Lessons in Leadership: Edgar Schein — Part 1

Interview · May 4, 2018

Edgar Schein head shot

Mary Jane Kornacki, MS, interviews Edgar Schein, PhD, Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus and Professor Emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, recorded live at Stanford in Palo Alto, California. Part 1 of a 2-part interview. Looking for Part 2? Catch up here.


Mary Jane Kornacki:  I’m sitting here today with Edgar Schein. Ed is Professor Emeritus from MIT Sloan School. He’s widely recognized as one of the most important contributors to the field of organizational development, with his work on corporate culture and advancing our understanding of how and why norms of behavior are established in organizations.

His seminal book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, is currently in its fifth edition. In recent years, Ed has unpacked the dynamics involved in helping and explored the role of humility and effective leadership at all levels of organizations in today’s complex, fast-changing world. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today.

Edgar Schein:  Thank you, Mary Jane. It’s a pleasure also to be here. I’m always happy to talk about the vicissitudes of leadership.

Kornacki:  Ed, over the past 60 years, you’ve observed, consulted to, and written about leadership. How have your own thoughts about leadership changed over time, if they have?

Schein:  Leadership is one of those topics that is an obsession in the U.S. culture. We’re all about individualism and heroism, and we associate great performances with great leaders. We pay lip service to teamwork, but it’s the individual lone hero leader who fascinates us. The main change that I want to emphasize, which is caught in the book that my son and I have just finished, called Humble Leadership, is to realize that we’ve put way too much emphasis on the leader as an individual and not nearly enough emphasis on leadership as a process.

If you define leadership as doing something new and different and better, then you find leadership happening all over the place. When an assembly line worker sees a better way of doing some part of his or her job, that’s an act of leadership just as much as if the president of the company finds that there’s a new strategy they need.

The idea of humble leadership is to get away from looking at what does the individual need to be a leader, and examining the many, many ways that leadership occurs. For example, if you take a hospital or medical practice, the surgeon in the OR is the accountable leader, but that person expects leadership from the anesthesiologist, from the nurses, from the techs. When they see a better way to do something and suggest it or correct an error, it’s important to begin to see those all as acts of leadership rather than focusing just on the person who has the official role, who has the title, who has the accountability. And then it gets important for the future because groups are going to find that leadership is very distributed. You won’t know, in a given team, like a military operation, which of the particular Navy Seals who is doing the operation will be called upon to the next bit of leadership because that person will be facing a new situation. Does that give you a sense of how?

It’s a big shift to go away from the person, hero, leader to seeing it as a process. One more thought about it: The most interesting book I’ve read recently is written by a group of theater artists in the U.K. who are working with executives on showing them what leadership is like in the theater arts, where the production has to be a perfect ensemble where everyone — including the person who has only one line — has to deliver it perfectly.

When you think about the director, and the editors, and the actors, you begin to see that, yes, the director has the title, but the performance won’t happen if any one of the people in the play does things wrong. Then, he takes these same executives and shows them what happens in a world-winning dance pair, how they develop the coordination, and then he takes them to a chorus and shows them what the relation is between the chorus director and the singers. You begin to say, “Wow, leadership is a lot of different things.” Let’s broaden the concept to the process and not constantly worry about the person.

Kornacki:  What you’re saying is it’s not the formal role, it’s not the person with the title, but it’s a set of activities that anybody at any level can engage in. For leaders of medical organizations, be they the hospitals or group practices, how do you foster other people to take leadership if they don’t have that in their official title?

Schein:  What happens is the task itself creates the opportunity. You don’t have to foster it. What you have to do is to get out of the way. When I look at typical hierarchies and bureaucracies, what I see is the junior people having good ideas that the senior people either don’t hear or actively ignore. There’s much more of that, of dampening leadership that’s coming up from below, than there is having to stimulate it, unless you’ve spent so many years curbing the enthusiasm below you that people finally learn not to speak up.

They feel psychologically unsafe to suggest anything and then we say, “How do we get them engaged?” The problem is you first disengaged them, and then [you] suddenly want help in how to re-engage them. But you are the problem, not the people below you. You haven’t created the climate, if you’re the person in power, to elicit new and better ideas from below you and make it safe for people to come up with those ideas.

The leader in the formal position has to create a group environment that will make process leadership — improving how things are done — easier to do and allow it to be more widely distributed, because in most groups the know-how and knowledge of how to do things better will be widely distributed. Creating a climate for leadership is another way to think about it. The formal leader has to create a climate for process leadership throughout the organization.

