Intelligence + Maturity = Better Leaders


There are plenty of smart executives in the world, but they often make poor leaders. That’s because it takes both intelligence and maturity to excel at leadership. And when I say maturity, I don’t necessarily mean age, although generally more life experience is helpful. Maturity is the ability to manage oneself in challenging situations and to balance inquiry and advocacy about how to move forward.

It’s pretty easy these days to find examples of smart business leaders who lack maturity. Look at the irresponsible, off-the-cuff comments of Donald Trump and the messy wake his business dealings have left behind. Or, on the other side of the political aisle, Alan Grayson, who has been asked by other U.S. senators to end his bid for a Florida senate seat.

For a long time, researchers at MIT Sloan have talked about a 4-Capabilities Model of Leadership. The gist was that good leaders need to be able to do four things: visioning, relating, inventing, and sense-making. Visioning means providing direction and strategy; relating means connecting with people; inventing means creating processes, systems, and structures that enable execution; and sense-making is about understanding the world as a complex, dynamic place and trying to map it out with others.

While leaders need to do all four of these things, most executives are not great at all four. They tend to be good at some of them, but not others. That’s OK as long as leaders also have others with complementary skills around them and maturity. In our research, maturity tends to show up in four specific areas in which leaders know and manage themselves.

Pick yourself back up
The first is resilience. Leaders need the ability to pick themselves up after a setback. They can’t get too depressed for too long or it prevents them from enacting any of the 4 Capabilities.

Stay in control
Second, they need to be able to regulate their emotions. If they get angry or heated when challenged, they tend to lose people. But they can’t be automatons – they need to be able to share how they genuinely feel about challenges and opportunities if they are going to enroll and align others.

Adapt as needed
Third is an adaptive mindset. When they relate to people, they aren’t stuck in one way of thinking. They’re able to adapt when new data emerges, to admit mistakes and update their mental model of how the world works. Effective leaders are humble enough to be able to learn, but also confident enough to step up to challenges when they can add value.

Have courage
The fourth area is confidence. Mature leaders are confident enough to see areas that need improvement and then step in to provide direction or a fix. It takes some courage to engage ambiguity and to develop hypotheses that might be proved wrong. Fear of failure often limits or prevents many people from leading and developing maturity for the future. Someone who’s confident (but not too confident) in their ability to step into the unknown – to make a difference on a challenging problem where answers are not obvious – has been a hallmark of leaders who have developed sustainable businesses. Examples include Ray Stata of Analog Devices and Amar Bose, to name just two.

Developing maturity

So how do you develop maturity? The easiest way is to put yourself in a position of leadership. You won’t learn anything if you won’t get your hands dirty and aren’t willing to make mistakes. Try raising your hand at the office when leadership is needed – but make sure you are then willing to do the work.

It’s also important to reflect on your experiences. Ask yourself what you noticed about your leadership efforts. Was there something about the way you reacted to other people? Are there any triggers that set you off? If so, can you learn to manage them in the future? For example, many leaders are impatient when their ideas aren’t quickly accepted. If you can manage that impatience, you may be able to bring more people along on the kinds of journeys that are required to solve problems worth solving.

While not everyone can be a world-class leader, everyone can be a better leader. The good news is that even small improvements in leadership can produce substantial outcomes. We’ve found that even a 3-5 percent improvement in leadership capability and maturity is noticeable. If you can get a little bit better in the 4 Capabilities, as well as the four areas of self-knowledge/management, it can make a big difference to you and your organization’s success.

Court Chilton is a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He has helped large organizations produce business results from learning, coaching, and enterprise-wide change efforts for the last 20 years. Follow @MITSloan

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