Data-driven leadership becoming more imperative with the complexity of 2019 American business


(Courtesy Jacksonville Business Journal) By Noah Liberman

Jun 5, 2019

It’s likely that there’s never been a time when the rules and realities of business are as in flux as they are today. Data and computing technology can impact a business model overnight. Competition and opportunity pop up from the most unexpected places. The knowledge bases of veteran and young employees can be very different, as can their approaches to work and their expectations.

What does this mean for anyone tasked with leadership today? Many things, according to professors and alumni of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. While the fundamentals of leadership don’t change, leaders often find they need to adjust their approach moment-by-moment, depending on the particular need and the type of people being led.

Leadership also falls to anyone and everyone who understands the need for it – in the moment, depending on the group and situation. While there still are acknowledged or official leaders, leadership is essential for anyone—regardless of their title—who needs to deal with ambiguity, make and implement decisions, and bring others along in order to guide the organization to a better outcome.

This fluidity encourages leaders to reach for things that are more concrete, and the Booth approach says reach for data. When data underpins your decision, you can convey the assignment with more confidence and give your colleagues enough freedom to experiment and use their unique skills.

“Make sure you’re basing your decisions on data, always,” says Erez Mathan, a Booth alumnus and chief risk officer at GoCardless. “If you make mistakes, fix them, that’s absolutely fine. This brings a variety of amazing things that people are doing because they have the freedom to operate.”

Moon Javaid, vice president of strategy and analytics for the San Francisco 49ers and also a Booth graduate, concurs. “We don’t want to just have data for data’s sake. We really want to come up with a conclusion and work with all the people around us. What’s important is actually having the right people in place to ask the right questions.”

Having the right people in place is especially important, and tricky, today. “The main reason is the multi-generational workforce,” says Jack McCullough, president of the CFO Leadership Council. “You have baby boomers who are not retiring ‘on time,’ so you have professionals in their early 70s working with 22-year-olds. That has never happened before, and by the way, things are about to get more interesting. The oldest members of Gen Z graduate from college this year. And there are more than 60 million Gen Z-ers altogether.”

The reality is that leadership is very much a matter of following – following the norms of a group while influencing its behavior. And in American business today, this is complicated. “In the sciences, leadership often comes simply from being the best scientist. Engineers tend to follow the best engineer, regardless of the person’s traditional leadership skills,” McCullough notes. “But in other disciplines, emotional IQ, charisma, and other traits play a big part in being an effective leader.”

And the multinational nature of business today adds another wrinkle. “In the U.S., the old school leadership styles won’t work in most industries, but there are countries where a rigid and hierarchical organization is the norm,” McCullough says. “What do you do if you are the U.S. president of such an organization? The answers aren’t obvious, but the obvious advice is be true to your authentic leadership style, just be flexible in how to be your true self in every setting.”

Looking at leadership differently

This is where Booth’s approach is effective today. The school was studying the concept of leadership before others, and its seminal works trace the evolution of leadership from a linear, hierarchical military approach to today’s nuanced practice. That’s why its leadership classes today combine challenging practical experimentation with the data that people who lead need to underpin their decisions – and even to gauge their effectiveness as leaders.

In leadership classes, students are videotaped and undergo critiques of their interactions, often discovering that they’re not as assertive as they thought or that their timing or emphasis is counter-productive. Similarly, they will take notes on their own leadership situations, even using a specially developed app in one class to collect and analyze the data.

This approach to learning leadership is a far cry from the long-ago notion that leaders are born, not made. Booth’s assumption is that everyone is capable of leadership in some important form, and that leadership is a lifelong study, not something you passively absorb in business school and are done.

This is the foundation of “Choosing Leadership,” a book by Linda Ginzel, clinical professor at Booth. In an interview for Chicago Booth Magazine, Ginzel explained that her book is about “democratizing” leadership development, “[breaking] down stereotypes about what a leader is – what they should look like or what their educational background is.”

Another point she emphasizes is that leadership can happen anywhere, anytime in a business context – and in the rest of life. Her teaching approach encourages people to look for opportunities to lead “in their community, their school, their temple, their family” – and to keep track of it.

That’s why her book follows the long-standing Booth tradition of leveraging data: it’s a workbook. “It’s not a book that gives you a leader to emulate. It’s not a book you’re supposed to swallow whole or put on your shelf. It’s a book you’re supposed to do.”

To learn more about the Chicago approach, visit


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