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Colin Williams

HULT Ashridge Executive Education

Professor of Practice

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Ego, eco and intuitive leadership: a new model for disruptive times


Transformational leadership does not go far enough to effectively guide businesses through disruptive times. A major shift in logic is needed to create a leadership style fit for today, argues Colin Williams, Frederick Holscher and Sharon Olivier of Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School.

At the risk of ‘crying wolf’ (after all, each generation thinks it is experiencing more change than the last), we currently live in a time of unprecedented disruption and uncertainty.

The disruption we are experiencing is not only driven by technological factors like AI, blockchain and robotisation, but also by a new consciousness about the purpose and nature of organisations and the need for a more collaborative approach, underpinned by learning and the co-creation of innovative ideas. 

New research from Ashridge explores how leadership might need to change within this brave new world of work. A new narrative is needed to help managers lead better through this uncertainty and unpredictability.

Moving away from yesterday’s logic

It is one thing to be in the disruption, but quite another to have disruption in yourself.  Our research highlights that many leaders are searching for a remedy in yesterday’s logic – something Peter Drucker suggests is the greatest danger in times of disruption.

The need for certainty and control can have a disabling, and even disempowering, effect on leaders and their followers. Their relentless efforts to tighten control and create some level of predictability has left many in a state of confusion and even burn out. 

Leadership thinking has evolved over the last 50 years, with the idea of the organisation as a machine that can be built and controlled from the outside in now being out-dated. Today, the transformational leader believes that an organisation should engage people on emotional as well as rational levels. 

More recently, a ‘post-heroic’ model of leadership emerged, where greater humility and a more empowering approach is valued. While this evolution in thinking is helpful, the fundamental underlying logic has not changed. It is still assumed that the leader should set direction, establish a vision or goal, build ‘buy in’ and then monitor performance until that vision or goal is achieved. 

A new frame of reference

We need to transform the role and nature of leadership to one which is more relevant to today’s context. Ego, eco and intuitive styles of leadership are based on two requirements: a rethinking of assumptions on how leaders view their organisation and their role, and the development of new skills and competences.

Ego Leadership (the shaper)

The ego is often seen as a negative quality of leadership – indeed this is the case when the ego gets trapped in egoistic needs. However, when the ego is liberated from self-centeredness it provides a healthy drive to create focus (shaping the future), get things done and achieve.

Ego-leaders will feel responsible for solving every problem, having a strong vision and then aligning resources to achieve it. This leads them to work harder at being clear, think better about the context and to develop an increasingly exciting vision to motivate others. The result is creating dependency on their leadership. 

Eco Leadership (the relator-integrator)

We see a major shift in the logic of leadership in the new world of work from a single leader dependency to leadership inter-dependency. This is the mindset of the eco intelligent leader.  One in which the leader recognises the organisation as an ‘eco system’ made up of many interdependent elements, where informal influencers continuously nudge and prompt the organisation, and where actions and reactions cannot be predicted rationally and logically. 

Strong eco leaders realise that although they are officially ‘in charge’, they are not necessarily ‘in control’. These leaders see themselves as part of a complex responsive process – as a facilitator, perhaps even a designer, building mutual respect, creating a safe space for people to share and critique, and enabling generative dialogue rather than ‘driving’ the process.   

Intuitive leadership (the sensor)

Allowing one’s intuitive leadership to emerge can be incredibly powerful in a leader. Steve Jobs famously said, ‘intuition is more powerful than intellect’.

In some circumstances the leader can have insights that are hard to explain rationally, driven by a deep connection with previous experience, as the individual sees new patterns in data that others have not observed. Or it may be an unexplainable ‘gut feel’ that tells them to investigate further in a particular direction.

Wherever it comes from, it can be a hugely powerful trigger for action, which might otherwise have been missed. Sadly, the need for facts and figures in the boardroom or management meeting often extinguishes this fire of intuition.

Interconnected strands

These three leadership styles are interconnected like three DNA strands and need to be developed in conjunction with one another. Developing these three qualities of leadership is dependent on three requirements:

  • Insight into the context

  • The leader’s logic or mindset, which determines their interpretation of the context

  • The ability to intentionally respond to the challenges facing them, rather than falling into old reactive patterns 

The three styles (ego, eco and intuitiveness) provide leaders with an expanded repertoire to draw from. However, to focus on developing leadership skills or behaviours without the first two requirements, may well be the reason why many leadership programmes do not deliver the results hoped for.   

Worth the investment

Changing logic is not an easy task because we often feel that the recipes of the past are our safety nets of the future – this is the challenge facing leaders today. It feels a bit like leaving the nest and not knowing whether you can fly. The difficulty is often increased by the fact that many around you (particularly above you) share the same assumptions. 

However, in order to enable 21st century organisations to thrive, and for leaders to navigate the unknown, developing these three leadership intelligences and understanding how they can be used in various contexts, is well worth the effort and investment.

Want to read more about modern leadership? Explore our content hub on the changing landscape of leadership development.

More on the authors...

Colin Williams is Professor of Practice at HULT Ashridge Executive Education where he is director of the Transformational Leader program. His work focuses on leadership development, organisational change and multi-cultural working across. He has been involved in a number of major research projects and publishes extensively. 

Frederick Holscher teaches, researches and consults in the areas of leadership and diversity, with a particular focus on innovative ways of developing ‘leadership intelligence’ (Ego, Eco- and Intuitive Intelligence) when faced with the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution.

Sharon Olivier teaches, researches & consults Strategic HR; Leading in the 21st century, Ego, Eco and Intuitive intelligence in leadership, Engagement, Polarity Management, Diversity and Inclusion,  The neuro-science of reframing unhelpful patterns, and Heart Intelligence

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Colin Williams

Professor of Practice

Read more from Colin Williams

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