Leading Through The Wormhole

The "wormhole" decade was a time when the world changed more quickly than perhaps ever before.

Just what is “the wormhole decade”? According to Sally Blount, dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois, the term refers to the years 2000 to 2010, when the world changed more quickly than perhaps ever before. Those years introduced the rise of emerging markets, an increase in new competition, shorter product life cycles, more complex problems, paradigm-shifting technologies, and a seemingly infinite flow of information.

During “The Leadership Imperative,” her plenary presentation at AACSB International’s Deans Conference in Miami, Blount discussed how these changes have driven the need for new types of leaders, in both business and business schools. “We have the opportunity to transform ourselves in ways our predecessor business school deans could not have imagined,” she told her fellow deans. Blount’s own background in negotiation and behavioral decision making has made her a passionate advocate for developing leadership among both students and faculty. In the interview below, she emphasizes that deans must embrace and encourage different visions of leadership that better align with the world on this side of the wormhole—frameworks of leadership that rely, somewhat counterintuitively, on ceding power and control to others.

What aspects of the “wormhole decade” do you believe most led to the world we live in today?

One thing that defined the wormhole decade was the emergence of BRIC countries on the world stage—these countries have pushed aside some other prior dominant players. Another is the invention of the smartphone, Facebook, social media, and apps. The accessibility of information that has come with them has changed the rules of play. More people in the world can afford a smartphone than can afford a computer, which means that mobile technology is transforming industry and breaking down barriers—and, in some way, democratizing the planet.

When I became a dean at NYU in 2004, none of this had happened yet; but by the time I transitioned to Kellogg in 2010, all the rules had been rewritten. That kind of change is profound, and the world is only beginning to catch up with it. That’s true for business education as well.

Where do you see the biggest discrepancy between what today’s students want and what business school leaders are providing?

I see the biggest gap in how we accelerate leadership development. For instance, when students ask us for an entrepreneurship course, they’re asking us to take the things we know and package them in a new way—because we know a lot about managing and financing new businesses, and entrepreneurship is all about business formation. But when they ask for leadership development, it’s not really about taking what we already know and putting it all together. It’s about not making people change who they are. It’s about allowing more people to the table.

For example, one of the biggest tripwires for women is developing “executive presence.” We used to think of this as having gravitas. I used to like that word, but I now realize that the word gravitas has become code for acting in very traditional ways. It’s become a way to block people. But we know that many women, along with people of different ethnicities and many others, might have different styles. We need to start looking at other kinds of leadership skills.

The great news is that now more and more leaders can be who they are. Twenty years ago, I couldn’t have given the talk I gave at the Deans Conference—it simply would never have happened. Because of the way I present and the way I talk, what I said wouldn’t have been taken seriously. But today people like me are being invited to the stage because more styles of leadership are now appreciated.

You’ve been a prominent voice when it comes to achieving gender equality among b-school students, faculty, and administrators. What do you think are important steps b-school leaders can take to increase the number of women at their institutions?

First, let me step back. I want to emphasize that I’m not advocating for gender equality. Rather, I’m really passionate about diversity and inclusion. I’m an advocate for business schools to get serious about faculty development, not just for women and minorities, but for everyone. So let’s get better at inclusion, at developing all faculty. Then, once we’re confident we can do that, let’s get more people through the pipeline and bring more voices to the table. When we talk about “gender equality,” there is the danger that men are beginning to feel as if they have to apologize. That’s not our goal.

During your plenary, you mentioned that many people—including women and minorities—might feel as if their ideas are undervalued by others. They might fear making too many waves. How would you advise them to address this situation?

You know, it was so much easier for me as the dean, because people were careful with me. But I watched the same people not be careful with others, especially other women. I realized just how against the odds it was that I was in the room when I heard these conversations, and I was glad that I was there to redirect. As the dean, I could change that dialogue. It’s very powerful when we, as leaders, understand how many of those conversations are happening and how much education we have to do.

This realization has made me more serious about the women’s issue. I had knowledge and skills in group facilitation, and I believe we need to help our students and faculty develop similar skills. One of the things I’m passionate about is teaching women to collaborate across silos. More women will excel as leaders if we help them build skills in facilitation and collaboration.

You published an online commentary in Fortune last July, where you emphasized the need for leaders to take risks and “break free from old ways of thinking.” What old ways of thinking do you think are still most prevalent in business schools today—and most crucial for b-school deans to shake off?

One is the way they think about their centers. For instance, one risky but important decision that I made was to bring Kellogg’s 28 research centers together in a matrix structure so we could eliminate the fragmentation among them. Having so many independent centers operating under traditional departmental structures is too difficult to manage. However, most deans haven’t brought their centers together yet because it’s a political risk. But we have to.

Another is the way deans manage relationships. For instance, when I first came to Kellogg, we ran a number of joint executive MBA programs with other schools—when I brought the six deans to the table, I controlled the conversation because I had all the power as Kellogg’s dean. But on the recommendation of one of our faculty members, I decided to create a network with the deans from the other schools. So now, when the deans come together, it’s bringing six peers to the table to manage a network. That was hard to do. Our faculty and administrators didn’t love the fact that we were handing away power—that we weren’t going to be the only ones in charge. But how people think about influence and power has changed. It was more important to have authentic dialogue with all the deans. By giving away power, we increased our own impact and learning.

As deans, we need to embrace the idea that when we build networks on campus—instead of systems where we control a lot of dyadic relationships—we might give away power but we gain wisdom. Taking this step will feel really risky for many business school deans, but as leaders we have to take those risks to move our schools forward.