Episode 241 – Infinite Leadership with Dr Pippa Malmgren

‘If you are in a position of real power and authority, it’s the dialogue with yourself that defines your capacity to run an organization.’

Pippa MalmgrenDr Pippa Malmgren – economist, entrepreneur, innovator and advisor -returns to the podcast on the publication of The Infinite Leader to talk about how leadership is evolving, and about how her own and her writing partner Chris Lewis’s approach to writing has evolved too. This is a masterclass in reader-centred writing, in fusing creative, philosophical thinking with practical application, and in ego-free collaboration.


Pippa on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/DrPippaM

Pippa on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/drpippam/

Chris on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/largeburrito

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2021: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-21

Virtual Writing Retreat November 2020: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/virtual-writing-retreat/

My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Dr Pippa Malmgren who is an economist, an entrepreneur, and a former White House presidential advisor. Her best-selling book Signals forecasted the great financial crisis, the slow down in China, Brexit and the rise of American nationalism and her latest book, in collaboration with Chris Lewis, is The Infinite Leader, balancing the demands of modern business leadership.

So welcome back to the show Pippa

Pippa Malmgren: Well, thank you so much for having me. This is great.

Alison Jones: It’s lovely to have you here again. And I was looking back, you were here almost exactly two years ago. I don’t know if you realized, it was episode 136, and that was following the Business Book Awards prize, of course, for The Leadership Lab, which you also wrote with Chris Lewis.

Pippa Malmgren: Exactly. That was our first book on leadership and it had an extraordinary impact. It was incredible. It won, not only the Business Book of the Year award, but also the International Press Award and the New York City Public Library Award for the best book for management and leadership. And we just got an incredible following and we decided that we needed to write the sequel, the continuation of the story, which we’ve now done with The Infinite Leader.

Alison Jones: Well, absolutely. I mean,  it’s a winning partnership you’ve got. You don’t want to just let that slide.  It’s interesting to hear you say it’s the sequel. So tell me a little bit about the thought process behind that. You know, when you finished The Leadership Lab, obviously you’ve kind of closed the door to another sequel here with The Infinite Leader, but what’s the relationship between the two and how has your thinking developed in those two years between them?

Pippa Malmgren: Well, look, we started to write about leadership because we were witnessing such catastrophic leadership failures in every category of society. It wasn’t just in politics or just in business or just in religious organizations,  it was everything. And we were asking ourselves, why is it that this is happening?

And we decided, you know, it has a lot to do with the types of leaders that we choose and how they run their organizations. So the first book was about… it was for leaders to better understand how to run things in a way that would get them a better result. Well, then we continued to see, like in 2018 and 2019, the number one reason that CEOs are forced to resign is because of ethical lapses, you know?

So it just persists. So we thought, okay, there’s a bigger story here, it’s not just about how to run the organization, it’s also about the leader themselves. The personal aspects. And we concluded that if you want real examples of leadership, all you have to do is look at a single parent household. And you’ll probably find a better example of fiscal management and leadership skills being expressed than you will in most heads of state these days.

And so we thought let’s write a book about what it is to be a leader, because really a leader isn’t the other guy over there, it’s you. It’s all of us. And we all make leadership decisions every day. And if you are in a position of real power and authority, it’s the dialogue with yourself that defines your capacity to run an organization. So the first book is about the organization more. The second book is about the personal aspects of leadership.

Alison Jones: Yes. Which makes complete sense. And I’m interested as well in the way that you have used that idea of infinity and zero, which in one sense are opposite ends of the scale but in another sense actually, very, very close together.  I almost think you’ve rehabilitated the word ‘zero’. It’s not a word that… we often hear – you talk about ‘zero education’ and ‘zero ego’ and so on – it’s not a word that you often hear used positively. And I was fascinated by the origin of that. And actually looking back at The Leadership Lab you use that lovely model of the Kythera. There’s a real visual graphical representation of your models that really strengthens them.

So if you could just talk us through where you got zero from and how you use it.

Pippa Malmgren: Absolutely. So the core concept here is balance and what we have are a lot of leaders who are not balanced. They’re very good at for example, analytical skills, very poor on emotional intelligence and empathetic skill. And when you have unbalanced leaders, you get unbalanced organizations and you get usually bad outcomes.

So the question was how to introduce more balance into leaders and also how to create better quality vision. And so when Chris and I were riffing and jamming as we started this book, we realized that if you’re going to balance, you have to be at a zero point and you have to be capable of reaching in multiple directions depending on the circumstances.

