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Get to know: Katharina Lange, IMD Professor of Leadership

Good leaders speak with an open heart, admit they don’t know it all and are open to learning, says IMD Professor of Leadership. 
November 2020

What are you working on at the moment?

Since starting at IMD last year, I have intensified my work on resilience as the pandemic has spurred interest in this topic – I feel a little like a wartime profiteer. I have interviewed executives on how they weather storms, build resilience as leaders and how they build resilience into their organizations and operations.

An interesting “collateral” coming out of the resilience interviews was a case study that my colleague Tawfik Jelassi and I are writing about digital transformation at Zuellig Pharma. John Davison, the former CEO of Zuellig Pharma, allowed us to document the successful transformation of the traditional pharmaceutical distributor into a modern, data-driven company. As a result of the transformation, the company fared well during the pandemic – a true test of resilience.

What quality do you admire most in a leader?

For almost 10 years, I have been looking into servant leadership. We know that leaders who serve their organizations, not themselves, achieve better results in both the short- and long-term. They are humble and act in the interest of their cause to find the best outcome for all parties involved.

Another quality I admire in leaders is being able to speak from the heart. They connect with a language that is accessible, relatable and simple – not simplistic. Weak leaders need to hide behind monstrous and complex language. Self-confident, humble leaders don`t have to. The research clearly shows that humble leaders are more effective than charismatic ones, particularly when there is narcissistic overlay. Unfortunately, we, as human beings, tend to flock to charismatic leaders in times of crisis as we hope to find comfort and relief in a strong hero type.

If you had the power to make one decision to change the world what would it be?

I wish I had the power to get rid of any kind of tribalism or partisanship. We know that the rate of survival in a hostile environment is higher when we form tribes, but we should be able to modify our approach and look beyond our instincts. Building coalitions beyond tribal boundaries is a far more productive strategy.

One colleague who deeply inspired me in this regard was Ann Florini, Professor of Public Policy at Singapore Management University (SMU) who is now at Thunderbird Business School at Arizona State University. She teaches about collaborations that make real impact on complex, transnational problems such as pandemics, terrorism or environmental pollution. She gives the example of an alliance between the FBI, an NGO and paying institutions such as banks and credit card companies. This unlikely coalition – just imagine the different mindsets – successfully moved the needle against child pornography.

What triggered your interest in your specialization?

It might sound trivial, but it was simply life. Coming from strategy consultancy, I soon realized that things would never get done if it wasn’t for the people doing them. I wanted to learn about leading teams, so I took on this new challenge, and a major push came about 15 years ago when I started working with my coach. She said if I wanted to get anywhere near leading or teaching leadership, I would have to go the extra mile and do all these leadership exercises myself. And so I did…and I still do; learning every time.

What do you consider your greatest professional achievement?

Taking my family to live and work in Singapore at SMU was one of my bolder moves. I was completely out of my comfort zone. When my boss left, I succeeded him in his role as Executive Director of Executive Development at SMU. Leading an amazing team from across the globe was one of the most fulfilling responsibilities I ever had. It still gives me great joy to connect back with “my” team in Singapore and see how they are doing.

This was only topped by being offered to join IMD, of course!