These six intelligences will drive smart leadership in disrupted times

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: John Kao, Chairman, Large Scale Innovation


Sometimes it takes a crisis to reveal gaps and discontinuities. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed how some leaders are challenged by the unexpected and the need to innovate “ahead of the curve.” The crisis heightens our need to re-evaluate prevailing models of leadership that have sometimes been found wanting.

Coronavirus is an extreme wakeup call, but it is emblematic of an era whose very essence is disruption. Even before the current pandemic, we lived in a perfect storm of accelerated innovation, geopolitical uncertainty and black swans. Noted science fiction author William Gibson captured the singular nature of our times with one comment, “We have no future, because our present is so disrupted.”

“The crisis heightens our need to re-evaluate prevailing models of leadership.”

—John Kao, Chairman, Institute for Large Scale Innovation

Unfortunately, our leadership playbooks often remain largely frozen in time, originally designed for the authority and control needed to keep industrial bureaucracies functioning efficiently. But we are in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution that requires agility, rapid innovation and fluid, networked organizational designs. The commandant must give way to the orchestrator, the machine to the network. We are all navigating in uncertainty now, and new approaches to leadership have become an imperative. Not to do so carries risks: the existential threat of disease at an extreme, as well as the more obvious costs of tired strategies, technology illiteracy and stasis.

The kind of leadership proficiencies we need in an era of disruption cannot simply be read from books, gleaned from PowerPoint presentations or acquired in brief executive programs. They require new forms of pedagogy that are personal, experiential, and intimate. Learning leadership is not simply a matter of knowing which items to check off on a list of tasks or acquiring some tactical skills related to communication or agenda setting.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

A new strain of Coronavirus, COVID 19, is spreading around the world, causing deaths and major disruption to the global economy.

Responding to this crisis requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

The Forum has created the COVID Action Platform, a global platform to convene the business community for collective action, protect people’s livelihoods and facilitate business continuity, and mobilize support for the COVID-19 response. The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

The bottom line is that today’s leaders, armed with yesterday’s tools, are frequently ill-equipped to deal with the challenges we face both today and tomorrow. Leadership, it appears, is due for a review made more urgent by the scale of our current woes. But what are the new standards by which we should judge leadership? What is a model of leadership that fits with this age of disruption?

Psychologists refer to cognitive complexity as the ability to draw on multiple frames of reference or intelligences at the same time. This enables nuance and sophistication in addressing new situations and is essential in dealing with the disruption of black swans. Drawing from three decades of experience as a trusted advisor to leaders of both companies and governments, I’ve developed a framework of “Six Intelligences” that are the building blocks of the new “smart” leadership.

  • Contextual intelligence. In a sense, leaders are both the navigators and captains of an ongoing journey. They need ongoing mechanisms for achieving clarity both about their current situation as well as their desired outcomes (destinations, horizons of opportunity). This clarity of context is essential for taking relevant action. Fighter pilots, for example, are trained to think in terms of the OODA loop – Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. They are able to clearly identify a problem, establish options, select a course of action and execute, all in a blink of an eye. Cultivating (and listening to) divergent perspectives, exercising intuition in appropriate measure, perceiving weak signals, and conducting mental rehearsals for unimaginable outcomes are all approaches to cultivating contextual intelligence.
  • Moral intelligence. All journeys express a purpose that is shaped by a particular set of values. Strategy (what we must do) is how we will realize our mission (what we seek to achieve) which in turn reflects our purpose (why we’re in business) which is based on our values (our enduring beliefs.) Unfortunately, it is common for leaders to begin and end with strategy processes, and in terms of a value-free format that focuses on maximizing shareholder value above all. Left in the dust, too, is any role in creating societal benefit and supporting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Social and emotional intelligence. Social and emotional intelligence expresses our values in terms of how we interact with and influence others. We connect through our empathy and compassion – our ability to put ourselves into the shoes of another. This in turn allows us to inspire and motivate as a trusted role model. Leaders must also cultivate the diagnostic ability to read beneath the surface to the emotional makeup of others. This enables smart decisions about how to collaborate, who to work with and how to develop one’s self.
  • Generative intelligence. The ability to birth new ideas and realize value from them is the engine that provides the “how” of journeying to a desired future. Generative intelligence begs a fundamental leadership question: “How well do I mobilize my creativity and that of others to realize value? To what extent am I able to orchestrate the talents of diverse contributors?” It is time for innovation to come to innovation. Legacy approaches rooted in incrementalism and limited product development models will not be able to keep pace with the demands of disrupted times.
  • Technological intelligence. Leaders must be able to understand, make use of and amplify the power of rapidly emerging technologies and their impact. This is a new set of literacies that apply not only to business models but to organizations and how they function.
  • Transformative intelligence. Navigating to a desired future of necessity requires transformation, not simply incremental or isolated exercises in change management. An ability to create and drive a meaningful roadmap will motivate people to take action and align their efforts. Such a roadmap comes alive with clear, credible communication, compelling narratives and evangelism by credible leaders that drives a sense of urgency.

The ultimate test of a framework such as the Six Intelligences is utility. Imagine applying them in the current pandemic. We count on our leaders to:

  • Understand context – To embrace the realities of the situation (generating evidence through testing), be situationally aware (what is going on in other countries), embrace divergent perspectives (all flavors of epidemiology), be willing to “think the unthinkable” (the “surge”) and anticipate extreme scenarios (health care requirements for a pandemic).
  • Reflect a moral code – To inspire us with an ability to articulate values (people vs. profits) and a sense of purpose that justifies sacrifice in service of the common good and informs our strategies.
  • Tap into the social and emotional – To communicate in a way that is credible, trustworthy and motivating (“what are we up against?”).
  • Generate solutions – To mobilize innovation processes to develop new ideas and develop them into meaningful solutions (test kits and how they are made available) on a timely basis and with full appreciation of diverse opinions and expertise.
  • Embrace technology – To appreciate the role of technology both in finding solutions (therapies and vaccines) and in reshaping society’s institutions (remote learning, health, collaboration, new distribution channels for needed resources).
  • Drive transformations – To motivate timely changes in behavior (“shelter in place”) by evangelizing through personal influence and the use of compelling narratives to engage others in achieving a desired outcome.

Whether for coronavirus or other (inevitable) black swans to come, it is the responsibility of leaders to hone these intelligences and cultivate cognitive complexity. Each of these intelligences is essential; it is their artful combination that generates the real power of smart leadership.

For example, without an understanding of context, there can be no journey. In the immortal words of Lewis Carroll, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Moral intelligence creates the “why” of the journey and enhances our ability to connect with and motivate others. Generative intelligence amplifies the power of ideas and unleashes the power of technology. And the blending and mashing up of these intelligences into a nuanced perspective and leadership style results in an ability to drive transformational agendas, which is the ultimate responsibility of all leaders.

The Six Intelligences also shape organizational agendas. Context intelligence must be supported by meaningful foresight processes. Values must be disseminated in an impactful way. Agile innovation processes must be implemented. New learning processes must be designed for social/emotional intelligence. New technologies must be titrated into existing workflow. A bias for constructive change must be communicated to drive transformation. Organizations must consider these intelligences in a holistic, not piecemeal, way and must cultivate them in a way that ultimately benefits everyone.

These are the standards to which we must hold our leaders in a time of crisis: We need our current leaders to step up. And we need a new generation of leaders to do better.

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