The age of visionary leadership is over, says INSEAD expert

A world of ‘nomadic professionals’ demands connectors and storytellers, Gianpiero Petriglieri tells CIPD Annual Conference

The concept of visionary leadership has little relevance in an age where individuals’ affiliations to organisations are increasingly weak, noted management academic Gianpiero Petriglieri told the CIPD Annual Conference in a challenging closing address. 

The associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, who is also a respected psychiatrist, said leadership development programmes needed to take account of a new range of attributes that reflected the nature of a more connected, less hierarchical corporate environment.

The concept of leadership is at a critical juncture, said Petriglieri, who began his session by exploring whether leadership existed as a tangible idea or simply an abstract that you ‘feel’. Leadership is very real, he concluded, and is most pithily described as the ability to get someone to do something they otherwise wouldn’t have done, for your own benefit as well as theirs.

Deloitte has suggested that businesses invest $145bn in leadership programmes each year, yet a wide-ranging World Economic Forum survey found that 86 per cent of professionals believe their organisations do not have the leaders they need. “Why do we invest so much money and pay so much attention to something that doesn’t work?” asked Petriglieri, who said leadership had never been more discussed. “Leadership has become the single explanatory factor for everything that happens. You can’t open a newspaper or magazine without hearing there’s been good or bad leadership. It fills our rhetorical discourse.”

Delving into history, he suggested that leadership was a particularly contemporary idea. Even in the writing of famed management thinker Peter Drucker, leadership was seen as a consequence of belonging to an institution rather than displaying a particular passion or skill. In Petriglieri’s view, leadership began to move “from a destiny to a talent” when the British Army realised in 1943 that it could no longer rely on the same supply of officers from the same public schools given the challenges of a world war. As a result of its attempts to systemise leadership selection, “the leader became someone who is more knowledgeable, skilful and courageous than others”. 

Today, there is a disconnect between the type of leaders we are developing and those we need. Leaders should be great storytellers first and foremost, said Petriglieri: “It’s about being someone who is willing, able and entrusted to articulate, embody and help realise a story of possibility – for a group, at a point in time.” 

Competence, he added, was no longer enough because leaders are fulfilling a broader role than simply performing a technical job to a high level. “Leadership has two jobs. One is instrumental performance – we’re going to get stuff done,” said Petriglieri. “The other is cultural performance – as a leader, it is hard to lead unless people see you as a credible embodiment of values they hold dear.”

The challenge is that most people now work among “nomadic professionals” who have precarious affiliations to organisations and perform incredibly personalised, self-defining work, whether for one employer or many. Such individuals value being given skills and opportunities – if they feel they are ‘portable’ because they have been well-developed and empowered by their leaders, they are more likely to stay with their company.

Concluding, Petriglieri said that meant a visionary leader could only take their people so far: “Visionaries are good at building tribes, but maybe what we really need are connectors – people who don’t necessarily generate excitement but create space for more than one vision to be held.”