New leaders find strength in diversity

New leaders find strength in diversity

These people belong to multiple worlds and carry those worlds with them

She was in an all-woman rock band in college. As a Yale student, she says, she wore a sari to an interview with a consulting firm and, upon getting the job, kept wearing it. She is a New York Yankees fan. She walks barefoot in the office at times, in an echo of the Indian aversion to closed shoes. She speaks in a faintly Indian accent while tossing out Americanisms like ‘cut my teeth’.

Nooyi belongs to an emergent breed of hybrid leaders. They don’t fit the traditional templates of leader as general or coach, tycoon or populist. They belong to multiple worlds and carry those worlds with them; they are defined by ambivalence and complexity; they are leading the world in important new ways.

Their ranks include President Barack Hussein Obama; Carlos Ghosn, the French-Lebanese-Brazilian executive who runs both a French automaker (Renault) and a Japanese one (Nissan); and Mohammed El Baradei, the Egyptian international civil servant and Nobel laureate who is considering a run for politics in his native land.
But hybrid leaders also abound beyond the spotlight, in firms and civic groups and governments. Conversations with them and with observers drew out this sketch of some defining habits.

Listen zealously: The deftest hybrids tend to avoid the traditional leader’s need to declaim and set the agenda. They listen and lead by empathy. “One of the basics of transcultural leadership is empathy,” Ghosn once said.

Hybrids find ways to engage both sides without appearing to belong to either. They allow others to feel heard. Their eye can dwell on the least included person in the room, perhaps because they, too, have known exclusion. Enemies unsettle them. But their admirers can be unsettled by the hybrid’s need to please everyone and tendency to split the difference rather than take a stand.

Seek the universal: The most skillful hybrids see past epidermal facts into a universal quality in others. When they sit in meetings, people forget that they do not belong. In their mix of curiosity, openness and versatility, they are something like the musician Ry Cooder, who has recorded with the Malian Ali Farka Toure, the Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Indian V M Bhatt and the forgotten musicians of Cuba, connecting with each where they might have struggled to connect with each other, ever allowing others’ sounds to throb loudest.

Vary your cadences: Traditional leaders were valued for their consistency. Hybrid leaders make clever use of inconsistency. As they often come from no one place, geographically or professionally or ideologically, they speak many languages, varying their accents, emphasising different parts of their life story.

Obama, for example, is described as ‘multilingual’ in David Remnick’s new biography of him, a ‘shape-shifter’ who “could change styles without relinquishing his genuineness,” with a “subtly shifted accent and cadences depending on the audience.”

Be radically pragmatic: Hybrid leaders tend to be hopeful about the prospects of changing the world because of their view of human nature. They embrace the postmodern idea that meaning is manufactured and that people’s viewpoints are shaped by where they happen to stand.

“If the present moment is, to some degree, a function of how we make meaning, that in some ways we construct it, then the future is also in some ways a green field,” said Annie McQuade, a consultant in Dubai who advises organisations on large-scale change.
And yet the hybrid leader is rarely the reckless radical. She believes in making the world new, but through — not outside — the system. It is perhaps because, in having to invent herself as a young outsider, she was more interested in joining the establishment than subverting it.

Know your truths: Hybrid leaders have an interesting relationship with relativism. They tend to be chameleon-like outwardly, but to cling more fiercely than most to what each has come to define as underlying truths.

When they travel, they show no anxiety about suspending their own practices in deference to local mores. In Japan, for example, Obama bowed to the emperor, raising many eyebrows in Washington. And yet hybrid leaders tend to build their lives around a few core convictions since they have little but their ideas by which to define themselves.

Think both/and: Hybrid leaders have often known multiple ways of being in their own family backgrounds or world-scattered youths; and the divides they bridge in their personal lives become a metaphor for the bridging of other divides.

In the business world, they seek to bridge the greed-altruism divide, as Indra Nooyi has done; in politics, they call for transcending left and right, in the manner of Obama.
“These people think less in good-and-bad, black-and-white terms,” said Herman De Bode, a Belgian director of McKinsey, the consulting firm, who leads its Saudi Arabian office. “They see complementarity where others see a conflict or a contradiction or an inconsistency.”

Shortly after Nooyi became PepsiCo’s chief executive in 2007, she has said, she returned to India and visited her mother, who asked her to dress up and sit beside her as guests came to offer good wishes. One by one, they ignored the famous leader and went straight to her mother, telling her what a good daughter she had raised.

Like the hybrid leader she is, Indra brought the idea home and to the parents of her senior managers. “I wrote to those parents and told them how much they contributed to the success of PepsiCo through the gift of their son or daughter,” she said in a video interview posted online. “And it unleashed emotions that were unbelievable.”