In Conversation with Linda Hill

In Conversation with Linda Hill

Proving intellectual leadership on the often fraught subject of leadership and its relationship to innovation is Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

“What I’ve always been interested in is, how do you create organizations that allow people to fulfill their ambitions? The only organizations I knew were educational ones.”

“Harvard Business School has been a fabulous platform for me, letting me be able to move around and do the things I wanted to do, from being on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and learning about how you create organizations to come up with an AIDS vaccine, to trying to help a businessperson figure out something.”

How do you provide the best leadership for innovation? Providing intellectual leadership on this often tortured subject is Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is the coauthor, with Kent Lineback, of Being the Boss and author of Becoming a Manager. More recently, her research (along with Greg Brandeau and Emily Stecker Truelove) has looked at exceptional leaders of innovation in a wide range of industries—from IT to law to design—throughout the world. This resulted in the bestselling book Collective Genius.

Consistently ranked as one of the world’s leading management thinkers and shortlisted for the 2015 Thinkers50 Innovation award, Hill describes herself as an ethnographer. She talked with Thinkers50 co-founder Stuart Crainer

What is the focus of your research?
I study three things: how people learn to lead, how people lead innovation, and implementing global strategies. I’ve always worked on all three of those to some extent, but the one that means the most to me is leading innovation.

Because of that, one of our former deans asked me to do a couple of things. Given that our mission is to educate leaders to make a difference in the world, he asked me to help create our first required course on leadership. I led the team. Second, he asked me to help develop our e-learning strategy. This was at the end of the 1990s, so he was really quite a visionary in understanding that education was going to go down that route, that we needed to be able to use the Internet to deliver educational experiences, both here on campus and also, more important, to people around the world. That was great for me.

Your work is notably international.

I am usually out of the country about twice a month, certainly when I’m not teaching. My father was in the military, and so I went to high school in Bangkok and grew up thinking about the world. I went to India for the first time when I was 14, and I’ve always had this sense of wanting to be out and about and feeling that there are lots of interesting people in the world.

I’m a business professor because I fundamentally am interested in economic development. My PhD is in behavioral sciences, which is an interdisciplinary degree, but I’m actually more of a sociologist than a psychologist.

My parents come from modest backgrounds, and I didn’t really know about business per se. My relatives were coal miners or worked on the factory floor, so I didn’t really know about business.

What I’ve always been interested in is, how do you create organizations that allow people to fulfill their ambitions? The only organizations I knew were educational ones. I studied learning theory in college and then went to the University of Chicago, where I met Jacob Getzels, who is considered to be the father of research on creativity.

Actually, the first research project I ever did was a study on creativity and brainstorming as a freshman at Bryn Mawr College.

So, all my life I’ve been interested in creativity. Mr. Getzels [coauthor of Creativity and Intelligence in 1962], as we called him, was one of the founders of creativity research. He was very interested in how you design educational institutions that allow people to be creative. I worked on his projects, and one of them involved studying artists at the Art Institute of Chicago to see who was the most creative and why, and how the organizational setting affected their creativity.

At that time, creativity wasn’t really taken seriously or looked at.
Mr. Getzels used to tell me, “Any theory you have, Linda, if it’s a good theory, it will help people solve a practical problem.” So he helped me understand that there was really no difference between rigor and relevance. You couldn’t be relevant without being rigorous, and how could you be rigorous about something that wasn’t relevant, that wouldn’t solve a problem?

I was interested in wicked social problems, and how people could, by being creative, help solve those problems. So I’ve always gone between business and other sectors because I’m really interested in economic development and how you help improve people’s lives and livelihoods. Harvard Business School has been a fabulous platform for me, letting me be able to move around and do the things I wanted to do, from being on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and learning about how you create organizations to come up with an AIDS vaccine, to trying to help a businessperson figure out something.

And all of this leads to your current work.

Yes. Greg Brandeau, the former chief technology officer of Pixar, Emily Stecker Truelove, and I have spent six years traveling the world, studying 16 leaders who created teams at organizations that were able to routinely innovate.

In a way, this project started when I was asked to write a piece on what I thought leadership would look like in the twenty-first century. I had been the faculty chair of a required course on leadership for nine years or so, and I had become concerned that we might not be developing the kind of leaders we need.

