Should good leaders embrace uncertainty?

At IBM's Think global leadership summit in New York, MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito urged corporate leaders to embrace serendipity.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

"Leaders are overrated."

That's how MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito started off his presentation at IBM's THINK global leadership summit in New York City, drawing much laughter and perhaps the ire of a few quiet holders of masters of business administration degrees.

Ito took to the stage solo to wonder, openly, about the value of the title "leader" in an age where many less hierarchical organizations have proven their worth through connected technology.

"Open source is interesting because people decide what they want to do," he said, citing Mozilla, the non-profit organization behind the Firefox browser, and Wikipedia, the free collaborative online encyclopedia. "With proper incentivation, it's more efficient than [managing by] the Newtonian leadership model."

"We believe enlightened self-interest is what makes the world go round. It's not. It's collaboration."

At Wikipedia, he said, the community pushes members into leadership roles. They don't actively seek them, like MBA-holding graduates do after graduation.

"It's really about making sure that people are sensitive to each other and allowing that diversity to explode," he said.

That's why at Wikipedia, federal judges spend their weekends writing code with geeks.

"You'd never get them to do it, even if you paid," he said with a smile. "In fact, you probably wouldn't get them to do it if you paid."

Most of the world is "out of control" and messy, Ito said. Young people embrace the chaos, but as they gradually get older, they are reduced to producing, protecting and stocking up -- instead of continually learning.

"For the new generation, you have to teach them this mystery, this wonder," he said. "That is the key to living in this world: never being satisfied completely."

Adults need not be fearful of change, Ito said. They ought to embrace that quality of fearlessness found in children.

"I don't believe in plans," Ito acknowledged. "I can only focus on the short things. That's why I dropped out of some of the best colleges in America."

It starts with education -- particularly, interest-driven education. Take an engineer and a designer -- they rarely agree. They argue about theory and fail to understand the way in which the other sees the world.

But what if you give them a physical project to build? Then what?

"It becomes a little less personal," Ito said. "You build stuff and you let it iterate. Sometimes you get it wrong, but you evolve through it."

At the Media Lab, Ito only hires faculty who can build things. The point: to reduce argument and increase the flow of solutions.

"It takes more money to figure out how to plan something than to try it," he said. "You can't have serendipity, you can't be lucky if you plan everything."

That's why children are learning more about leadership by conducting raids in the multiplayer online game World of WarCraft than by reading business case studies. This metaphorical learning is precisely why MBA students often tend to fare poorly playing such games -- they're used to people doing what they're told to do, Ito said, and the uncertainty that follows the moment that fails to happen is what perplexes them.

"You have to let go of the idea that you'll be able to understand everything and the whole of it, and you have to trust it," Ito said.

In leadership, don't fear chaos. But look for patterns to be more prepared to overcome challenges, he said.

"When you have a little fear," Ito said, "that's exactly probably the thing that you're wrong about."

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