Great Leaders Can Think Like Each Member of Their Team

by Brian Uzzi

by Brian Uzzi

Money wasn’t the only thing that enabled financier Cosimo de’ Medici  to become de facto ruler of Florence for much of the Italian Renaissance. He exemplified a special leadership skill — the ability to get diverse teams of contending bankers, merchants, and traders to collaborate effectively. How? He identified with each group’s sentiments and mindsets. With that understanding, he succeeded where others failed: He built new bridges of common purpose, resulting in a “team” that produced greater, more sustained economic, social, and cultural value for all parties — and the broader society.

Central to Cosimo’s success was what I think of as “multivocal leadership.” Multivocal leadership is not about gaining technical proficiency in multiple areas – Cosimo knew banking, but not trading, merchandising, or other areas of expertise, and he didn’t have the time to gain even nominal proficiency in other areas. Instead, multivocal leaders identify directly or vicariously through others with the experiences, mentalities, and skills of a diverse set of people, and fluently broker communication among teammates to guide collaboration.

My research with Jarrett Spiro and Balazs Vedres on factors promoting success for Broadway production teams and jazz bands showed that diverse teams were more likely to be effective if guided by a multivocal leader. Below I describe some of the key features of multivocal leaders, using the example of Shane Black, an iconic Hollywood screenwriter, director, and pioneer of the action genre, who’s behind creative mega-hits including Predator, Lethal Weapon, As Good As it Gets, and Iron Man 3:

Fluency across fields and cultures: The best leaders of diverse teams can speak the multiple “languages” of their teammates, based on their own experience and learning. Black discusses how writers and directors need a way to fluently speak to actors in a vocabulary the latter group will value and understand. For example, one director we interviewed remarked that when directors impose their own view of a part, it tends to alienate the actor and others on the production. By contrast, multivocal directors get the best performance out of actors by leveraging the psychology of acting in communications. They help actors understand the full context of a given scene and to evoke emotion by connecting the role with the actor’s personal experience and empathizing with their frustration over multiple takes. The same approach enables the leader to more effectively broker exchanges among teammates themselves, too. Remember that a three-person team has three dyadic relationships, a four-person team has six dyadic relationships, and a five-person team has 10 dyadic relationships, and so on exponentially growing — making fluency among team members important for efficient, respectful communication.

Perspective built on breadth of experience and a deep curiosity about people: Multivocal leaders are genuinely interested in what drives those around them. That curiosity embraces diverse experiences and yields practical knowledge about what motivates others, and what will help them to trust you. For example, Black exhorts screenwriters and directors to take acting courses to gain an authentic appreciation for the meaningfulness of actors’ contributions to movies and to use that knowledge to guide collaboration. “It’s a way of approaching things that lets you know that, “Hey, I know how hard this job is for you. Let’s talk on your terms … because I appreciate and love actors….”

An almost painful self-awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses: Effective leaders of diverse groups understand what they themselves bring to the table, as well as the potential limits of their capabilities. That helps them to defer to the expertise of their teammates, where needed. Black, for example, had studied theater and was interested in acting early in his career, but recognized that his shyness made him “intimidated by the cattle call auditions.” That self-awareness helped him focus on writing — and later, directing — and rely on the actors and others he worked with to bring his creative ideas successfully to the screen.

You and Your Team

Multivocal leadership is especially critical in a relatively new domain: data science. Handling Big Data means dealing with unprecedented volumes of information — whether terabytes of retail customer data, hospital records, or financial transactions — and complex decisions regarding questions to ask, frameworks and tools to use, and insights to seek. Success in this context requires integrating the efforts of computer scientists, physicists, computational biologists, social scientists, graphic design specialists, and others. It’s impossible for one person to hold deep expertise across all of these domains, and the individual players on data analytics teams will inevitably have divergent viewpoints, interpretations, and work styles. A physicist may value the ability to convert data-based concepts into mathematical language, for example, whereas a social scientist may believe such conversion diminishes the ability to derive bigger-picture insights from the data. A truly multivocal leader will be able to create order from this potential discord, aligning understanding and efforts into a high-value solution or product where the whole is much greater than the sum of individual contributions.

Some elements of multivocality are innate. But, you can learn the skill by following some practical tips:

Sidestep imposter syndrome: It can be easy for leaders of diverse teams to feel that they are in over their heads, because they lack the same level of expertise as any one teammate they have authority over. As noted earlier, no one individual can be an expert in every area a team represents. The most effective leaders understand and appreciate the limits of their capabilities. They lead diverse individuals to fresh solutions no one teammate could have discovered on his or her own by translating team differences into complementary skills. The strength of the wolf may be in the pack, but the highest-performing packs have multivocal leaders who believe in themselves and their cross-disciplinary abilities.

Expand your perspective — and translation skills: Multivocal leaders need to understand, interpret, and translate complex hard and soft issues to teammates and among teammates. The psychological concept of “perspective-taking” concerns the ability to place oneself effectively in another’s shoes, gaining understanding and empathy for them. You can enhance your perspective and fluency by taking a personal interest in teammates’ backgrounds and styles to understand where they’re coming from. Perspective taking for the leader begins with understanding what each teammate values and then brokering and communicating shared value among teammates.

Conduct an honest, ongoing self-assessment: Psychology research supports our tendency toward a “self-serving bias” that may prevent us from understanding our weaknesses. Such blindspots disrupt multivocality by endowing leaders with a false sense of competence that impedes their growth. Be honest with yourself about your capabilities and constraints. Meaningful self-assessment can take the form of a formal skills inventory administered by a third party or a more casual approach including inputs from your team, higher-level managers, and/or mentors. Be brutally candid with yourself to boost your collaboration skills.

Multivocality is a somewhat complex term for a simple concept: To lead a diverse team most effectively, draw on your past roles, cross-disciplinary fluency, and self-awareness to build trust, shared understanding, and momentum. You can maximize your team’s success by finding and channeling your inner Cosimo.