I was spending a fair amount of time in South Africa and had the privilege of meeting some people who had been in prison with Nelson Mandela, and then I met Mandela himself. I wrote about Nelson Mandela and his notions of leadership.

Then I met someone who was running Google’s infrastructure group. There was an interesting connection between what it means to lead a revolution and what it means to lead a major innovation. These people who were running these very innovative groups thought about leadership in the same way.

Mandela said that a leader is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock. People follow, not realizing that they are being directed from behind. And people leading innovative groups say much the same thing: it’s not about me saying, “This is where we need to go, and you follow me,” and me inspiring you to follow me, because fundamentally, I don’t know the answer. I don’t know where we’re going. So that’s not what leadership is about. It’s about creating these teams or groups where people are willing and able to do innovative problem solving together, and so we’re trying to provide an integrated model for thinking about that.

What really struck me is that no one really writes about what leaders do and how they think about leadership when innovation is their primary concern.

Leadership really began to be seriously studied at business schools only at the beginning of the 1990s.

Yes. People ended up thinking that leadership is about being visionary. But when you’re talking about innovation, that whole charismatic visionary thing is a problem. Most innovations are the result of collaborative efforts, discovery-driven learning, and more integrated decision making. The tasks, roles, and responsibilities of leaders and followers are very different when you really think about innovation as your goal, about discovering something that doesn’t exist at the moment, about solving problems.

One of the things you always hear about leadership is that despite all the executive programs, all the training, and all the books, there’s a shortage of leaders. And similarly with innovation; despite all the books on and study of innovation, it remains largely a mystery to most organizations. 

Yes. I think that is because people don’t really understand the connection between leadership, what leaders think they’re supposed to be doing, and what it actually takes to build an organization that can be innovative. They’re disconnected disciplines. I don’t think we have much insight into what an individual leader should be doing or thinking about, or how people should think about what the role of that leader should be if she wants to be innovative.

Everybody has a slice of genius in his organization. How do you combine those slices of genius in integrated ways to come up with solutions to problems? Some people would say, you don’t want that many geniuses, because then there’s the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen problem. Well, there are organizations that have figured out how you can have lots of cooks in the kitchen and still have them cook an absolutely fabulous meal.

Pixar has been a very successful studio, financially, artistically, and technologically, and that really goes back to how the people there think about leadership. No place is perfect, but Pixar has a certain way of thinking about what it’s up to and what leadership is about that has allowed it to create a community culture with the capabilities that are essential for innovative problem solving.

What surprised you along the way with the research?
Well, there were two things. The first big one was that the fields of leadership and innovation were so separate, so very siloed.

The other was that when we first went through the data, we picked up themes about the norms in the organizations, about how you’re supposed to interact with people or how you’re supposed to treat people. What we didn’t pick up on until we began to look a little bit more at the capabilities of these organizations was that there were also norms about how you’re supposed to think about a problem. So that was a surprise. As we tried to explain what we were seeing in certain settings, we said, “This isn’t about how you interact with people; this is really about how you frame and solve problems.” Because these organizations have some norms about how you’re supposed to think about problems, and that’s one of the things that allows them to get through the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen problem.

In many ways, it seems that we have preferred a simple explanation of how leading innovation works rather than the complex reality.

I think that people like simple, relatively speaking. Things need to be simpler as opposed to more complex, and this led to the worshipping of a myth about how innovation happens. Albert Einstein did not work alone and have an aha experience. Innovation is collaborative. Howard Gardner talks about the social process and the environment that affects creativity.

I think leading change is different from leading innovation. So there’s not one right way to lead in all circumstances, and a lot of the work on leadership versus management came from organizations that were failing suddenly and had to be revived and turned around. Change is not exactly the same as innovation. They’re somewhat different issues.

How does this work relate to your book Being the Boss?
In Being the Boss, the second imperative was managing your network. Many people, when they think about leadership, think only about managing people over whom they have formal authority. But in today’s organization, you also need to think about managing people that you don’t have formal authority over.

It came from me talking to a lot of my former students and executives I worked with and seeing their common missteps. Why weren’t they realizing their potential, and why weren’t they powerful? They weren’t thinking about leadership in a way that helped them really address what they needed to—that it’s about yourself, your network, and your team.

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