Discover more from Infinite Loops
Why Leadership Has Gone Wrong
And other insights from Dr. Pippa Malmgren
To say that Dr. Pippa has had a successful career is an understatement. She’s advised Presidents and Prime Ministers, advised the British Cabinet, co-founded an award-winning tech firm, briefed NATO Generals, lectured at Sandhurst and Duke, founded and supported numerous tech ventures, and written four books. Phew!
Dr. Pippa’s most recent book, The Infinite Leader: Balancing the Demands of Modern Business Leadership (which she co-wrote with Chris Lewis), won the International Press Award for the Best Book on Leadership for 2021 and proposed a revolutionary new framework for leadership.
Following her recent visit to Infinite Loops (episode link here), we present for your delectation our pre-interview primer on some of Dr. Pippa’s most profound insights.
The Infinite Leader: Balancing the Demands of Modern Business Leadership (2020)
The Leadership Lab: Understanding Leadership in the 21st Century (2018)
Signals: How Everyday Signs Can Help Us Navigate the World's Turbulent Economy (2016)
Geopolitics for Investors (2015)
Themes (each discussed below)
I. The Infinite Leader | II. Innovation | III. Signals | IV. Imagination
I. The Infinite Leader
“Leadership must be a moral commitment to do the right thing or it’s nothing”
Dr. Pippa argues that leadership in its current form has gone badly wrong.
Failures of leadership have a massive cost:
We are experiencing a loss of faith in the political process, which manifests through unrest, extremism, reductions in voter turnout, etc.
Anger is increasing.
The financial crisis was a failure of leadership. COVID was, in certain respects, a failure of leadership. The financial ( as well as personal) cost of these crises was gargantuan.
Leadership is more important than ever before:
More people have moved into the service section and direct customer contact roles. “This places much more emphasis on interpersonal skills and team leadership rather than simple industrial technique. More knowledge work means more workers with knowledge and a more sophisticated, skilled and expensive team. Leadership is therefore critical to the efficiency and leveraging of the investment.”
Customer sensitivity is far greater in these industries, which means that the flexibility required from leaders is also far greater.
Our education system is optimized for poor leadership:
We conflate management trading with leadership training. They are not the same!
We do not teach leadership in schools.
“Management is about doing things right, That’s not the same as doing the right things.”
Management is focused on a particular type of thinking, which resolves problems by analysis. But not everything can be solved by being broken down.
Schools are obsessed with grades. Right and wrong.
This drives us towards leaders who are “quantitative, short-term, tactical, tangible and cold.”
“The education system is geared to make individual attainment synonymous with leadership. It isn’t. This assumes that the objective of every team is for one individual to ‘win’.”
The best way to learn how to become a better leader is to study the worst leaders. “most leaders will tell you they learn more from failure than they do from success. In fact, so much progress depends upon failure to provide the incentive for change.”
Education encourages specialisation, but this prevents the development of polymaths. The era of the specialist leader is dead.
Leaders must know a little about lots of things to be able to cope with ambiguity.
Education does not reward collaboration, sensitivity, empathy, humility, etc. It does not prepare you for being happy.
Not all the great challenges of leadership can be taught. The most important educational relationship a leader can have is not with their coach but with themselves.
Confidence and competence are not the same:
Our leaders have “great certainty that they are right.” This results in mediocrity: “If leadership is convinced that this is the best it can be and there’s no more improvement to come.”
A better signal of competence is humility – it “operates as a reality check and it helps maintain awareness of weaknesses.”
Leadership has become imbalanced:
Research suggests that “more than ever today’s leaders seem to have lost their moral compass.” E.g. SBF, Elizabeth Holmes, Adam Neumann, etc.
Cultural, technological, and geopolitical changes have overwhelmed our leaders.
Leaders are drowning in so much information that they are blinded to the obvious. The “mystery of the bigger picture” is hidden from view.
Traditional leadership models are too reductive and analytical and fail to realize the importance of balance. Intellectualized models have eclipsed a more holistic approach.
Modern leadership is focused on the short term – tactical, quantitative, narrow & self-interested:
Short-term efficiency is used as an excuse for long-term damage and the waste of resources in the form of people, capital, and our environment.
Economic rationalism is seen as the single objective of leadership. This results in a focus on quantitative over qualitative criteria.
Today’s leadership has become anchored in economic rationalism. It has no home for long-term qualitative values. Short-term, quantitative goals dominate the space and “consistently drive us into catastrophic leadership failures.”
Modern leadership is ego-based and focused on size and headcount rather than the quality of thinking. Short-term results over long-term sustainability.
“Perhaps the trend we can see among almost all leadership these days is that intellectual thinking has become more dominant. We have created leaders who believe that people commit only when they understand. No. They commit when they feel understood. That’s different. Not everything that counts can be counted.”