Kornacki:  Let’s talk concretely. If one is chief of a service, not the highest person in the organization, but responsible for running a service, and you want to engage your team — and that’s a popular term these days, engagement — you want to engage them and perhaps you have the insight that you haven’t done it before well or some of your own behaviors have stifled the creativity that exists, how do you go about that? Do you need to apologize? You have the insight and you want to engage others and foster those different behaviors. What’s your first action?

Schein:  In the book, we talk about a concept of “personizing.”

Kornacki:  Say that again?

Schein:  Personize. Deliberately changing the word “personalize” into the word “personize.” What we have learned in most hierarchies and bureaucracies is to maintain professional distance with our subordinates, with our teammates, because it seems to work better. You don’t want to get too intimate, you don’t want to get too close, you don’t want to make friends because that might lead to favoritism. When a person finds themselves in the role of having created that distance and suddenly has the insight that, maybe even with patients, there’s been too much distance, what you have to figure out is whether there is some way you could personize those relationships.

The example that I used with some doctors here at Stanford, where we were having some discussions, is [that] the doctor is under time pressure. He knows he only has 10 minutes with a patient, he hates that situation. I asked one of the senior people at a lunch, “Supposing you did it this way, would this work? You march into the patient’s room. He’s been waiting there for a long time. He’s impatient, he anxious. You go right up to the patient, you put your hand on his shoulder and say “hi” and use his name and say, with a big smile on your face, ‘You and I know that we’ve only got 10 minutes, but 10 minutes is a long time. Let’s make the most of it.’” I asked that doctor, “If you did that, wouldn’t that change the relationship?” This doctor thought about it and said, “Of course it would.” “Could you do that?” “Of course I could.”

It’s not like the skill to be more personal, to be more relational, to be more giving rather than confrontive and distant. It’s what we do with our friends. It’s what we do with the outside relations. I believe we’re going to have to use some of that behavior at work. We’re going to have to get friendlier, put a smile on our face.

The classic case is my son-in-law, whom I quote all the time. He’s an orthopedic children’s surgeon [who does] these highly specialized situations where his team has to work closely with him. I asked him, “How do you build that team?” His first answer was, “I make sure that they’re competent, and then I take them out to lunch.” That’s a classic answer — lunch equates the roles and deformalizes it, and they get to know each other a little bit.

Then, I learned that he no longer has dedicated teams. They’re now under such pressure that when he arrives at the OR, he may discover that there are strangers there whom he’s never worked with. I asked him recently, “What do you do?” He said, “I found that I can use the checklist that way. Instead of using the checklist as a bureaucratic device to skip through, I ask the chief nurse to go through the items slowly, with a lot of eye contact, and I look at each person on each item and invite questions so that during the 3 or 4 minutes that we’re doing the checklist, I’m making myself available to questions, I’m maintaining a lot of eye contact, and de facto with body language saying, ‘We’re going to have to trust each other, and I’m here. I’m going to hear you if you have something to say.’”

So, here are a couple cases where doctors have figured out how to do it, but it means your self-image has to change. You have to become humble, you have to become willing to listen, you have to ask questions that invite comment, and above all, you can’t shoot the messenger if something negative comes up. You have to hear it and deal with it. A lot of the junior people, the nurses who won’t speak up to angry surgeons, will say, “Why should I? They shot me down three, four times, so I’m not going to take the risk of saying something, even if he or she is making a mistake.” That’s the tragedy of it, that we create this distance and then the distance causes people to not speak up and then we suddenly realize that that costs us something. But it’s our own behavior that’s created it. It’s our own behavior that will change it.

Kornacki:  Going back to the heroic, individual leader, is that something that’s part of the American culture, or have you seen different models of leadership in other parts of the world? I wonder if this is a uniquely American problem.

Schein:  The American problem is not so much the worship of the individual leader, but the negative attitudes toward meetings and teams and group work. In other societies we find, sure, a lot of respect for the individual, but we also see a lot more respect for teamwork and groups as being intrinsic to work. The problem in the U.S. [is], we view groups and meetings and teams as adjuncts, as necessary devices to get the job done, but it’s not intrinsic, except in a few sports.

In [sports] like basketball, we acknowledge the team makes a difference, but it’s in the basketball that we see most clearly the disdain for the group. Right now, the San Francisco Warriors have two sick stars — one with an ankle injury and the other one with a rib cage injury — and all you see in the newspapers is moaning about these two sick people when, in fact, they have built a team that probably could function pretty well without them. The newspapers should highlight how well the team can do without them rather than bemoaning the fact that there are two stars who are not going to play in the next game.


Read or listen to Part 2 of this interview.

This conversation was recorded live at Stanford in Palo Alto, California, in March 2018, by Mary Jane Kornacki on behalf of NEJM Catalyst. Click here for more Lessons in Leadership stories.

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