Why the Future Belongs to “Challenge-Driven Leaders”

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Why the Future Belongs to “Challenge-Driven Leaders”

Whether you’re talking about business or politics, people are looking for a new kind of leader. In the digital age, the increasing levels of complexity, disruption, and ambiguity are calling for a different profile of leadership—the type of leadership that cares more about innovation than hierarchy. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that organizations that don’t make this shift toward a leadership style that values cognitive diversity—and harnesses everyone’s best ideas about how to innovatively get to the root of a given problem—will be left behind.

Countless studies have told us that innovation is at the forefront for organizations when it comes to achieving business success and competitive advantage. People who are driving innovation are not doing jobs as they have traditionally been done, nor are they wired to lead in the way that leaders have traditionally led in the past (and in some cases today). In a nutshell, leadership demands are shifting to an emerging model that has the courage to break the status quo. Behind the trend is a yearning for leadership that disrupts old-school traditions of power-based, ego-driven leadership in favor of a more inclusive and integrated leadership style.

The point is this: if you are a CEO or senior leader of any company, you should be looking at how leaders are wired: Do they thrive on challenges? Do they have a deep innate curiosity? Are they motivated to work on complex problems and find innovative ways to crack them through less of a command-and-control structure and more of a fluid approach?

I believe these trends are largely mirrored by the findings of a just-released MIT study that identified an emerging new subset of leaders that inherently gravitate toward a model that MIT refers to as “challenge-driven leadership.” In a recent article, MIT’s Deborah Ancona and Hal Gregersen referred to this as “anti-leader leadership” and described it like this: “These leaders are propelled by the intrinsic desire to solve problems and meet challenges creatively. They are not motivated by the trappings of authority, status, or showmanship…they excel at choreographing and directing the work of others, because their expert knowledge enables them to spot opportunities to innovate in a way that cannot be done by working alone.” The authors go on to explain that challenge-driven leadership can be particularly effective “where developing a solution requires drawing together diverse talents and perspectives to discover novel approaches.”

The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that the late Sergio Marchionne, who became an auto industry legend as CEO of Fiat Chrysler, fit this description very well. SHAMBAUGH’s observation is that many high-potential women mirror these traits as well. Regardless of political party or gender, one thing is clear: people are looking for paths away from traditional hierarchy-based leadership, replacing it with a style that’s the opposite of autocratic, and instead more aspirational, idea-driven and inclusive.

As your organization works toward defining, grooming, and developing your next generation of leaders, keep in mind the traits above of challenge-driven leaders, which will help you develop a more innovative and agile business model and work culture that ultimately will drive greater success for your organization now and into the future.  Here’s a quick refresher of what leadership looks like:

  • It’s bold and disruptive. SHAMBAUGH’s studies show a growing trend: many CEOs are using their influence to boldly address inclusion issues, expressing their commitment to achieving benchmarks of inclusion and putting more weight on tapping into and leveraging cognitive diversity and gender balance. Several of our clients have publicly stated this commitment on their websites, targeting 50–50 gender equality within the next decade.


  • It supports layered teams. Challenge-driven leaders know how to tap into a wide range of differing viewpoints to maintain an objective outlook and keep informed. Diverse representation of leadership is the key to innovation and reaching broader markets. There’s currently a lot of critical dialogue around the moral imperative, around gender equity, around better business results—but in addition to those very important reasons, we need to be designing solutions that reflect the population. This calls for leaders to have diverse and relevant representation of leadership at the table designing those solutions. As a leader, your decisions influence whose voice gets heard around the table and whose does not. So take care to check for your own bias and work toward developing layered teams, not teams that echo your own perspectives.


  • It holds others accountable. To bring about change, leadership must release outdated autocratic models of leading that tends to stifle, rather than drive, innovation. Intentionally creating an environment where everyone has the freedom to approach problems in their own way can give employees a sense of true belonging that will lead to heightened creativity and engagement companywide.


If you’re ready to leverage a new model of leadership that’s in tune with today’s shift toward more inclusive, challenge-driven leadership, contact me at info@shambaughleadership.com.

Rebecca Shambaugh is a leadership expert on building inclusive and high performance cultures. She speaks at major conferences and to executives on how to disrupt traditional mindsets and create an inspiring vision and roadmap for driving greater levels of innovation and performance through a unified voice for leadership. Rebeccais the Founder of Women in Leadership and Learning, a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, and blogger for the Huffington Post. She is author of the best-selling books It’s Not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor and Make Room for Her: Why Companies Need an Integrated Leadership Model to Achieve Extraordinary Results

At SHAMBAUGH we’re on mission to develop high-performing and inclusive leaders who transform workplace cultures so everyone can thrive. Find out more about us at: www.shambaughleadership.com

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