Tuesday, April 23, 2024
Leadership is not a static trait but a dynamic state.

“Leadership is not a static trait—it is a dynamic state,” declares Hitendra Wadhwa in his articleLeading in the Flow of Workwhich appears as part of the spotlight feature, "The Leadership Mindset", in the Harvard Business Review January-February 2024. He offers a critically important insight especially at a time when disruption and disorientation seem to be ever present and the need for effective leadership even more pressing.  

However, much of the scholarship on leadership today tends more towards theory and “miss[es] something that makes or breaks leaders—something that’s much harder to teach. It’s how they react in real time to events they can’t anticipate,” acknowledges Nitin Nohria, in Leaders Must React, in that same edition of HBR. Leadership can be defined as much by how well people respond to unfolding events as how good they are at driving an agenda. In the end, it is “fundamentally about unleashing potential: both your own and that of the people who follow you,” declares Ryan Quinn et. al in their accompanying article, Why Real-Time Leadership Is So Hard

While reading these articles I was struck by how the leadership models and suggestions outlined in them resonate with the insights offered in our latest book, Transforming the Business of Government: Insights on Resilience, Innovation, and Performance. We recognize that government leaders continue to face the unforgiving realities of disruption and uncertainty that go to the core of effective governance and leadership, testing the very form, structure, and capacity required to meet and overcome such challenges. The book, which I co-edited with Dan Chenok, explores how best government agencies can prepare, address, and overcome the disruptive inevitabilities of “future shocks”—those increasingly common and severe events that have effects within and across nations. In this blog, I want to highlight some of the key insights outlined in these HBR articles that can help government executives more effectively lead through the unexpected. 

Leadership is a Dynamic and Context Matters

For Wadhwa, leadership is a state to be activated rather than a trait to be acquired and he offers some compelling evidence for reframing leadership in this matter. His model of leadership derived from insights extracted from a repository of more “than 1,000 moments of transformative leadership, capturing instances when individuals notably exceeded expectations in critical situations.” He posits that shifting the emphasis from “learning on the sidelines to leading in the moment [that] executives can achieve real breakthroughs.”  He describes qualities of exemplary leadership and argued that leaders can embody them by tapping into their inner core—the space of highest potential within them – “a state of peak performance in which we’re calmly aware of our inner and outer conditions and able to adapt our behavior as needed.” 

He details high level findings from a cross-organizational study spanning diverse industries, roles, and levels, more than 100 executives who used Wadhwa’s concept of “leadership-in-flow”. These leaders saw their ability to achieve successful outcomes—measured by whether they attained their performance goals—rise by an average of 135% within six weeks. “Our findings reveal that people have an innate capacity for exemplary leadership far beyond what many realize,” explains, Wadhwa.  Being “centered”—calm, attuned, and open—is integral to achieving such high performance.  How exactly do you activate your inner core? In this article, for the first time, Wadhwa introduces a playbook of quick actions people can use to tap into it and unlock peak performance under real-time pressure—precisely when it matters the most.

Context Matters Most. The personality and behavior of someone will change with the context that person is in, the thoughts and feelings that individual is experiencing, and who else is present. Someone may be extroverted in one situation, introverted in another: agreeable in one, disagreeable in another. That’s why leadership is not a static trait—it is a dynamic state.  

Understanding that context matters most will help leaders more effectively apply the insights found in our book, Transforming the Business of Government: Insights on Resiliency, Innovation, and Performance. Whether you are a government leader facing challenges in emergency preparedness, cybersecurity, supply chain security, emerging technologies, or program performance, recognizing that your team may include individuals who have yet to show their capacity to lead may help you better navigate these challenges, turning them into opportunities for team members to shine. Leaders today must tap into every resource at their disposal, and that most assuredly includes their team because many of the challenges faced today transcend the ability of one person or organization to solve. For example, disasters are complex and crosscutting by nature. They have no respect for geographic, jurisdictional, political, or organizational boundaries. Emer­gency management should follow suit. Preparedness and response cannot be the sole responsibility of one sector, one program, one agency, or one level of government. Rather, the key to success—and the root cause of many failures when absent—is the strength of networks. 

