It's been largely assumed that to run a successful business today, good leadership is required. But it's not the end of the world for leaders who worry that they're low on charisma or can't stir employees' hearts and minds. Maybe they don't particularly want to, and that's OK too.

Sometimes, it's more effective for employees to be more loyal to the work instead of being more loyal to the leader. After all, the end goal should be to keep employees engaged and productive by charging them to solve compelling problems.

First, it's important to understand the difference between an appealing boss and challenging work. A recent Harvard Business Review article found that employees at Facebook were more likely to quit because of their work--and not because of a "horrible" boss. The authors--three HR executives and Wharton professor Adam Grant--had spent years studying Facebook. When the social media giant started tracking employee exits, "all bets were on managers," the authors wrote. Turns out, employees left "when their job wasn't enjoyable, their strengths weren't being used, and they weren't growing in their careers."

The problem-solving workforce

Many founders have long debated what leadership styles to adapt (transformational or transactional? Authoritative or affiliative?). But the leaders who find the subject irrelevant end up becoming entrepreneurs not because they want to run things on their own, but because they believe a startup is the best forum for pursuing a problem they find personally engrossing.

MIT professors Deborah Ancona and Hal Gregersen call this approach "problem-led leadership" and say it is endemic at their institution. The two studied MIT alumni who went on to start businesses (the Kauffman Foundation reported more than 30,200 businesses with MIT alums among the founders in 2014). Again and again, their subjects rejected referring to themselves as a "leader," instead equating the role to those in politics, hierarchy, self-aggrandizement, and abuses of power. "It's like the word leader is a disease," says Gregersen.

Of course, as a business scales, Gregersen points out, "the problem tends to disappear, and the leader becomes more important." He cites Pixar's rejuvenation of Walt Disney Animation Studios as an example of problem-led leadership returning to a former creative powerhouse that controlling executives had failed to nurture.

The nonleading leader

A founder who wants to lead as little as possible needs employees to take on leadership responsibilities. But not all employees are interested in becoming traditional leaders, says Ancona. Elevated titles and posh offices offers little incentive to such employees, so motivation must be built into the work itself. "Part of the reward is you get to work on the next problem," says Ancona. "You are always working on bigger problems, building your reputation as a problem solver."

It is equally important to keep everyone engaged. That means hiring people with strong diagnostic skills, ideally in all parts of the business, says Ancona. Asking job applicants how they would approach a specific problem or giving them one to actually solve is one way to do that. Employees at problem-focused companies also spend significant time outside the business seeking solutions in the wider world.

Are you a problem-led leader?

In addition to their aversion to taking the helm, problem-led leaders typically have deep expertise in a technical or scientific discipline, says Ancona and Gregersen. Their decisions are data-driven, and lack of data can slow things down. But they also require broad knowledge of other business domains to ensure that financial interests don't get swallowed in the problem-solving maelstrom.

Problem-led leaders also tend to be less polished than their more leader-ly counterparts. They don't care much about their physical environments--a garage is as good as a corner office. They can be tone-deaf to politics. Emotional intelligence is not their strong suit. For good or for ill, they are unusually tolerant of idiosyncrasies in others.

Communication is still key

Nevertheless, problem-led leaders still need to embrace collaborative efforts to succeed. Some of the strongest traditional leaders are committed to diffusing a problem-solving culture among their employees.

Intuit co-founder Scott Cook, for example, excels at pushing the problem-solving ethos throughout his company. Gregersen describes how many Intuit managers, when talking to employees, take their cue from Cook's conversations with CEO Brad Smith. Cook "begins with the simple question, 'What are you wrestling with?'" says Gregersen. "At the end, his question is 'How can I help?'"

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Published on: Jan 18, 2018