Now, this is a very different way of thinking about leadership because normally leaders think that what they’re doing is mountain hiking to the top of Mount Everest, right? They pick a destination, this is where we’re going to go. And it’s a static destination, but actually, real leadership involves something a lot more like surfing where you don’t know which angle is the pressure going to come from.

And it’s your capacity to balance amongst many conflicting forces that is the key to success. So when we started to talk about that zero point being the place where you begin and from where you can reach any destination, I also started to think about it in terms of a symbol in history. And I said to Chris, you know, zero throughout history it’s a circle and a circle is always a symbol of wholeness, holistic thinking, and it’s usually portrayed as something that’s trustable and it’s a portal, it’s a portal to possibility. And if you look at, for example, the medieval cathedrals of Western Europe, why are the rose windows always round? And as you look through them and through that stained glass, you’re transported into a really very different universe with a multitude of possibilities that don’t exist right here in the real world.

And often circles are that entryway into a new way of thinking. And so we came up with this concept that whenever you think you’ve got a zero in front of you and how often these days do we hear people say, there’s no money, there’s nothing new we can do, you know, I’ve got no policy options. They’re all talking about, I got a zero situation here. But actually, if you use all of your skills, not just your analytical, but to bring your creative, your imaginal skills, which we emphasize a lot in the book, the capacity to imagine the future differently, then you can reframe, reform, reconsider that zero twisted a little bit, and suddenly you have an infinity symbol. And now this is the job of a leader, is how to convert a zero into infinity. And the symbol of a circle is a brilliant starting point for that.

And by the way, that’s why a lot of brands, you’ll notice brands are often presented as circles because circles represent trust, they represent holistic thinking. They represent possibility. And that’s what we wanted to convey is that the leader’s job these days is to balance, to have multiple skills and to be able to create trust to follow them into a new space where there’s not no possibility, there’s infinite possibility.

Alison Jones: And I love the way that you dot rich cultural reference in there as well,  I hadn’t thought of the rose window until you said, it was lovely. It also makes me think of that shift of perspective, which you mention in the book, the Cartesian sort of graph where you think about traditional business graphs.

And they’re all going straight up in a northeasterly direction, you know, for business growth, and they finish at the zero, if you like. But if you simply shift that and you have the axes continuing in both directions, suddenly you’ve got something in the middle, you’ve got a much more dynamic, interesting picture, which really struck me.

Pippa Malmgren: Absolutely. And, you know, Chris gets the credit for creating the visual models, which I think are just so interesting and useful as you begin to consider what are you balancing between, you know, what are you trying to… and again, because most of our leaders are trained to be so mathematical, so numerical, not so emphasizing their creative skills, their capacity to imagine how to bring out these same qualities in other people as well, right? It’s not just about your own imaginal skill, it’s about the whole team and how are they able to bring to bear their imagination, to create a more cohesive, reliable, stable outcome than the leader themselves could do.

Alison Jones: And when you talk about sitting with Chris and riffing and jamming, which is a lovely way of talking about creating a book. I imagine you talking about the ideas, but also drawing the ideas as well and bringing in these cultural references to kind of unlock your thinking. Please tell me that’s what happens.

Pippa Malmgren: Well, that is exactly, yes. We often went down to Chris’s house in the countryside and spent, you know, a whole Sunday, just we’d go for a walk and we’d talk about what are the different issues that we’re seeing, or that are bothering us about leadership that we think could be improved. And then we come back from that walk and we would sit down at his dining room table and we would just start throwing ideas out.

And typically, Chris, you know, he runs the second largest privately owned public relations firm in the world. He’s dealing with corporate customers in a highly creative way all the time. And, so that means he understands you have to translate ideas out of English and sentences, into things that have some visual punch.

And that is why you’ll see if you look on my Twitter feed or Chris’s, or our LinkedIn, we’ve put up lots of examples of this balancing process and what it is that you’re trying to balance between. So that you don’t have to guess or feel secure if you’re good at one thing, you can start to be like, Oh, I’m not actually balancing very well between the various things that are possible.

Alison Jones: And is that part of the joy of, that’s a very leading question, sorry, but is it part of the joy of writing with someone else as well, that ability to complement your own skillset and bounce ideas off each other?

Pippa Malmgren: Oh, without a doubt. You know, one of the reasons we came together on this as well is that, you know, I’m an American living in Britain and a woman. And Chris is a man who’s British, living in America. And so we had like mirror images of reality, and there’s nothing like leaving your own country to be able to understand it well, and both of us are advising political leaders in both countries.

