Needed: The Amphibious Leader

I think there's need for a new term to describe the type of person today's organizations are looking to recruit and cultivate -- the "amphibious leader." I know it conjures up images of someone in a frog suit, so it might not catch on immediately. But the term does aptly capture what organizations now need, whether commercial, governmental or in the social sector.

The overall background of an amphibious leader looks something like this: S/he has developed expertise in one or more content areas, changed job positions every three to five years, preferably worked in multiple sectors and in different geographies and cultural contexts -- and has fluency in more than one language. In sum, the amphibious leader has a CV that just 20 years ago would have had human resource officers (and probably parents as well) shaking their heads in disapproval at the seeming inability to "stay put" and hold down a job in a single organization. How that has changed!

The idea of the amphibious leader occurred to me while sitting in a café in France with Gib Bulloch, Founder and Executive Director of Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP). Gib was describing why, despite taking a 50 percent pay cut to participate, ADP has become such an important stepping-stone within the company for leadership development among Accenture's rising stars. Gib attributes a good deal of the program's popularity to the opportunity it affords participants to invest time, talent and energy to support the efforts of a development-oriented organization that is tackling some of the toughest issues we face as a society. Through these experiences, individuals are faced with the need to question personal and long-held assumptions about their expertise and experience -- the very cornerstones of what "traditional" careers are built upon. In many cases, an "unlearning" process can usher in a greater openness to creative, innovative and market-generating ideas that no one else has detected. To have the chance to engage in learning of this kind represents a significant "psychic bonus" that ends up being irresistible.

And that got me thinking -- what are our schools doing to prepare students to become amphibious leaders? One of the best places to start is in the composition of the student body. The more diverse, the greater the opportunities for each person to be exposed to different ways of thinking and beliefs, expanding their own horizons of what is possible. I am involved currently in three different MBA programs located in different parts of the world, and they all have one thing in common: students come from every corner of the globe. They forge lifelong friendships with classmates they would never have had the chance to meet if they had gone to their national or state educational institutions. For this reason alone, the tightening regulations around visas for foreign students accepted into European and North American universities is a matter of concern.

An amphibious leader strikes a delicate balance between well-honed expertise in a given subject without being constrained by discipline or ideology. In that regard, I think we have a long way to go to prepare our future leaders. Despite being well aware of the multi-disciplinary nature of problems and their solutions, and notwithstanding our emphasis on learning to function in teams comprised of people with diverse areas of expertise and perspectives, our institutions of higher learning struggle to break out of the disciplinary silos where students are encouraged to attain ever higher degrees of specialization with little opportunity to practice multi-disciplinary team work. More frequently than not, those opportunities are provided through non-curricular activities, not as part of the "core" courses required to attain a degree.

Success as an amphibious leader depends on mastering a mix of content and practical knowledge and expertise. In the case of the former, most content knowledge is what is taught in the classroom or more recently, through online courses. In the MBA, content includes the "what to do", such as in marketing, accounting, finance, and so on.

But to become an amphibious leader, content needs to be combined with practical skills focusing on "how to do" it; some call the "how" the "soft skills", but I like the idea of "soft power" put forward by Joseph Nye at Harvard. When he came up with the terms, Nye was referring to world politics, contrasting "soft power" with "hard power", i.e., force or money that countries deploy to coerce others to do what they want. But the notion of hard power can be applied to organizations as well -- after all, that is what hierarchy, promotions, bonuses and such "incentives" are all about. But soft power is about exercising a different kind of leadership that persuades others to engage in a collective effort to achieve outcomes that are of interest personally and collectively -- hopefully for the benefit of society. Soft power includes how to lead a team effectively, how to make decisions under great uncertainty, how to negotiate successfully, how to bridge seemingly insurmountable personal and/or cultural differences.

Tomorrow's amphibious leaders must have the opportunity to cultivate soft power. The most effective way of doing this is through giving students as much experience outside the classroom as they have sitting in lecture theaters. Currently, the ratio of "classroom- time" to "exposure-to-real-experience-time" is severely skewed towards the former. We are just starting to accept the latter as worthy of academic credit, but in many cases, practical experience is relegated to "extra-curricular" activities. Universities today are challenged with meeting students' appetite for developing the kinds of critical skills that come through exposure to multiple stakeholders, to different contexts, perspectives and practices. Contrary to the idea that only a lucky few can ever decipher the mystery of leadership, I believe that leadership is an observable set of practices that can be learned by seeing it practiced. But to observe, one has to be exposed to circumstances that call on you to draw one's own leadership capabilities, and one needs to have a safe environment to practice these approaches.

The possibilities for amphibious leadership development are singularly captured in the excerpt below from an engineer working in Rajasthan, India. No doubt, professionals like him who have had their personal and professional skills tested in these settings will have gained self-confidence, self-mastery and new insights in a way no engineering class could have provided.

"The work is fantastic -- each day brings with it significant challenges and a sense that I am doing something meaningful. On any one day, I can be called on to do a variety of things - teach someone how to check a charge controller for a solar system, do a translation from French to English, work on an article for publication in a peer reviewed journal, draft an agreement with a potential partner in another country, resolve personal conflicts among trainees, draw a diagram of a rainwater harvesting tank for the Gambia, clarify confusion on a solar shipment to Afghanistan. This is a humbling place. Every day I learn from the semi-literate rural poor and wonder about education. How can we combine paper-based education and practical, common sense education? That is the kind of education I want for my own children."

So do we.