Interview with Jeff Eggers, White House
Jeff Eggers is a Senior Fellow at the think tank "New America" and an independent advisor on organizational performance. At WORLDWEBFORUM 2017 in Zurich, he will speak about new models of leadership and organizational performance for the 21st century.
Jeff Eggers outstanding career encompasses over 20 years of extensive combat experience as a US Navy SEAL, as well as roles as principal advisor to US president Barack Obama, as senior director for national security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as anti-terror specialist at the White House. At WORLDWEBFORUM 2017 in Zurich, he will speak about new models of leadership and organizational performance for the 21st century.
Jeff, thank you for the opportunity to get a glimpse of your thoughts on leadership in advance of WORLDWEBFORUM. To start with something personal: What made you join the military?
I became interested in military aviation because of my father, who flew for the Air Force and taught me how to fly at a young age. Eventually, I decided to join the Navy, because I wanted the challenge of flying off ships instead of mile-long runways.
But in the long run, flying wasn’t enough…
Yes, I soon realized that flying, while fun, wasn’t really about leadership. So I joined the SEALs instead.
What were your key takeaways from your service with the Navy that enabled you to pursue a career in national security policy and leadership advisory?
I’ve always had an interest in strategic analysis, so my military career took a relatively early turn from being a special operations and combat leader to being a strategic advisor to national security leaders. In a sense, I went from being the operational level leader to advising the strategic level leader. However, the early operational phase was critical to grounding the later stage with “field experience.”
Are there, in your experience, any specific personal traits needed to be an outstanding leader?
It is tempting to study popular leaders, look for common denominators, and distill leadership to a check-list of attributes, because that makes it more accessible and marketable. But it isn’t that simple. I don’t believe that a trait-based formula exists. Successful leadership occurs across and through a range of qualities.
Nevertheless, there are leaders we respect and admire more than others. What do they have in common?
To the extent that there are common qualities among such leaders, they are generally emotional in nature, rather than reflecting intelligence or technical competence, and I put self-awareness pretty high on the list.
Is there anything generally considered beneficial that is actually rather adverse to successful leadership?
Humans tend to look for strength and confidence in those we follow, particularly in hard times, because we look for a heroic figure that can turn things around. This tendency gives self-promoting narcissists a natural edge. And yet humble leaders often outperform narcissists. So there is a tension between what matters for advancement and what we seek in a leader, and what actually matters for performance and what we need in a leader.
How does leadership in the 21st century compare to the past?
In the 20th century, leadership was associated with management, a relatively hard science where processes and people are variables to improve productivity, and the leader’s job was to direct those who solve for and optimize that equation. Today, leadership is still about finding competitive advantage to enhance organizational performance, but that opportunity space is becoming more closely associated with psychology and cognitive science, which is evolving rapidly.
How can science contribute to improve leadership models?
The human brain is still the world’s most advanced processor, and yet we know very little about the brain relative to how well we understand computers. This needs to change. Cognitive and behavioral science has explanatory potential in the areas of creativity, motivation, and decision-making, all of which matter greatly to an organization in order to be competitive and high-performing.
One of the traits of the digital age commonly recognized is the “speed of everything”. How does that influence leadership and organization?
Yes, the biggest shift of the digital age is often characterized as the accelerating pace of change. I think it’s more accurate to say that the pace of change may be accelerating, but that it is accelerating unevenly. The economic landscape is increasingly complex, it becomes less predictable and more disruptive. So whereas the 20th century models of leadership prized productivity and efficiency, we’re now more interested in adaptability, or our ability to respond effectively to change.
Digital technologies enable professionals to obtain knowledge and make decisions with less effort and more certitude. How does digital self-empowerment influence the relevance of leadership?
It depends on the industry and sector, but much of what today’s senior manager generation learned about leadership 20 or 30 years ago is far less relevant today, and it can be difficult to shift the paradigm. Even the military, which arguably has a strong rationale to retain “classic” command and control style leadership, is experimenting with more decentralized and adaptable approaches to leadership.
To put it bluntly: Is leadership of the classic kind still needed at all?
Overall, many leaders today see themselves as in control of, or exerting power over, a hierarchal structure beneath them. This is largely because of how we were trained to operate, but it also provides a sense of order and stability within an organization, which is reassuring. However, tomorrow’s leaders will do well by thinking differently about what power means and where it comes from, and increasingly see themselves as part of a complex network that they enable and empower.