This week I visited Novartis’s Basel campus for a special event called “Future Leadership Dialogue” with CEO Vas Narasimhan and Adam Grant, American organizational psychologist, host of WorkLife podcast with TED and New York Times bestselling author. The goal was to ask ourselves what kind of leadership does the 21st century demand. Adam’s talk on the topic and the discussions that followed were fascinating. Here is a breakdown of major points, mixed in with my reflections.

Put your worst foot forward

When we try to convince someone of our idea, it is a good strategy to honestly and openly highlight disadvantages of the idea or an approach. According to research, that makes the proposal more credible. Also, it is when availability bias kicks in. The availability bias means that the easier it is to think of an option, the more attractive it is. For example, if you ask someone to name three things that are good about their life, let’s say they would mention work, family, and tennis. They would feel great about their life. “Hey, I came up with these three points in a second, and they really are great, my life is amazing!” But, if you ask them to come up with fifteen, they will list five and then get stuck trying to come up with more. They will feel miserable: “Seriously, I can name only five, my life is terrible!” This situation is paradoxical – they just came up with five great things!

Similarly, when you try to come up with weaknesses of a proposal, if you run out of disadvantages you can think of after listing a couple, you (and others as well) will feel good about the proposal.

Make the unfamiliar familiar

Try to clap your hands to the rhythm of a song you choose, and have another person guess what song it is. Unless it was ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘We Will Rock You,’ it is improbable that they will manage to guess. The fact that it seems obvious to you makes it tempting to think that it is obvious to others too. But they don’t hear the melody that’s playing in your mind as you clap – they only hear a random sequence of clap, clap, clap. Think of this situation when you try to explain your idea and convince others. There is a lot of information that you are familiar with and a lot of context and relevant background that the others can miss out on. A way forward: take a new idea and make it sound familiar!

When Disney cartoonists realized that they can soon run out of fairytales to animate on the big screen, they made the first scenario from scratch. It was a total disaster, no one could follow the plot, empathize with the characters, in short: it was mediocre. What did Disney cartoonists do? They took an unfamiliar idea and made it sound familiar. A story about lions in Africa was pitched to their bosses as Hamlet, but with animals, aka The Lion King.

Appeal to higher values

Sometimes we want to convince people by trying to change their minds. This often fails because it is tough, if not impossible, to change peoples’ values. Instead, we should connect our ideas with the values that people already hold. For example, in one randomized controlled study Adam tested the level of hygiene in hospitals when the sign in front of the sink reminded not to forget to wash your hands to maintain the level of hygiene and when it urged not to forget to wash your hands to maintain patients level of hygiene. The mere mentioning of patients resonated with employees values, resulting in increased hygiene level.

The well-being of patients is an obvious shared value we all have, but in more specific situations, we can ask ourselves what are the values we can use to resonate with others? Who are people who can remind us of our values and inspire our teams? It could be the end customer, collaborator or a student. As a leader, you can outsource inspiration. It’s not up to you to always inspire everyone all by yourself!

Points from the discussion that really hit home

  • Talking about leadership, one interesting point popped up. Nowadays, for virtually any tech job, employees want to see candidate’s evidence of potential for leadership by listing a couple of situations when they showed leadership skills. If everyone needs to be a leader, how are all these leaders going to work together in a team, when all of them want to lead? This reminded me of a lot of EPFL, which can at times feel like a very competitive environment with a lot of people with leadership potential. Adam’s thoughts: It’s okay, everyone can lead at the same time. Just not on the same task!

  • Vas and Adam discussed a lot about what kind of people we should be recruiting. According to research, it turns out there is around 50% overlap in being successful individually and making others successful. It is important to distinguish people who are interested in achieving a goal by working in a team and making everyone (including themselves) successful from people who are self-interested and care only about their success. In the long run, a team benefits more from people who make others succeed, than from people who make only themselves as individuals successful.

  • To make other people successful, it needs to be a little more about the team and a little less about you. This change of perspective needs to happen to become a good leader. People follow people they believe in, people who create potential in them. Leading by authority is not sustainable. When people realize that you take their best interest as a priority, you gain credibility. This can be demonstrated, for example, by giving them reference to go to another place, even though your best interest is to keep them.

  • In the end, Adam made an interesting reference to two psychological theories, known as Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X supposes that people dislike their work, have little motivation and are by their nature lazy. They need to be externally managed and inspired to do great things. Theory Y, on the contrary, states that people by nature take pride in their work and see it as a challenge. If it’s not the case, something is wrong as this is not their natural state.) Which one is right? Both! If you believe in theory X, then it is true, because you will be very “hands-on” and micromanage people’s work to ensure that it gets done properly. As a result, people will be lazy and unmotivated. On the other hand, if you believe in theory Y, then you’ll more likely adopt a participative management style. Managers who use this approach trust their people to take ownership of their work and do it effectively by themselves.