And we just, again, found that by bringing those various perspectives to the table, we were able to create something that was much more interesting and again, holistic in the thinking. So, yes, and let’s face it it’s been a great project too. You know, it was originally Chris’s idea and he invited me to join him in this partly because there are virtually no women who write on leadership.

It’s a totally male-dominated space, not just in the writing about it, but the exercise of it, and there are reasons why that’s so that we should be aware of. Like, for example, we still, human beings, we still believe when we walk into a room that the tallest person in the room is the natural leader. I mean, it’s crazy, but these are the cognitive biases that we’ve got.

We believe that the person with the low voice is more competent as a leader than the person with the higher voice. And so we have to shake up the reader to get them to understand: you may be choosing the leaders that you don’t want, because you’re just not thinking about it. And so here’s a way to think about what leaders ought to bring to the table and you can test them for, instead of just taking what you’re given.

Alison Jones: Yes. And I don’t think anybody’s going to argue how necessary that challenge to how we pick our leaders is right now. Talking about the writing particularly. So obviously you and Chris have… you wrote The Leadership Lab together, you know, you’ve got form, you’ve done this before.

How was it different this time around or did you just get straight back into the groove again?

Pippa Malmgren: Well, we did get back into the groove pretty quickly, and you know, again, Chris is a wonderful writing partner because he’s open to creative thinking. So, you know, there’s a whole little section in the book about the history of zero and  as a concept and that quite often where we think of it as scarcity, that actually it’s the opening of ubiquity.

It’s the way in which you begin to reach these new possibilities. And it’s quite something to try to take to a business audience the history of the concept of zero, the spiritual references, you know, why is it that so many of the spiritual symbols are a circle as well? Like the Enzo symbol in Zen, which symbolizes the ultimate attainment of balance and Nirvana.

Well, it was important because if we’re going to ask people to find more balance, it’s important to show them that humans have been trying to do this for millennia. You know, this is an ancient, ancient task that maybe we’ve forgotten about, but it’s embedded in the symbols around us. And so, you know, it’s fun working with Chris cause he kinda allows my creative process to flourish and yet, you know, we’re both pretty grounded in day to day. In real life this is how things work, so let’s be practical about it. So we’ve tried to do both at the same time.

Alison Jones: It just strikes me as well, it’s a great argument, in an age that’s obsessed with immediately tracking the return on investment of your education, it is a real argument for the humanities, this isn’t it?

Pippa Malmgren: Oh, without a doubt. And again, we’ve got a great visual, that’s gone up on both Twitter and LinkedIn, about all of the things we reward people for in the education system and the things that we don’t reward them for. So we like to measure performance, but we really don’t have any measures for trust.

 We care a lot about accomplishments, but humility, no. Nobody knows how to measure that. And so we make a list of all of the things that are measurable, but which don’t get you the result you want and all the things that are inmeasurable that actually you really want in a leader, including some interest in ethics.

Alison Jones: Yes, which I think, to be honest with you, has in the past been seen as a barrier to profit. I think that’s part of the problem, isn’t it, it’s either you can be ethical or you can be really, really successful.

And it’s interesting watching the balance emerge, certainly in what you write, but I think more generally across society there’s recognition that actually success without ethics turns out to be really hollow.

Pippa Malmgren:  And in fact, we say very clearly in the book, that ethical leadership shouldn’t mean you are any less dynamic or dedicated to your ultimate objectives, including profitability. It’s just that to get to profitability, if you sacrifice trust your profitability isn’t going to last, right?

Same thing, if you sacrifice ethics, the voters aren’t going to stay with you. So, you know, having more balanced, ethical leadership will improve the bottom line performance. It’s not a cost that detracts from it. It’s an advantage that improves it.

Alison Jones: And let’s hope we see it politically very, very soon. Going back to the writing though,  when you and Chris are, we’ve sort of seen you,  I feel like we’ve been with you in the countryside, you know, when you’ve been walking along and you’ve been riffing, you’ve been jamming, when it gets to the actual writing, how does that work? Do you divvy up the roles between you? Do you sort of pass things back and forth? How do you critique each other?

Pippa Malmgren: Well, by the way, Chris outpaces me when we go on these walks. While I’m thinking and talking, I go rather slower and he likes racing across the countryside rather quicker.

But,  I think you can tell which chapters are really Chris’s and which chapters are really mine. You know, his tend to be the ones that are, again, more bottom-line oriented, more, here is a practical model for implementing this idea. Mine are the ones where I kind of drift off into, you know, here’s the spiritual meaning of this idea and here’s, you know, that’s the medieval rose window stuff.