Mission FirstWadhwa points out that when we’re emotionally upset—we tend to underperform but when we’re “centered”—calm, attuned, and open—we’re more likely to achieve high performance. He tells his readers that this happens when they’re connected to their inner core -- transcending ego, attachments, insecurities, impulses, and everyday habits. One can infer from this perspective that leaders who take the time to center themselves and approach the unexpected in a calm and engaged matter will perform better and act in ways that best serves their mission.  

Part II of our book focuses on the key capabilities government leaders need to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to the unexpected. In many instances, responding to unexpected events requires leaders to collaborate across sectors with differing values, legal frameworks, operating models, and accountability mechanisms and this is not easy. This necessitates leaders to transcend their ego, work across established silos, and find ways to put their mission first. Being centered, focused, and acting with strategic intent as described by Wadhwa can assist leaders in doing just that. 

Obstacles to Achieving High Performance. Wadhwa identifies a number of obstacles that can prevent leaders from achieving this state: 

  1. They often walk into pivotal moments feeling stressed—either about other things going on in their lives or about the very situation they’re confronting. 
  2. They simply don’t see the greater possibilities their situation offers—to build trust, resolve conflict, inspire a beaten-down team, and so on. 
  3. Once they’re in a situation they react in habitual, fixed ways instead of observing the dynamics among people and responding agilely. 
  4. They focus all their preparation for key events on functional and technical details while paying little to no heed to the human dimension—to adapting themselves to the needs and styles of the people in the room.

His concept of leadership-in-flow is designed to overcome these obstacles and the rest of his article does a worthwhile job guiding his readers to draw on energies they may already possess.

Responding to Unforeseen Events

The next article in the HBR spotlight series, “The Leadership Mindset,” outlines a framework for responding to unforeseen events. Nitin Nohri, the George F. Baker Jr. Professor at Harvard Business School opens his article, Leaders Must React, pondering the question: Can leadership actually be taught? He admits that it is possible, but that individual capacities vary. Nohri says good educators can help people become better leaders and they do that at Harvard Business School, drawing heavily on John Kotter’s framework, which breaks a leader’s job down into three key functions: articulating a compelling vision, aligning people around it, and motivating them to execute it. This is foundational, but according to Nohri there’s one thing that can make or break any leader: how they respond in real time to unforeseen events! 

To help leaders better understand which issues truly need their attention, he created a two-by-two matrix that categorizes events according to two dimensions: how they initially present themselves and how significant they will become over time. His matrix contains four quadrants: 

  • normal noise (small issues likely to remain small; leader’s task is don’t get drawn in)
  • clarion calls (significant issues likely to remain significant; the leader’s task is to be all-in) 
  • whisper warnings (small issues that might become significant; the leader’s task is nip them in the bud) 
  • siren songs (significant issues that are likely to diminish over time; the leader’s task is don’t overreact. watch and wait) 

Skills for Responding to Unfolding Events. He also outlines a three-step process—sensing, sizing, and responding—which I think can help leaders respond effectively to the full spectrum of unfolding events.

  • Sensing.  Awash in a river of information—a mix of fact, fiction, opinion, understatement, and overreaction—leaders engage in a process that the organizational theorist Karl Weick called “sensemaking.” This involves recognizing patterns, gathering various perspectives, and putting things into frameworks to make their meaning clear. Sensemaking helps people mentally process complex, ambiguous situations. It improves with practice, so most leaders get better at it over time.
  • Sizing. Sizing requires not only pattern recognition but also skill at prediction and forecasting—abilities that tend to grow with experience. Leaders also need to draw heavily on their emotional intelligence to gauge the significance of internal issues and on their contextual intelligence to assess external events. Having sized an issue, leaders then must properly frame it and communicate that framing to the organization. Sometimes they have to address the fact that the organization may be tempted to overreact to a siren song or underreact to a whisper warning and must explain why an issue may be larger or smaller than people initially realize.
  • Responding. One key to dealing with unfolding events is recognizing that by definition they are evolving and require an adaptive response. They don’t lend themselves to static plans. Often a leader may ask for quick daily updates to ensure that the response crafted yesterday still makes sense today and that the initial categorization of an issue still fits. Taking “robust action”—a leadership approach the author has written about addresses ambiguity and emphasizes adaptability in decision-making is a good way to manage the changeable nature of unexpected events. Instead of pursuing a fixed trajectory, leaders embrace multiple, even competing, interpretations and solutions. The core principle of robust action is that in an unpredictable world, overcommitment to a single strategy limits opportunities and potential pathways, whereas strategic ambiguity and flexibility maximize the ability to adapt to emerging challenges.

