What is Generative Leadership? This is a term I came across while studying different modes of leadership, and found that it’s a fairly recent entrant into the club of styles of leadership; technical, cooperative and collaborative. I was particularly drawn towards this mode as it seemed to draw upon the principles we study in design management and design leadership. To the extent that Stanford University offers a class in generative leadership in which the main areas of focus are Design Thinking, User centered design, The Improvisational Mindset, and High Performance Communication. It is intended for the participants to increase their ability to respond flexibly to novel situations and to generate innovative solutions on a collaborative, creative team. The mindset is cultivated by practicing 5 key principles; Say "Yes, and”, Treat Mistakes as Gifts, Inspire your Partner, Dare to be Obvious and Notice the World. The purpose of the course is to create leaders that are agile and responsive to real time feedback. To better understand this style, let’s have look at the word “generative”. Literally explained, it means “the ability to produce something”. Generate what? Maybe new ideas, maybe new processes, maybe new relationships, anything that doesn’t involve atrophy of businesses that have been around for generations and even those that are fresh in their taste of success.
A word that has cropped up multiple times in my studies, as a prerequisite to producing excellent customer centric deliverables, is “empathy”. How does this apply to leadership? To be an effective generative leader, one must use emotional intelligence as a leadership skill. Building trust, hope and stability through empathizing with employees, could lead to teams that perform better, and add more value to the organization. Mel Toomey, founder of the Center for leadership studies is a huge proponent of this style and founded the Generative Leadership group, a consulting and advisory services firm. He draws on the work of James P. Carse, “Finite and infinite games” to explain the kind of people suited for this style of leadership. According to this philosophical piece, there are some games which are finite; with a definitive beginning and end, they are played with the purpose of winning, losing or drawing. The victor of these games earns a title for themselves and in this way an ability to wield power. Infinite games, as the name suggests, are meant to continue endlessly and the purpose is to keep the game in play. The act of playing is not as important as the consequence that arises out of it. Toomey goes on to define the characteristics of the players who adopt each of these two styles of “playing”. Finite players are seen to play within the rules of society. Society is shown to be a species of “culture” that has limits around it and a script from which no deviation is desired. Whereas infinite players operate in a culture that allows people to exercise choice, a freedom to reinterpret the past and supports people in their wish to act according to their own strengths and impulses. The concept of “self” is explored wherein the state of being is the sum total of a person’s attitudes, vision, thoughts and their focus on being either the finite or infinite player. The finite players are “trained”, self defined individuals who are prepared against surprises and act out the directions of the infinite players. The infinite players are “educated”, self-discovering individuals that are prepared for surprises. So it is probably safe to say that the generative style of leadership engages with systems rather than artifacts, processes or events.
What kinds of businesses should adopt this mode of leadership? “So often, many leaders focus on the desired result, the goals and the direction, without a full understanding of what it will take to move an organization, or create an organization, or build a team that is capable of sustained success. It would not be possible to overstate the role that the Generative Leadership Group team has played here in helping our leaders (and this leader!) to articulate and achieve their vision.”, says a President of New Business Ventures Group, a Fortune 50 Company in a testimonial praising the group. The Generative leadership group website then goes on to list Braun, Philips, Oral B, Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, Berkshire, Ernst & Young, BP limited, Accenture, AT&T and YMCA (among many others) as clients spanning the consumer, healthcare, financial, energy, consulting and technology sectors. This could show that any company that intends to stay relevant and not be disrupted by competitors, needs to be led by people who are responsive to changes and are cognizant of the fact that their success lies in the sustained growth of the business. “We live in a time of brutal competition. Fickle consumer trends, friction-free markets, and political unrest threaten the existence of many organizations. Nearly every industry is in the midst of massive upheaval, with the old stalwarts falling quickly to the new breed of innovators. Dizzying speed, exponential complexity, and mind-numbing technology advances exacerbate the challenges we face as leaders.” writes Josh Linker in his book “The road to reinvention”.
How does this style compare to the other modes of leadership? Many would classify these differently, but I would like to mention the three following modes. In technical leadership and Cooperative leadership, there is an attempt to control ambiguity and mitigate risks in any actions. In the Collaborative leadership style, an attempt is made to examine ambiguity in order to find a consensus. Whereas in the Generative leadership style, ambiguity is an avenue to finding opportunity, leading to true innovation. As an aspiring design leader and someone who hopes to be a proponent of good design within organizations, it is clear to me, what mode of leadership I would benefit from adopting, as well as working under.