Is Leadership an Increasingly Difficult Balancing Act?

James Heskett, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

What’s the Future of the Authority Figure In Leadership?

Leadership involves the effective management of tensions characteristic of all organizations. Are such tensions exacerbated by today’s need for increasing speed and agility required repeatedly to achieve transient strategic advantage in a world of impatient investors, restive employees, and demanding customers? Do they require leaders who have fewer answers, more questions, and a bias for testing and quick action? Are investors, employees, and customers willing to trade yesterday’s authority figures for a new kind of leader, one with fewer answers? Those were the questions implied by this month’s column. The predominance of responses suggested that the answers to the questions are “yes, yes, and maybe.”

Adam Hartung commented that “As technology has increased the speed of market shifts, organizations have been unable to keep pace… in no small part due to the reliance on hierarchy and the dominant position given very highly compensated CEOs.” Jackie Le Fevre put it this way: “Short answer to the question—increasingly difficult balancing act? Yes-in part at least due to scale and speed of information flow through social media…”

Respondents described what increasingly will be required of leaders. Kapil Kumar Sopory said that “Leadership these days has become a complex art… people with bias for listening, testing and fast reacting will generally succeed.”

Aim, in describing his experience, added: “One common characteristic I encountered … is that (the) vast majority of the leaders were morally stable and people who aspire (to a) high degree of integrity in how they solve the unknown by being honest with all the stakeholders.” Several suggested that a heavy dose of authenticity in leadership is what is needed to manage the tension. Michael Leahy commented that “…we are challenged to sort out short term position … and personal self serving ambition versus more genuine leadership…When we are traveling in white water we have to be very aware and responsive but we always have to keep our integrity, values, and goals.” Clark Phippen assured us that leadership is up to the task, saying that “true leaders can easily address the challenges you describe without the ‘academic’ complexity you and John Kotter suggest.”

How investors, employees, and customers will react in a business world populated by leaders with these characteristics is another matter. Gerald Nanninga’s comment suggests that it may not be an issue. As he put it, “Leaders have never had all the answers. It’s about time we admit that.” Jeff Schur, citing CEO Bob McDonald of Procter & Gamble and the company’s shift to more emphasis on digital media as an example, commented that “it is possible to allow experimentation… trial and error … without the CEO looking foolish because he or she does not know the answers and is no longer expected to in the ephemeral state of entropy we live in, called Digital.”

We’re left with impression that changes in leadership required for success in the fast-moving information economy will be achieved with limited discomfort. And yet we are confronted daily with criticism of leaders who don’t have all the answers. It’s as if we—as investors, employees, and customers—long for the good old days of the conventional authority figure. Is there still a need for that kind of leadership? What is the future of the authority figure in leadership? What do you think?

Original Article

Leadership has always required the management of tensions caused by the simultaneous need for such things as short-term and long-term performance, the exploitation of existing ideas and the search for new ones, and the staffing and motivation of leadership teams with people of diverse backgrounds and capabilities.

The notion that organizations increasingly will have to pursue transient strategic advantage rather than rely on strategies that can be sustained over long periods of time intensifies the challenge for some leaders. Several students of these phenomena are studying the nature of the challenge and the kind of leadership needed to meet it.

Eric Reis, a successful entrepreneur, has pointed out that winning competitors in the future will be those that “fast-adapt,” practicing continuous deployment of ideas to find the ones that offer at least fleeting competitive advantage. It will require leaders that have little confidence in long-range planning, predictions of others, or their own biases. They will spend less time planning and more time fostering the organizational ability to develop and test new ideas. In a recent e-mail, Scott Cook, the cofounder of personal financial software leader Intuit, elaborated on the importance of these themes for large organizations as well as startups, citing the need for leaders to support what he calls “lean experimentation,” centered on the rapid testing of a lot of ideas rather than the slower implementation of a few ideas generated by top management.

While acknowledging the growing entrepreneurial demands on leadership, others also recognize the need to simultaneously defend “sustainable competitive advantage.” The concept of ambidexterity championed by Michael Tushman and Charles O’Reilly is one response to the dilemma. Rather than abandoning ideas regarding long-term strategic advantage or spinning new ventures out of the existing organization, they propose ways of supporting innovation for future advantage while attending to efforts to meet the shorter-term demands of investors. It requires a different mindset among leaders, different policies and practices, a different form of organization. These are leaders with a congruent vision of critical tasks to be addressed as well as the culture, formal organization, and people with which to do it in essentially two worlds encompassed by the same organization with no second-class citizens exploiting traditional opportunities, not an easy task.

John Kotter recently suggested that large successful organizations in the future will have to support both traditional hierarchies to exploit core businesses and networks that are better suited to pursuing new opportunities. It will require leaders who can build and lead what he terms “dual operating systems,” staffing innovative networks with volunteers from the existing hierarchy, comprising a “guiding coalition” that can coordinate the strategic direction of network efforts with the overall strategy being pursued by the more conventional hierarchy. Again, it requires a “believer” in the feasibility of dual operating systems who is able to lead them with an even hand.

This thinking raises questions: If these are the tensions that will become increasingly more important, will they require leaders who have a bias for listening, testing, and fast-reacting? Rather than authority figures, will they have to admit with increasing frequency that they don’t have all or even very many of the answers about the future? If so, does this take us a step beyond the humility combined with determination demanded of Jim Collins’ Level V leaders in his Good to Great study? No matter how important these qualities may be to future success, are employees and investors still going to look for authority figures?

Are they going to be willing to support someone who doesn’t have all the answers and is willing to admit it? Is leadership becoming an increasingly difficult balancing act? What do you think?

To Read More:

Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don’t (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001)

John P. Kotter, Accelerate!, Harvard Business Review, November 2012, pp. 44-58.

Eric Reis, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, (New York: Crown Business, 2011).

Michael L. Tushman and Charles A. O’Reilly III, Winning Through Innovation: A Practical Guide to Leading Organizational Change and Renewal (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997)


This article was written by James Heskett from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Register now for further information on University of Europe Laureate Digital programs and become part of our global network.

  • MBA English (Bilgi)
  • MBA English (EUC)
  • MBA Air Transport Management (UEM)
  • Bachelors of Arts in English Language and Literature (EUC)
  • MA Early Childhood Education (EUC)
  • Master of Arts in Education Leadership (EUC)
  • Master of Arts in English Language and Literature (EUC)
  • Master of Arts in Special (Inclusive) Education (EUC)
  • Master of Arts in Technologies of Learning and Communication (EUC)
  • Master of Music Education (EUC)
  • MBA Sports Management English (UEM)
  • Print

    Filter articles

    FI - 7 Tips For Becoming Irreplaceable In An Age Of Machines.jpg

    7 Tips For Becoming Irreplaceable In An...

    Global Network

    Intrapreneurship: How Millennials Can Innovate And Influence...

    Your Skills
    FI - Smart Moves To Spark Your Career.jpg

    Smart Moves To Spark Your Career

    Professional Advancement

    Filter articles




    Looking for some mentor and assistance to chose your learning path? Find it in our network!

    Our Exclusive Partners

    Know more about our network of exclusive partners made of some of most the most important european universities

    Learn More
    Our Programs

    Explore our offering of degrees across all key areas of study, from business to health, available in major languages

    Learn More
    Skills Assessment

    Take our skill assessment tests to learn about yourself, you strengths and weaknesses (this section is only available in english)

    Take a test