Our leaders are unprepared for the kind of leadership that is required in the “inverted, unreal, amoral, impatient, inflationary, selfish, spiritual, irrational, gender-fluid, polysexual, strategically multipolar, everywhere-facing, bottom-up, information-soaked, multiracial, androgynous, fluid, opinionated, rapidly moving, asymmetric world.”
A new leadership model should be based on balance across intersecting criteria. “At the heart of the Infinite Leader idea is what we’ve called the zero model of leadership, which shows how leadership can be rebalanced.”
The zero-model leadership does not mean no leadership. It means leadership “that balances between positives and negatives, between competing forces, between conflicting objectives and interests.” This is the Infinite Leader.
At the heart of the idea of the Infinite Leader is balance. Balance has been central to human thinking for centuries. The Infinite Leader must constantly reinvent ways of measuring balance against a range of scales.
“This is what we mean by the Infinite Leader. When we measure them on a balance, we don’t want them to be +1 or −1. We don’t want them to be −9 or +4. We want them to be capable of ALL numbers but based at zero.”
The easiest way to balance the team is to be located at the center. “Being located at the balance point is the fastest way to get to all extremes.”
“There is a huge benefit to residing at the infinite zero point. It is the closest point to deploy to any extreme.”
“If you have to be at the centre, then think of it more like a solar system in that the sun holds everything together and provides the warmth and daily rhythm for the success. This is an infinite process because it’s not just the balance of the leader we seek. A good leader will subordinate their own needs to the task of balancing the team and the community.”
The leader should be the most flexible member of the team. Cheerleader + drill down analyst. Individual objectives + group-focused. They must be situationally fluent to detect and react to a lack of balance.
Leaders are most effective when they balance the rational, spiritual, physical, and emotional. The infinite challenge is having all four of these aspects in balance. Today, the physical/rational quadrant is dominant.
“The leader needs to be fluid, agile, active and looking-across, rather than solely drill-down. They should be neutral to events, disinterested and of no fixed opinion. This then allows them latitude for any position. Buddhists call this a state of ‘non-attachment’.”
Leaders must also balance the operational/tactical and strategic/emblematic. In other words, they must balance between doing and being.
“The leader needs to be seen to be representing the values of the belief systems their community holds true. This commitment to values and belief systems cannot be expressed by a ‘to-do’ list. A leader can only express it by a ‘to-be’ list. You can’t show these values. You have to live them. The slightest discrepancy will inevitably invite a loss of confidence in the leader.”
No matter how flexible they are, the Infinite Leader must always be able to snap back to the “zero state.”
Balanced leaders create balanced teams. A balanced team can adapt to change. Any team's only real advantage is its ability to adapt to change.
A leader needs to balance multiple realities. Every time a leader speaks to someone, they encounter a different reality. “A good yardstick is to try to imagine ten other realities or perspectives each day. All of this deepens the leader’s field of perception. It allows a better understanding of what is required.”
Leaders must operate in the ‘liminal space’ – the ambiguous spaces between states.
“The zero state creates huge opportunities, both from being balanced and understanding the importance of the liminal state that exists between two extremes. We can have different levels of balance at different levels of leadership. We can also change around the axes on the model to understand balance in one continuum versus another. In reality, this is beginning to get closer to the real challenge of leadership. This is not to be balanced on just two axes, but multiple ones.”
“In the game of snooker, players are always required to have one foot on the ground. It’s the same with the leader. They need to maintain their grasp of the ‘here and now’ as well as the perspective or situational fluency. This is a demanding task and does not allow time for the leader to be focused on themselves.
Leadership should seek out minority views.
Minority reviews can provide a “vital early warning system.” For example, some voices raised concerns about the financial crash, but no one listened, as the critics were seen as mavericks.
A team starts to fall apart when someone feels they have no representation.
All minorities are “deviant” in that they don’t represent the norm. The leader’s job is to grant permission for this.
Good leaders require:
Imagination (see theme 4)
Unselfishness (“Leaders can thus advertise their own capabilities paradoxically by extolling the virtues of their team members. This unselfishness is one of the traits of great leadership. It also explains how great teams can be created. Individual identities are welded together into something bigger.”)
Humor – this displays judgment, timing, sensitivity, shared perspective, and intelligence.
The ability to create a culture where ideas can come to life.
The ability to alter realities – to allow other colleagues to create their own map.
The ability to create magic – “even the most intractable problems can be solved if we reframe them in a new way.” “Magic is the ability to inspire and to motivate and change perceptions.”
A lack of ego – “If you’re not here for ego reasons, it helps. Leadership can never be about self-aggrandizement. Ego is kryptonite to team ethos, to use a reference to Superman’s only point of vulnerability. The leader has primarily got to have the interests of others at heart.”
Energy – particularly energy that releases energy in others.
