? What does it take to lead well? And how do we help aspiring leaders do it? All my writing and teaching revolves around these questions.

How do you research these topics?
I’m a qualitative researcher. I talk to people, I spend time with them, and I try to make sense of their experience: how their inner world shapes and is shaped by their outer world.

For example, Jennifer, Jack, and I did a large study following a cohort going through an intense MBA program. We looked at their development not from the perspective of what kind of jobs they got or what they learned or didn’t learn but with a focus on their identity—how their sense of who they were, where they came from, and what they wanted was affected by their business school experience.

One of the things we unearthed was the process these managers went through to personalize their learning—how they employed the MBA to bring who they were closer to what they did. That study resonated with many. It even won an award as the “most important contribution to graduate management education” from the Academy of Management. I think it was because more and more people hope that their work will foster their personal development, help them thrive and grow, not just get things done and make a living.

Another thing we found was that managers who no longer rely on their employing organizations to provide them with a career trajectory for life often use leadership development programs as a way to make themselves more portable, to access and equip themselves for the kinds of uncertain and mobile careers that are very fashionable these days.

This ties in with a study I am working on with Isabelle Solal that is focused on what we call “nomadic professionals.” These are individuals whose mobility often affords them valuable learning and opportunities to access leadership positions. Precisely because of their flexibility and mobility, however, these professionals’ history, mindset, and experiences are often divorced from those of people who don’t have the opportunity to move around as much.

What we have now is a nomadic leadership elite.
Yes, Richard Sennett, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, has written a lot about it. He says, Look, it’s a small minority, but it’s a minority that has profound cultural influence because they are people who are celebrated and visible, so they have enormous access to opportunity.

I am fascinated by this shift because for millennia, nomads certainly weren’t elite in any way, shape, or form. In fact people who moved around a lot were considered to be questionable, unacceptable, dangerous.

Isn’t that’s why we have trouble trusting people who are part of this elite, because they travel constantly?
That’s the paradox that I’m interested in. On one hand we keep telling people to move around and gather experiences because that’s the only way you’re going to get access to senior roles. But the kinds of prescriptions we’re offering to become a leader are possibly putting you at risk when you are a leader. They make you qualified but not necessarily trusted to lead. That’s the promise and peril of this zeitgeist.

Given that this elite is leading organizations, why should people feel loyalty to organizations?
There’s data showing that the psychological contract between people and organizations has shifted dramatically from a relational one based on mutual commitment to a more transactional one based on an exchange of services for rewards. We’re now past the generation that felt betrayed by that shift, and we have a generation that has adapted to it, saying, Well, if organizations are not prepared to show me any loyalty, why should I?

At a psychological level the chance to experience liberation in this very uncertain labor market is perhaps the biggest privilege you can have, as opposed to the vast majority of people who experience profound anxiety because they don’t know how stable their jobs are or are likely to be.

Yes. If you consider that to be liberation.
Well, I think the people who can experience it as liberation are the fortunate ones, but they aren’t the majority.

Another one of my interests has to do with our preoccupation with meaningful work. It’s very hard to find meaning in the sense that people talk about it, as an almost romantic experience of fusion with your work. Many of us desire this meaningful employment, and at the same time we don’t want the potential flip side, which is that you can be consumed.

In my research and my work with executives, however, I have found that the people who experience the most meaning at work are both liberated and committed. Their commitments don’t tie them up but push them to be more themselves, to take more risk, to stay open. If you go back to psychology, it’s a bit like love. Love doesn’t always constrain you. Sometimes it brings you to be more who you are than you would be if you weren’t with the person you love.

An increasing number of organizations say, join us because we’d like you to be more than you could be on your own. I’m interested in what it takes to make good on that promise. I don’t believe it is just marketing. There is a real demand on the part of individuals, and it’s only going to get larger as a new generation enters the workforce that has been raised with the idea of following their dreams.

Have people now got unrealistic expectations? Will they ultimately be disappointed?
Life is full of disappointments. The question is, what kind? A great quality of mental health comes from having survived disappointment with some learning but without having had your soul crushed. If we can help people engage with their ambitions and their ideals and then learn to suffer disappointment without losing hope, I think we’re going to have very good leaders.

I don’t think anyone can lead in an inspiring way if he or she is a realist. There has to be an element of idealism, of wishing and uncompromising hope. At the same time, what you don’t want is leaders who, because of their burning ambition and idealism, can’t deal with setbacks or aren’t able to tolerate questioning or to question themselves. They are the most dangerous, the most fundamentalist leaders.

