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Leading Like an Anthropologist 

leading like an anthropologist

Standard approaches to leading organizations typically rely on the discipline of psychology as a source of ideas and frameworks. In the business context, psychology has served the interests of both leaders and their employees quite well over many decades. 


However, by focusing largely (though not exclusively) on individual leaders and their potential to influence outcomes, some important things can easily be overlooked — context, culture, and experience. 


Anthropology, as a supplemental social science discipline, has untapped potential as a source of guidance and motivation for leaders.    


In his much-overlooked article, management guru David Ulrich, professor of HR at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, points us in the right direction. The article, You Need to Become a Leadership Anthropologist, provides a simple yet important blueprint for what this might look like. 


From Leader on the Couch to Leader in the Field 

In the article, Ulrich cites research from one of his colleagues (Wayne Brockbank) that shows approximately 20 percent of information about people and how they work is quantitative and amenable to the types of spreadsheets and big data sets that managers prefer. That means that 80 percent of that information is accessible through qualitative insight and relies more on experience, judgment, and interpretation — not numbers.  


Anthropology, particularly cultural anthropology, is concerned primarily with understanding how other people see and experience the world. Anthropologists attempt to do this through ethnographic research — in-person experience and discovery involving spending time with people, talking with them, and observing their lives as they unfold in real-time — as opposed to surveys and spreadsheets. 


Whether or not they use the language of anthropology, many successful leaders do lead their organizations like anthropologists. Here are four broad areas where anthropological leadership is visible: 


1. Cultural Intelligence: Strategy 

Mark Parker, Nike CEO from 2006–2020, led the company with the sensibilities of an anthropologist. He was known for spending extensive periods of time with people who made up popular culture — artists, athletes, actors, musicians, activists — getting to know them and what makes them tick. By doing this, through a kind of ethnographic approach to understanding Nike’s market, Parker was able to tether Nike to the pulse of American culture and design and innovate for that.  


Nike’s sweet spot under Parker, which was aligning itself with the currents of popular culture, helped the company grow from a market cap of $24.5 billion in 2006 to $223 billion in 2020.   


2. Empathy: Getting to Authentically Know Your Employees 

Jim Sinegal, former CEO of Costco, was known for his hands-on leadership style. He spent some 200 days a year visiting warehouses around the country and getting to know many employees personally. Former employees say that he remembered small and personal details about their lives in ways that shocked them.  


Sinegal had an abundance of empathy for his employees, which went beyond spending time with them on the floor. Long before the $20/hr minimum wage law was passed in some states, Costco paid its employees higher than any other retail company — across the board. They also report the lowest levels of employee turnover amongst their peer companies. Further, Sinegal managed to remain a darling of Wall Street throughout his tenure. 


3. Perspective: Seek Out Differences and Disagreement 

Many traditional leaders operate with the mindset of “don’t bring me a problem that doesn’t already have a solution.” Anthropological leaders look outward for problems and differing opinions.  


IBM in the early 2000s, before it transitioned from hardware to software, invited the input of not only other senior leaders, but from the whole company — all 300,000 of them. By crowdsourcing questions surrounding the company’s future strategy, Sam Palmisano made one of the bravest and most controversial decisions in the history of big tech. From listening and taking seriously the input of others, he was able to chart a new course for the company — one that has, literally, paid dividends in droves. 


4. “Co-work” with Employees: Giving Up the Private Office 

At Macquarie Bank, one of Australia’s leading investment banks, the company transitioned to activity-based working (ABW) in 2009. ABW is an office arrangement where no one, including the CEO, has their own private office or desk. Each day employees retrieve their laptop from their locker, and then plug into a place that supports the activity they are working on at the time.  


Often embraced as part of a real estate strategy, ABW also has powerful organizational knock-on effects. Macquarie’s CEO at the time, Nicholas Moore, fully participated and worked daily in one of a few areas, including the company’s cafe. Unlike companies where CEOs are on upper floors protected by personal assistants, Moore “co-worked” with others, just like everyone else. Once employees got used to it, they’d engage him in conversation, partially leveling the hierarchy in the company.  


Simply being in and around employees had a democratizing effect on the company. Macquarie’s chief designers say that what started out as a workplace project turned out to be an organizational transformation project. 


“Building to Think” - Inside and Out 

Two of the four areas of anthropological leadership pertain to things that go on outside of an organization — in popular culture (Nike) and among competitors (IBM). Often, leadership development is concerned with developing leaders, personally and professionally, with the hope that it will translate into influence and success. An anthropological approach shifts the focus to what’s happening beyond any one individual. 


Tim Brown, former CEO of IDEO, talks about corporate strategy in terms of “hitting the streets.” Rather than holing up in the boardroom with others in the C-suite, anthropological leaders look outward into the field with ethnographic fieldwork. From there, IDEO quickly prototypes possible solutions and shares those with customers, and then refine those offerings with customers. Brown referred to their process as “building to think.”  


Building to think is an anthropological notion, one premised on empathy, listening, and fieldwork. Whether in terms of more deeply empathizing with employees, or understanding and co-creating solutions with customers, anthropological leadership provides a new, arguably more strategic, approach to leading organizations to success.  


Anthropological Training for Executives


One way to introduce anthropological thinking and anthropological leadership into the corporate ranks is to include some measure of anthropological training within business school curricula. At first, such a notion will seem as though it is coming out of left field. However, there is clear value in supplementing the conventional psychological approach with anthropology’s focus on others—their experiences, their needs and goals, etc.


As we enter the AI era, where it is easy to assume that organizations will need less focus on humans, it becomes even more important to double down on human experience to balance efficiency with empathy and humanity. Lest we lose sight of the fact that, regardless of how products and services are developed and delivered to customers, our customers are still people, not robots. Anthropology, as the only truly holistic social science, views employees and customers in a single frame. That holism is needed now, perhaps more than ever.


The "empathy" area is one that I have found leaders like to talk about a lot but ironically they also want to "measure" it---yes, really! "Is there a metric we can monitor?" Authentic relationship building takes a commitment of time and energy both of which are in short supply the higher you move up the "lines and boxes." Still, I applaud those who value and ACT on it.


Good essay. To your point about anthropological training in business schools, I co-teach a course, Market Intelligence: The Art and the Science, at Columbia Business School that does precisely that.

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