Overcoming Erroneous Beliefs

The final article explains why real-time leadership is so hard and explores ways to overcome these stumbling blocks that limit a leader’s ability to thrive. According to the authors of, Why Real-Time Leadership Is So Hard, leadership is fundamentally about unleashing potential: both your own and that of the people who follow you. However, many leave much of their potential untapped because they hold erroneous beliefs that there are: 1) no alternatives, that there is 2) no hope, that there is 3) no time, and that there is 4) no need for leadership. These misperceptions can be overcome if you ask the right questions and follow a handful of practices designed to open your mind to a world of possibilities. The article identifies those right questions and offers a handful of practices that leaders can apply to challenge these notions, resist fear, and enter the fundamental state of leadership.

Leadership Lessons: Ways to Prepare from Transforming the Business of Government: Insights on Resiliency, Innovation, and Performance

Our book focuses on getting out ahead of trends and better preparing leaders for the unexpected. The three articles from the January-February 2024 edition of the Harvard Business Review redefines leadership as dynamic state rather than a static trait offering tools and approaches that can help them more effectively manage daily operations while also better preparing them for the unanticipated. 

Leadership lessons can be instrumental for government executives aiming to apply insights from Transforming the Business of Government: Insights on Resiliency, Innovation, and Performance. Here are some ways in which these lessons can help:

  • Craft a Visionary Approach. Government executives should adopt a visionary mindset, allowing them to anticipate trends, identify opportunities for improvement, and create a roadmap for transformation. This vision is critical for aligning organizational goals with broader government objectives outlined in our book.
  • Cultivate an Innovative Culture. To achieve innovation, leaders must foster a culture that values creativity and risk-taking. Many of the leadership insights from the HBR articles can guide executives in creating an environment where employees are encouraged to propose new ideas and solutions. This is crucial for implementing the innovation strategies discussed in our book.
  • Strengthen Resiliency. Resiliency is a central theme in the book, and the leadership lessons highlighted in this blog can assist executives build resilience within their teams and organizations. This involves developing adaptive strategies, encouraging flexibility, and preparing for unexpected challenges. Leaders can apply these lessons to maintain operational continuity during times of uncertainty.
  • Promote Cross-Functional Collaboration. Effective leadership involves breaking down silos and promoting cross-functional collaboration. These leadership lessons can guide government executives in fostering teamwork across departments and agencies, aligning with the book's emphasis on performance improvement through integrated efforts.
  • Develop Agile Leadership Practices. Agile leadership focuses on adaptability and quick decision-making. Lessons in agile practices can help government executives implement changes more effectively, allowing them to respond to emerging needs and opportunities. This aligns with the book's call for government transformation through agility.
  • Encourage Data-Driven Decision-Making. Our book stresses the importance of using data and analytics to drive performance. The leadership lessons introduced in this blog and detailed in the HBR articles can support executives in developing a data-driven approach, enabling them to make informed decisions that lead to better outcomes.
  • Investing in People and Technology. Leadership lessons can highlight the importance of investing in both people and technology. Government executives can learn how to develop their teams, foster talent, and leverage technology to drive transformation in line with the book's insights.
  • Focusing on Outcomes and Impact. Leadership lessons can guide government executives to focus on outcomes and impact rather than just processes. By emphasizing the desired outcomes outlined in the book, leaders can align transformation efforts with measurable results that benefit the public.
  • Continuously Learning and Adapting. Finally, the leadership lessons highlighted in this blog can encourage a mindset of continuous learning and adaptation. By staying open to new ideas and feedback, government executives can ensure that their transformation efforts remain relevant and effective over time.

By integrating these leadership lessons, government executives can better apply the insights from Transforming the Business of Government: Insights on Resiliency, Innovation, and Performance, and drive meaningful transformation while upholding the core values of public service and accountability.