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News@Ivey · Dawn Milne

Challenging times call for a different type of leadership

Apr 8, 2020

Martha Maznevski webinar

In times of uncertainty, there’s a tendency to lead harder. It’s an approach that focuses on taking charge and telling people what to do, and it certainly has its purpose. But in times of crisis, such as the current global pandemic, Martha Maznevski, a professor of Organizational Behaviour, warns it can cause leaders to crash and burn.

“I’m seeing a lot of it (this type of leadership) right now and the dilemma with it is it becomes unhelpful … and it’s also frankly unsustainable for the leader. At some point, the leader crashes and you can’t keep it going,” she said.

Instead Maznevski says a new type of leadership is in order – one where leaders temper their Hercules behaviour by also tapping into the principles of the revered philosopher Buddha. The goal of Buddha leadership is to attain enlightenment by asking questions and listening to others.

“Clearly, what leaders need to do in a situation like this is bring Hercules and Buddha together,” she said. “In highly complex situations, you need both consistency and empowerment.”

In a webinar for The Ivey Academy called Leading in a Fast-Changing Environment: Hercules Meets Buddha, Maznevski discussed how to balance these contrasting leadership approaches. Here are some key takeaways.

Hercules leadership: Clarity and control

Maznevski said Herculean leaders bring value to organizations by simplifying and stabilizing a few key messages. Their main contribution is to bring clarity. You need to be Hercules about your organization’s mission and value proposition as well as some core processes, such as who can make decisions.

“Usually we need to be Hercules about things that are related directly to the business and how we are running it,” she said. “People can’t be empowered unless they know who can make which decisions.”

Buddha leadership: Curiosity and empowerment

Bringing Buddha to your organization will help you to adapt and seize new opportunities. Buddha-like leaders bring a strong sense of curiosity. You need to be Buddha about establishing networks and collaboration and encouraging alternative ways of thinking.

“Being Buddha is about relationship-building – being curious about people and the tasks,” she said. “Get people talking to each other, rather than always being the centre of the discussion.”

Bringing Hercules and Buddha together during a crisis

Although leaders naturally tend to be more like Hercules, it’s commonly believed to be a negative approach. But Maznevski points out that Herculean leaders are good at setting direction and organizational goals, ultimately eliminating some of the uncertainty in a crisis.

“A good Hercules is a Hercules that actually accomplishes things and has a goal that people agree is a decent goal … He looks out for his pack,” she said. “Hercules satisfies some of the really deep needs of a follower and, as a leader, if you are being Hercules, you are decreasing your uncertainty in the moment.”

But, due to their need for control, Maznevski warns Herculean leaders can find it difficult to make choices amid ambiguity or to empower others to take on initiatives. That's where Buddha comes in. While Buddha-like leaders don’t excel at giving clear direction, they are better at weighing choices and leading you to new opportunities.

“Buddha principles are great for empowering, innovation, and long-term results,” she said. “Buddha is where you get new ideas bubbling up.”

The key to bringing the best of Hercules and Buddha together is to pick just a few things that you need to consistently be Hercules about and be Buddha for everything else.

“You may think you just need Hercules in a crisis, but you need some Buddha, too,” she said. “Give yourself permission to be Hercules and also enjoy being Buddha. This is a way of empowering and having sustainable leadership so you’ll last longer, and at the same time you’ll empower other people to higher performance and develop their own leadership."