Philippa Lamb: So Dan, I'm interested to ask you, who is the most impressive leader that you can think of right now?
Dan Pink: Well there are a lot of leaders who are really impressive and my approach is, I think each individual leader often has elements that he or she brings to the task of leadership and you can learn different elements but in terms of comprehensiveness one that comes to mind immediately is a fella named Mike Cannon-Brookes. You probably haven’t heard of him, he's an Australian guy who straight out of university started a software company called Atlassian which is now a very well known, very powerful software company that does really, really great work. And essentially what he did was, he didn’t even rip up the playbook, he basically wrote an entirely new one and I really admire that approach to leadership. So he had a start-up software company, he said, “I'm not taking venture capital money. I don’t want these guys to own me and tell me what to do,” so he did it totally bootstrap. From the outset in this company he allowed employees enormous amounts of autonomy to work on what they wanted to work on, to work with the people who they wanted to work with, to the point where some of the practices that he developed on autonomy are now spreading to other kinds of companies as well. He and his team looked at performance appraisals and said, “These things are totally broken. Why do we even have these?” and he reinvented the employee evaluation system. So what I admire about him, and I think it’s really a task of leadership today in these very tumultuous times, is looking at certain orthodoxies and saying, “I'm going to challenge that orthodoxy and maybe if I challenge that orthodoxy, trot my own path, I can do something that's really meaningful and really powerful.”
PL: But of course it’s not just about the individual at the top, is it? Organisations need good leadership throughout the organisation. Where do you see them going wrong?
DP: Well I think that's a really excellent point and I think that one reason that start-ups have, start-up employees are in some ways like ducklings so that the ducklings hatch and like ducklings whatever the first thing that they see, they imprint that kind of behaviour. In legacy companies it’s harder to do that but with start-ups you can actually infuse those values early on. I think that the barriers to doing that in established companies are multiple. One of them is that I think they often don’t take employees seriously enough. They don’t realise how purpose driven many employees are, how much they actually want to do good work, how much they’re concerned about doing things that are really important. I think they’re hobbled in many ways by short term thinking, especially in publicly listed companies, and I also think there's a certain amount of conformity that people have in their heads. There's a certain way that a leader acts, there's a certain way that a CEO acts and the picture that they have in their head I think is a very, very outdated picture.
PL: So how should companies, organisations of every sort encourage leadership to flourish throughout the organisation, distribute it throughout and see that chain of people coming through who are going to be the leaders they’ll need in five, ten, fifteen years?
DP: Yeah that's another really, really great question and I think that the way to do it is to really sort of go at the nature of what is leadership. What is leadership? And at some level leadership is about creating other leaders. It’s about allowing other people to lead. And it’s a little bit paradoxical because our notions of leadership are leadership based on a kind of command and conventional notions of power, conventional forms of authority. But I think that the most effective leadership is a kind of quieter muscularity that's really about saying, “What can I do to get out of the way? How can I lead by getting out of the way and allowing other people to lead?” and I think that that kind of practice has a cascading effect in organisations. If everybody in the organisation sees themselves as someone who’s important, as a contributor, as a leader, then I think you have a very, very powerful, very, very adept and agile organisation but it requires this paradoxical view of leadership which is leadership that doesn’t pound its chest, leadership that doesn’t talk at the top of its lungs, but leadership that takes a step back and says, “How can I help other people lead?”
PL: So do you subscribe to the idea then that in an environment like that where people are in power, they have autonomy, anyone can lead, everyone can lead?
DP: Yes and no. I don't think everybody necessarily wants to lead. I do think that everybody wants to contribute and that making a contribution is a form of leadership. So when we think of leadership again, we have these conventional notions where it means that I have people who report to me and that's not the case. You can be a leader by creating an improvement to a process internally that changes the way everybody else does their work. You can be a leader by doing an individual customer service encounter in a way that's so transcendent, your colleagues look at you and say, “Holy moly, I want to do that.” And that's a form of leadership too.