Culture of questions creates better leaders

Psychiatrist turned management thinker Gianpiero Petriglieri says reducing leadership to a set of skills is fuelling a disconnect between leaders and followers

Gianpiero Petriglieri speaking

Q&A with Gianpiero Petriglieri, Associate Professor, INSEAD

Reducing leadership to a set of skills is fuelling a growing disconnect between leaders and followers, says psychiatrist turned management thinker Gianpiero Petriglieri. The associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, and co-author of an Academy of Management award-winning study of how MBA students learn, argues that educators need to put questions about the meaning of leadership at the heart of their work.

Q: Has your psychiatry background influenced your approach to developing leaders?

GP: Since I started training I’ve been interested in how our inner and social worlds affect each other — how personal and professional lives are intertwined. Those questions remain central to my work today. Leading involves a person’s whole self, and is, at its core, a relationship. Leadership development that doesn’t take these factors into account loses all meaning and impact.

Q: What kind of development do aspiring leaders look for?

GP: People increasingly use leadership development and business schools generally as identity workspaces. They use such courses and institutions not only to address questions of competence and skills, but to answer existential questions — who am I, really? As a result, leadership development often affects leaders’ aspirations, as well as their abilities.

Q: What were the key lessons from your study of MBA students?

GP: We looked at how aspiring leaders personalise their learning by connecting it to their own history and concerns. But to really personalise you need an educational environment that offers more than tuition — however competent. That means giving learners the space to reflect, and a culture in which self-questioning is a strength, not a sign of impending failure.

Q: What do you see as the key challenges facing leadership educators today?

GP: Leadership development has in many ways failed to keep up with changing needs. In the age of vertical, stable and homogeneous organisations, leadership development was all about enabling leaders to stand out. That continues to animate much work today, even though companies are now more fluid and diverse. In this context, the challenge for leaders is to enable a shared purpose to emerge.

This interview was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of CIPD’s Work. magazine.