But you know, the two are woven together and ultimately, Chris has done an amazing job of editing. It turned out that on this occasion, I was distracted and busy running a company in the drones and autonomous vehicle space. And so he ended up doing more of the heavy lifting on the editing end in the second one than the first one, but he’s a great editor and he had a great vision for what we were trying to accomplish.

 And look, the timing is perfect too. We wanted to get it done in time for the US presidential election. And we wanted to point out to people that the choice of leader is in their own hands. That they can make better decisions about who will lead them. And back to this theme of personal responsibility, one of the things we’re witnessing is people are saying, well, if I can’t rely on the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of my country, then I have to make some leadership decisions myself.

And I think that’s what we’re witnessing in the United States with all of the discussion and the protest, for example, about the African-American communities place in society. I mean, COVID is interesting because it doesn’t just reveal the pre-existing underlying conditions in a human. It also reveals them in a society, in an economy, in a company. And so as societies woken up to this idea that its taken too long, it is not right that people of color, and minorities in general, even when they’re not minorities, they may be majorities, that they don’t have a seat at the table in the way that they should.

And I know this and Chris knows this because we both do a lot of public speaking. And I can tell you in the last 20 years that I’ve witnessed the number of women in the room go up, although it’s still too low. But I still don’t see people of colour in audiences. And I’m shocked by this. I’m like, where is everybody?

Like, how can this be in the year 2020? And so as people begin to take responsibility for this, it’s often at a more local level. And so we shouldn’t think there’s no leadership going on. There’s a lot of leadership going on. It’s just happening at the neighborhood level, at the family level, at the state level, at the region level.

 It’s not all embedded in the person at the top, which is part of our message. Leadership is not just the person at the top. It’s everybody all the way through the system.

Alison Jones: Yes. And actually when you haven’t got the leadership at the top, as you say that forces it down, doesn’t it. And it forces us to confront that in a way that perhaps we hadn’t before.

Pippa Malmgren: Which may be not a bad thing.

Alison Jones: Maybe not a bad thing. Right? Yes. And it also, I think, puts business leaders in a space where they have to accept responsibility that perhaps they would prefer not to accept for how the world’s going to pan out over the next couple of decades.

Pippa Malmgren: Yes, that’s the thing is understanding the consequences of your choices, and in a world where you think the only consequences of the choices that you make is, you know, what happens to the share price, well, that’s not resulting in great outcomes. Where you start to think what matters is: how does it impact on the society, the stakeholders, the community, you know? What is the actual impact of what we’re doing inside an organization, whether it’s for profit or it’s a nonprofit or a government?

And this sort of more conscious capitalism, I think, is very much what Chris and I were trying to get the reader towards. That everything you do, every choice you make, every thing you purchase, as you think through what are the consequences? What’s the providence, what’s the ultimate resting point of the decision that I’m making now?

Who will it touch? Not just you, but someone.

Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant. And I wish you every success with the launch, because I think, as you say, it’s an incredibly timely book. And I always ask people , as you know, Pippa because you’ve been here before, what their best tip is for a business book author. I’m going to guess that yours might be find your Chris Lewis, but what would your tip be?

Pippa Malmgren: Yes. well, you know, I did a video on, which you’ll find on LinkedIn, where I explain how to get published if you’ve never been published, because I went from, never having written anything to now having four books and I’m working on another now. And I think it’s a big leap. So the first thing is to start and how to do that.

So I’ve done a video on that, that’s available, but for business books, it’s also about keeping it really short and tight and practical.  You know, even putting little ideas in little boxes inside the text, so someone can flip through the chapter and look at that box and say, That’s the key takeaway that I really need, because one of the things that’s causing the leadership failures is that people are overwhelmed with too much stuff to read, too much stuff to process, they can’t keep up. So the writer has to make it easy for the reader. And that’s one reason that so much effort went into creating these visuals – so that you can have an image in your head, which may be an easier way to remember things than reading in plain text.

Alison Jones: Yes, and I love the way you’ve got those at the end of the book. It’s like too long, didn’t read. Here are the takeaways from this book. You just got a couple of pages. It’s genius.

Pippa Malmgren: Well, you know, and we got so much positive feedback about that, it’s quite incredible. It seems such a simple thing and yet it’s highly unconventional. People don’t usually do that as authors.

Alison Jones: They don’t, and I think it’s partly because it’s too hard. I think most authors are so in love with their arguments and the nuance and the complexity that they are almost insulted at the idea that it can be distilled down to this bunch of bullet points. But you obviously got zero ego in there, and there it is. Because this is for the reader, not you, right?

