In the May 21, 2001, edition of HBS Working Knowledge, Martha Lagace reported on the work of Linda Hill, HBS O.B. expert, in the realm of "collective genius," as written up in a recently published book entitled Management 21C. See for the entire article.

Mention the word "genius" and what comes to mind? Most likely a lone person gifted with extraordinary intellectual powers, talents, and abilities. But few geniuses thrive in a vacuum, according to HBS professor Linda A. Hill. And leaders at the forefront of top companies in the future, she believes, already know that the key to competitive advantage is their own ability as leaders to nurture and harness the "collective genius," of people who work with them. Leaders, she writes, need to provide opportunities for both independence and active engagement of their most talented employees.

Since many companies can get their hands on the same technology, the same markets, the same production methods and the same distribution channels as other companies, she writes, then the strategic management of talent will be the decisive stroke for top leaders.

In Hill's essay on "Leadership as Collective Genius" in Management 21C, she spells out what the creative process entails at the collective level, as well as ways that several company heads she has studied have leveraged collective talent. Leaders bear a huge responsibility for seeing that creativity is sparked constantly and flows unimpeded, she writes. According to Hill, these leaders actually have three mandates:

  • Clearly state why the collective exists
  • Determine who should be part of it
  • Unleash and harness the collective "genius" of the group

The first two points are not as clear-cut as they might appear. While the leader's standard charge is to set direction, a leader also has to communicate a moral and strategic vision that actually inspires people to give their all. "The vision needs to tap into people's professional pride, the engine for the extraordinary motivation and commitment demanded by creativity. As organizations become increasingly diverse and their boundaries flexible and amorphous, the notion of what brings people together to act as one body becomes ever more critical," Hill explains.

As for the task of selecting members of the collective, Hill rejects the idea that they should be chosen in order to conform to a freeform type of corporate structure, a "one big happy family" mentality. People in organizations of collective genius, she insists, need to protect their independence while also learning how to collaborate.

As for the third point, unleashing and harnessing the collective genius of the group, that's another area where true leadership skill comes into play. According to Hill, managing the creative process of other people means managing four separate paradoxes. Nurture each individual's differences as well as their collective identity and goals, she advises. Encourage mutual support as well as confrontation within the group. Focus on the performance at hand in addition to opportunities for future learning and growth. And finally, Hill writes, "Balance the leader's authority and the discretion and autonomy of the members of the collective."

"The bottom line," she concludes, "is these leaders are an inspiration to be around because they truly believe in people. For them, leadership is about humanity, getting the very best out of people to make progress. They see the extraordinary in people whom most see as only ordinary."