Love - love for others allows leaders to transcend from a zero to the start of unlimited possibility.
“The myth about leadership is that it works in one direction only. The point here is that it doesn’t just work downwards and upwards, it works in every direction. It’s quaquaversal, which stems from the Latin quaqua versus meaning ‘turned wheresoever’. Leadership is leadership no matter whether it’s going up the organization, down it or sideways out of it. The leader’s job is to focus all their activity on other people irrespective of whether they can be of benefit. This then creates an example not just of intellect or skill set, but of ethics, too. When this happens, organization leaders then become community leaders.”
“But the real issue is that we need more wealth generation all around. The solution is innovation: in business models, in entrepreneurial ventures, in diplomacy, in governance, in technology and in personal goals. Only innovation can generate a greater alignment of interests between nations and among the people who inhabit them.”
The path to the future lies in innovation:
Innovation is the route out of our broken social contract. Redistribution is NOT the answer.
Innovation is “the single most important event that occurs in the economy, the thing that creates sustainable GDP.”
“The solutions here are simple. We must be encouraged to reach for something that is beyond our grasp because this is how we build tomorrow’s economy and GDP. We need to do edgework instead of remaining comfortable so we can be better at innovating and recovering from inevitable mistakes. All this will make us less vulnerable to the random upheavals that the global economy inflicts.”
Innovation comes from deviancy. There isn't much space for innovation if we all have the same views. Frank Zappa: “without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
Innovation is “‘edgework’ – pushing against the boundaries of the unknown.”
Tough circumstances lead to soul-searching. This leads to calculated risk-taking. This leads to innovation, which “forms the foundation of tomorrow’s economy.”
“Great innovation is going to come mainly from the quiet everyday acts of calculated risk-taking that brave individuals undertake all the time.”
Innovation can also mean an act of personal reinvention.
“The greater the economic pressures, the greater the capacity for innovation and reinvention.”
“The signals are always there, but the question is how to recognise and interpret them.”
Most of us fear economics and thus are not attuned to signals from global financial markets and the world economy, despite their importance. But economics isn’t about complex theories and numbers. It is about behavior. Simple events we observe can provide as much information as numbers.
Signals help us better inform our view of the world. We can navigate through a world of uncertainty by paying attention to signals.
The signals we notice and pay attention to depend on our preconceptions. Our views define our responses to signals.
Observing signals is not enough. Action is required, and “action demands having a view.” To have a view of the future reveals our character.
“Some of those who have great expertise in economics will mock the average person who notices the world economy with naïve and fresh eyes and energetically enters the debate. They will probably knock down my simple suggestion that anyone is capable of identifying signals in the world economy and deciding for themselves what they mean. But such backward-looking, data-dependent naysayers would do well to remember Emerson’s comment that ‘an ounce of action is worth a tonne of theory’.”
Noticing signals requires us to be alert, observant, and able to exercise common sense and character. Character is the confidence and conviction to believe that your view is correct.
The actions we take are signaling. What signals do we want to send to a friend when they tell us about a risky new business?
Decisive actions based on character & courage are strong signals. Signals about tomorrow’s economy arise from individual action. “Preoccupation with the past and fear of the future sometimes preclude a clear vision of similar acts of hubris in the present. The sharp demands of reality draw forth strength of character and cause some to proceed with nothing more than conviction and a clarity of vision that others don’t yet share or may never share. These efforts are signals – even beacons – in an economic fog, and lead the way into the economy of tomorrow.”
Artists and creative people often “feel and project the zeitgeist” without realizing it. This is one reason we should pay attention to them regarding financial and geopolitical matters rather than just ‘experts.’
Signals fall outside of mathematical models, allowing us to see past the constraints of analytical/rational thinking. Signals enable us to “create an economy where we won’t be compelled to say, ‘The algorithm made me do it.’”
The most important signal in any economy is the price of money.
“The most underutilized skill in the economy is imagination.”
None of our leaders pre the financial crash thought that they would end up in the situation they did. They “could not conceive of the scale of the catastrophe.” This suggests a lack of imagination for what could happen.
The leader's job is not to predict and prepare for one outcome – instead, they need the “imagination to see the potential outcomes and include them in the planning process.”
Imagination is what takes us beyond the analytical and the rational. Imagination takes us beyond the “vanishing point.
“It’s that imagination is the essential magical power that allows a leader to transform from being visible to invisible. The vanishing point is not just a location on a picture. It is the leadership act of disappearing and only reappearing when the leadership is really required.”
Economics and imagination are intertwined. Imagination lies at the heart of economics. “You cannot reach for something that exceeds your grasp unless you imagine it.” All innovation, growth & GDP depends on imagination.
The impossible often happens in economics. Imagining helps us to improve our preparedness.
“Our imagination defines our future.”
Imagination is like a muscle – we have to exercise it.