Pippa Malmgren: That’s right. And that’s it. The purpose of this is not, you know, our own self-aggrandizement, we have better things to do than that, but if we can reach people, that’s amazing. And I have to say with The Leadership Lab, one of the things that struck me was that we had many leaders who said, we need you to come in and talk about this.

And, you know, we love the book and the concept we have to introduce to the organization. But what I found was it’s the people right below the current leader, who all came up to me going this book is great, I love it because we’re trying to move the head guy outta here. generation change and getting rid of the stodgy old leaders that are not performing well and making way for the new ones.

And personally, I’m very excited about that and giving tools and giving voice to the next generation who have a very different way of thinking and who haven’t been trained in the same way. And thank goodness they haven’t.

Alison Jones: That’s hilarious. We should all take it for given of course, that people should read The Leadership Lab and The Infinite Leader. And I genuinely do mean that, they really are superb books. But Pippa is there another business book that you have particularly valued, that you’d like to recommend that listeners have a read of?

Pippa Malmgren: Oh, okay. I’m going to answer this probably the wrong way, which is to say that I haven’t been reading business books. I’ve been reading nonfiction books that change the way you think. So for example, I’ve been reading a lot of art critics from the 1800s  and the 1900s. who write about how we perceive art.

And the reason is because, what I’ve asked people to do, and Chris has asked people to do in the book, is to look with the creative eye. Well, you’ve got to have one to begin with, like, how do you perceive reality? Because perception is creation. And so, I have found that in order to be better in business, I’ve had to develop my artistic eye.

And so there are a couple of different books I’ve read over time, but they’re all kind of obscure and heavy, and they’re not the things you would normally recommend to a business book reader, and they would take most people too much time out of their normal thought process. But if you like, I’ll give you a little list of the ones that have made an impact on me and we can put that up on the podcast, if you like

Alison Jones: Sure, but I think, honestly, those are your books aren’t they? They’re the ones that speak to what you need right now. I think that the principle is bigger than that. The principle is read richly and don’t limit yourself. So actually seek out those books that will give you the new perspective, the new ideas, the new way of communicating stuff, because that’s what’s going to bring your book to life.

Pippa Malmgren: And, that’s what gives you the ability to make comparisons, to come up with better metaphors, you know, to convey what you’re talking about using language that is evocative, and that can draw people in. You know, I realized that business books tend to be pretty dry.

And if you want to be a better leader, you need to be better at using the kind of language that evokes emotion. And we see, I’d hardly hate to say this but, Donald Trump has figured out this thing that he’s very good at evoking an emotional reaction. Now you may not like the emotional reaction, but the fact is he knows how to do it. And in both books we say, we’ve all got to learn how to do this. We want to evoke the emotional reaction that we want, a positive, beneficial one. But if you’re going to try to compete using very dry arguments with charts full of numbers, you’re not going to create an emotional reaction that people can resonate with.

Alison Jones: Yes. So the fact checking doesn’t actually make a dent in the impact. Does it.

Pippa Malmgren: It’s like we say, in The Infinite Leader, it’s not just about the facts. It’s about feelings.

Alison Jones: And the story, it’s the story…

Pippa Malmgren: The narrative, that’s right. And this is, you know, how many leaders are trained in storytelling and narrative? I mean, that’s considered like a sideline and yet, by the way, in Silicon Valley, there’s a new job title, which is Chief Storyteller.

Most organizations now are hiring someone who is specifically there in order to craft the right narrative that that gets you the right audience and the right outcome.

Alison Jones: Like a modern day bard.

Pippa Malmgren: Yes, absolutely.

Alison Jones: So Pippa, if people want to find out more about you and more about Chris, more about this book, but also your backlist and what you do and the day job, where should they go?

Pippa Malmgren: So I’m very active on Twitter under @DrPippaM and Chris is as well. He’s @largeburrito

Alison Jones: Love his Twitter handle

Pippa Malmgren: His company, of course, is Team Lewis, @teamlewisglobal. And for me, I’m on LinkedIn and I’m on Twitter. And, I like being active on social media, I find I learn a lot and it’s really fun to interact with people and you’ll find the link to the book on those sites.

And I really look forward to having a conversation with anyone who gets intrigued with the ideas we presented.

Alison Jones: Fantastic. And I will put all those links up on the show notes, of course, as always @extraordinarybusinessbooks.com. Pippa, absolutely delight as ever to talk to you today. So thank you so much for coming on again.

Pippa Malmgren: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

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