Which style of leader are you– an agitator, innovator or orchestrator?

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, January 29, 2018

“April is the cruelest month,” writes T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” but January is a close second. By the end of the month, we will have heard at a minimum, a State of the Union speech, a state of our city speech and several state of the whatever speeches from CEOs, Wall Street financial wizards, your daughter’s soccer coach and all manner of forward-looking change agents, all parsing the tea leaves of the past to announce, glorify, pontificate and advance their agendas for the next year.

So this seems like a good time to analyze some of the common (and repetitive) elements of those speeches. And to that end I turn to Harvard Business School Professor Julie Battilana who has written extensively about “radical change.”

She says there are three types of leaders who create long-term impact — the agitator, the innovator and the orchestrator. One obvious theme that emerges from her work is that single leaders rarely change the course of the company or a movement on their own. Progress is never the result of only one person. It probably does not take a village, but it does take these three distinct skill sets.

First, the agitator. She stirs the pot, demands that the status quo change, states grievances publicly and galvanizes awareness.

This is a risky job. Witness the most recent topic of sexual harassment by powerful men. The women who came forward put themselves and their careers at risk. And particularly in the case of women, the patina of “pushy broad” is often slathered on the agitator in a demeaning way in order to marginalize and trivialize the demands. Hooray for agitators — but the caution here is to not create too many disparate areas of outrage at the same time.

Make your outrage focused and bite-size; otherwise there will be a clear risk of frozen and stalled inaction. An example in our city is the “homeless problem.” Break it down into smaller pieces that can be achieved in a reasonable time frame. No promises to boil the ocean.

The next piece of the puzzle is equally critical — the innovator or problem-solver. In other words, in your company, you need to find someone who responds to the agitator and then seeks a solution — a course of action to respond to the stated concerns, trying to build a coalition of support. This role is also risky, because you are in the front line suggesting a different course of behavior for the company — and the easiest thing for the board or the management to do is to shoot the idea and the person down.

After all, we have been doing it this way for 10 years, why are we changing now? But the innovator needs to be careful that he does not contract the killer disease called “tunnel vision” that leads to an impractical solution, whose subtext is “my way or the highway.”

Finally, there is the orchestrator. This is a high calling also, because this is where real leadership shines. It is the high-wire balancing act, explaining to everyone that none of you can get everything you want. The orchestrator “sustains collective action.”

The art of the compromise trumps the art of the deal. But the risk here is “mission creep.” In the final analysis, you need all the instruments in the symphony, but there is no music without the conductor, but stay with the sheet music, easy on improvisation.

The orchestrator can be the CEO, but not always. In one of my companies, it is the head of business development and in another, it is the chairman of the board. The power of the orchestrator to implement change can come from various sources, “charisma or expertise, an elected position or political relationships.”

In the final analysis, the most difficult job of all is to identify who in the organization fits each of the three models and then seeking them out and encouraging them to act in their role. In my experience leaders do not spring full-blown, but rather they need to be guided up the stairs and onto the stage, outfitted with the appropriate costumes and props, add music and lighting — and then let them play their role and become a “star.” That person is the playwright. And that is the job for each of us.

Rule No. 545:  I need my baton.

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