Training Future Leaders to Be More Like Q, Less Like James Bond

With a shift in cultural mindset, educators can help tomorrow's leaders onto the path of reinvention that innovators usually take.
Illustration of profile view human head with scribbling of multiple colors in place of brain

Anyone who has seen a James Bond movie knows how the usual conversation between the famous British spy and Q, the head of research and development at MI6, is likely to go: Q will show James Bond plenty of sophisticated gadgets, but the spy will copiously ignore his colleague. Ultimately, every James Bond movie will end the same way: the spy will kill all the bad guys—using Q’s fancy gadgets.

The James Bond story offers a cautionary tale to all future leaders and to business schools that train them: what will matter and be relevant tomorrow may not be clear to you today, confident though you may be about your current position and understanding of the world. As business schools look to rethink what it means to teach “business” in the 21st century, in a world that is becoming increasingly polarized, both in terms of politics and resources, incorporating the lessons of this cautionary tale will be challenging. But those who do may be in a better position to thrive in the future.

The Flames of the Day, the House of the Future

To be sure, acting like James Bond can be very fulfilling for leaders. By doing so in times of uncertainty and political instability, they are able to show courage, build credibility, and effectively prepare their employees, especially in a crisis. You never blame a leader for trying to put out a fire when you are aware of the surrounding chaos.

But as the James Bonds of the world arduously fight the flames of the day, they may not see that the house has already burned down. The leaders who do notice will understand far more quickly what transformational changes are required from companies and institutions. This is a task James Bond is ill-suited to carry out.

Unless leaders think relatively more like Q, they may be unlikely to succeed on the path of reinvention that innovators usually take. This is where a shift in the cultural mindset of those training tomorrow’s business leaders is taking place. It is inconceivable that these leaders can ever do without the basics of business. But it is, at the same time, increasingly inconceivable that they are put back in the real world without the habit of constantly rethinking and reimagining their purpose in this environment.

Our Challenge as Educators

But there is nothing natural about the path of reinvention. Human brains are not well wired to deal with global complexity, especially in this context in which immediacy and urgency seem to dictate the choices of leaders and decision-makers. Change requires a form of intellectual gymnastics that business schools must push their participants to engage in. Just like wanting to run a marathon requires physical training, surviving in this business environment requires constant intellectual flexibility.

And somehow, humans accept the need for physical training more easily than the need for intellectual agility. Business schools must, as a result, address this challenge. They must encourage future leaders to embrace global complexity rather than trying to over-rationalize it, to surprise and to challenge yesterday’s consensus while remaining pragmatic. They should, in other words, help their students think a little bit more like Q.

This reframing requires in practice training realistic agitators (or idealistic pragmatists, depending on one’s viewpoint). It will demand that educators rethink a wide range of principles no one imagined disputing yesterday.

The first principle that business school must rethink is their relationship to uncertainty—the way they think about it and the way they manage it. The conventional, linear minds of traditional leaders are used to extrapolating and predicting. Yet, it is hard to imagine how they can thrive without greater awareness of exponential phenomena. This approach may only induce limited and imperceptible changes initially, but these modifications can be transformative and disruptive once they gather steam. Without curiosity and imagination, many of these leaders are likely to lose their edge and see their activity disrupted.

A second principle that should be on the radar screens of business schools is intellectual curiosity—and honesty. It is admittedly hard to “teach” the concepts of dreaming and curiosity. But the real balance that needs to be struck is between one’s ability to dream while not ignoring outside forces. When we hear the word “disruptive,” we often think about futuristic solutions to mind-boggling problems. But the fact is that market forces can be extremely boring. Today’s problems that need fixing may not prove to be as exciting as sending people to Mars or developing the next technology that will replace the internet. Disruption does not have to be about mind-boggling technologies: there are plenty of “simple,” down-to-earth problems that can be solved and have real, long-term impact. Consider Elon Musk’s objective to tackle the issue of traffic jams in Los Angeles through tunnels and infrastructure. The problem is not new. However, the solutions in terms of saving time and redefining the boundaries of cities and the realities of commuting could be fundamental.

A final principle for business school leaders to think about is their relationship to reality. Educators must remind their audience of the importance of being analytical, particularly today. In the age of alternative facts and fake news, it seems incredibly easy to be dogmatic and ideological, to try to assert a desired outcome rather than try to design a strategy that fits reality as it is. Unsurprisingly, many big companies are developing their own internal think tank to bring to the boardroom ideas about the long term that can turn out to be ultimately decisive. Consider the example of Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas), a company owned by Alphabet. The think tank was formed in the wake of political crises around the world with the mission of creating and using Google products to help protect activists against online censorship and cyberattacks. Conversely, the group sought to understand how the global challenges shape (and should shape) Google products. This type of investigation may seem like a luxury to many leaders who are driven by day-to-day dynamics; yet, in the coming business environment, it may not be a luxury but a real priority.

Embracing these principles can help business schools generate, for instance, a wide range of more sustainable and inclusive business opportunities for a greater share of stakeholders. These systemic fixes are where tomorrow’s true value creation lies. And ultimately, educators should not be looking to silence the James Bond voice inside every leader. They should instead help every leader to hear the Q viewpoint as well. With enough practice and intellectual gymnastics, that more pioneering perspective can become increasingly natural.

Creative, Curious Leaders

Leaders are trained to crave predictability. However, by being predictable and rational all the time, they may be undermining their ability to seize opportunities to make a difference. In order to forge new pathways, they must surprise and lead their followers to places no one dared to imagine. This economy may not be about knowledge after all. It may be more a creativity economy in which those who succeed are those who are able to leverage knowledge in creative ways. That ability is crucial in a world threatened by both political turmoil and creative stagnation.

As a result, leaders seeking predictability to meet the expectations of consumers, shareholders, and other stakeholders may hit a stalemate in a business environment in which rules, norms, and expectations are constantly evolving. For instance, recent reports about the profound transformation of the advertising industry, in the context of an increasingly volatile and distracted customer, suggest that in order to get that customers’ attention, firms will need to be increasingly disruptive and innovative—and to a large degree unpredictable. That behavior is ultimately what is likely to catch the customer’s attention.

So business schools should remind aspiring leaders to not ignore outside forces and to follow the footsteps of brave fictional (and not-so-fictional) role models who carry out their mission with courage. But they should also remind them that another challenge lies ahead, once their mission is accomplished: designing tomorrow’s world with the open-mindedness of an architect without any taboos.


Headshot of Jeremy Ghez, affiliate professor of economics and international affairs at HEC Paris, photo credit copyright of Nicolas ReitzaumJeremy Ghez is an affiliate professor of economics and international affairs at HEC Paris.