A Noteworthy Path to Leadership

Based on research by MIT faculty members Deborah Ancona and Hal Gregersen, leaders emerge at MIT in a unique way. By and large, MIT graduates don’t see becoming a “leader” as a top priority. In fact, they are often even uncomfortable with the label and rarely describe themselves that way. Instead, they follow their passion for solving big, complex problems and consequently develop into problem-led leaders along the way.

What Makes Problem-Led Leaders Distinct

They choose challenge over trappings. Intellect, innovation, and real outputs matter more than the appearance of success. They are passionately curious and obsessive problem-solvers. They embrace ambiguity, energized by the impossible and value the role iteration plays in finding solutions that work.

They let problems lead. This variety of leader doesn’t follow people, they follow problems—big, tricky, complex problems that have the potential to make a much-needed impact on the world. Finding viable solutions drives them at the core.

They choose collaboration. They recognize they can’t do it alone and enlist the most capable people they know to advance their mission. They bring together diverse perspectives and extraordinary skill sets. They appreciate the elevated creativity and output it yields in service of finding a solution.

They step up and step out. They believe that the best person to lead the charge is the one with the “super power”—knowledge and expertise—most relevant to that phase of work. They step up and lead until it is time to pass the baton and defer to another teammate. This manner of working demands a sense of humility and respect for others’ unique strengths and abilities.

They work the problem tirelessly. They embrace the scientific method, starting by identifying the right questions to make sure they’re solving the right problem. They roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and develop new skills as needed to create, fail fast, and iterate. They do whatever it takes to move the needle.

They do what the data say. Highly analytical by nature, they rely on data when it comes to making decisions. Using facts and findings as their compass enables them to flourish in the midst of an otherwise ambiguous and unstructured process.

A Style of Leadership Worth Sharing

In their recent white paper, “Problem-Led Leadership: An MIT Style of Leading,” Ancona and Gregersen synthesize the findings from numerous in-depth interviews, assessments of institutional artifacts and earlier data from companies that employ MIT alumni. They take a deep dive into the patterns that emerge and ultimately define the highly effective style as Problem-Led Leadership. This distinct approach to leadership has implications for individuals and organizations, is critical in highly innovative and creative environments, and can help people solve complex problems in our world.