I do a lot of work with senior executives, and I always ask, How many of you stress because things aren’t going in the direction you really wish them to go or aren’t going there fast enough for you? And all of them raise their hands. Then I ask, How many of you beat yourself up for it, stand in front of the mirror and say maybe that’s because I’m not as good a leader as I should be? And all raise their hands again.

We keep telling people that they can lead and be happy, but the reality of leadership is often different. Acknowledging the tension built into leadership may help get us leaders who are more able to accept limitations without losing aspiration.

Is there a crisis of leadership? There’s always the slight suspicion that every generation throughout the ages has said there’s a crisis of leadership.
I don’t think there’s any generation that hasn’t thought that the way people led in the previous generation was strange and inadequate.

I use the metaphor of a bus. There’s always been at some point for every generation a struggle for the steering wheel and new generations saying, Okay, now I want to drive the bus, and the way you’re driving it isn’t the way I think it should be driven, and where you’re taking us isn’t where we should be going. Today, however, what you see is lots of people questioning whether we should be on the bus, trying to get off the bus altogether, and trying to find new means of transportation, metaphorically speaking. We are not just questioning current leaders; we are questioning the ability of current institutions to produce and enable good leadership and good followership.

But we’ve had over 50 years of leadership development programs.
That’s a great fascination of mine. Leadership development is one of very few industries that can chastise its own product and continue producing it! I think the issue, frankly, is that leadership development has not changed as much as the world of work has.

Look at the way we have defined leadership for the last 30 years as the exercise of influence, as an activity, as something that the leader does to others. We haven’t paid enough attention to leading as something that the leader does on behalf of others. We have looked much more at one side of the leadership relationship, which is from the leader to the follower, and we’ve neglected the other side, from the follower to the leader. Leadership development has a long history that goes back to World War II and military and homogeneous organizations. In that kind of organization, developing leaders means helping people rise up, distinguish themselves.

A lot of leadership development is still designed with this implicit goal in mind. But today, work and organizations are very different, as we were saying earlier. They aren’t homogeneous. They are precarious; they are very personal. Therefore, leadership development can’t be focused on rising up and distinguishing yourself. It has to be reoriented toward a different goal, that is, keeping people connected to themselves and others—the two connections we need for a shared purpose and direction to emerge.

This is why in my leadership development programs, where I apply these ideas and research, we focus not only on developing leaders—on helping executives get the perspectives, skills, and courage they need to lead—but on developing leadership communities as well, that is, groups of leaders who take joint ownership and responsibility for their organizations’ results, structure, and culture.

Leadership communities, of course, are not always inside one organization. For many executives, the people they trust and rely on are actually peers in different organizations or in different sectors. What does it mean for an organization that these leaders are influenced by a community that is actually outside the organization? Usually we’re very positive about this because we look at how these external ties open their minds, keep them connected, and create networks and opportunities for the company.

But there’s a dark side again. These bonds make those leaders slightly questionable. If I’m a follower, I may be tempted to ask, Where do your commitments lie? Do they lie with me or do they lie with this group that seems to be very important to you? And so what happens is that by cultivating the outside connections leaders need to be effective, they also make it a little harder to gather trust. And as a leader if you don’t have trust, you have nothing.

The conversation is moving toward your definition of leadership.
I do take issue with this idea of leadership as the ability to get others to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise have done. That’s a traditional definition. And I think we’d be a lot better off with a definition of leadership as having the courage, commitment, ability, and trust to articulate, embody, and help realize the story of possibility for a group of people at a point in time. That is closer to what leaders really do. First you need to have the courage to do something. You need commitment. You can’t do it just for a day or two. You do need some skills, but you also need to be trusted. It is something that comes from within and is also grounded in some group at a certain point in time. If you want to be “a leader,” you are no one’s leader.

We know from history that people forgive leaders for murder but don’t forgive them for inconsistency. The classic disappointment with charismatic leaders is that they articulate their vision so beautifully and embody it with such great purity that people think some profound transformation is going to happen. Then the realization inevitably meets constraints, and what happens is that people blame the leader.

Sometimes there’s a thin line between what leaders promise and the promise that people see in their leaders. That’s a very beautiful word in the English language that someone is promising, which can really mean both things, which is that they are promising something but we see promise in them.

For me, the view of leadership as a position and a possession—as a job or a set of skills—is quite dangerous because it doesn’t prepare people for the complexity, for the depth, and for the reality of leadership. It reduces it to a title or a checklist. I’m not saying you don’t need all of that, but there’s a lot more to leadership than that.

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