Ron Gutman says the era of the “superhero” leader is over.
The inventor, investor, and co-founder of Intrivo Diagnostics believes that the model of an individualistic leader with a top-down approach to managing people is long gone. Gutman argues that this model should be replaced with sapient leadership, a framework he co-developed at Stanford University that emphasizes humility, empathy, trust, and collaboration.
In 2019, Ron Gutman and Aneel Chima, his collaborator at Stanford University, met to design a new course on leading through change. Their plan was to explore how leaders navigate a climate of ever-accelerating social, political, and economic change. Interviewing numerous leaders in Silicon Valley and beyond, they observed that change is no longer linear, it’s pervasive, perpetual, and exponential — what Gutman and Chima call “3D change.”
The course was scheduled for the spring 2020 semester, but in January, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S.
COVID-19 became a paradigmatic example of 3D change, presenting continuous challenges and catalyzing rapid advancement in literally every aspect of life, business, and governance. But Gutman has explained that the pandemic wasn’t an anomaly when it comes to rapid change, it was just a more accentuated example, and that even before the pandemic, when he and Chima were in the process of designing the new course, all signs were already pointing to a new dynamic environment of constant, rapid, and accelerating change.
As the pandemic started progressing rapidly and lockdowns began, classes at Stanford University moved online and the course evolved into a popular online lecture series that was open to the entire Stanford community. It presented in-depth discussions with a wide array of leaders from social, business, government, and health sectors covering leadership theory and practice in the context of real-time 3D change. Participants included Walmart president and CEO Doug McMillon, Cleveland Clinic president and CEO Toby Cosgrove, former Icelandic presidential candidate Halla Tómasdóttir, Salesforce president and inventor of the Facebook “like” button Bret Taylor, founder of TEDx Lara Stein, and prominent physician, researcher, and bestselling author Dr. Dean Ornish.
Continuously interviewing some of the most prominent leaders on the forefront of tackling the then-emerging pandemic, Gutman and Chima identified shared characteristics of successful leadership practices in the face of 3D change, which led to the development of the sapient leadership framework.
What Is Sapient Leadership?
Sapient refers both to the quality of wisdom and to being human. Philosophers since the time of Aristotle, who famously declared that “man is by nature a social animal,” have recognized that the wisdom that defines us as human beings is fundamentally social in nature, and that flourishing and thriving requires learning from — and with — one another.
Ron Gutman explains that the sapient leadership framework is built on the power of learning from, and caring for, others. “Nobody has enough knowledge, experience, and capabilities to understand or solve everything by themselves. When interviewed, the most accomplished leaders repeat similar premises for leading through a reality of constant change: listening, compassion and caring. At the end of the day, leaders would find it very challenging to lead and solve big problems alone if they don’t deeply listen, empathize, and truly want to do good and then synthesize it all together.”
The concept of sapient leadership has drawn on an emerging body of research on collective problem-solving and the value of mental and emotional support, while applying insights from real-world examples of change-making leadership. A sapient leader recognizes the importance of shared learning and values, and then creates a psychologically safe environment that fosters creative and values-based collaboration.
McMillon exemplified this approach when he told Gutman, “I don’t run Walmart, I help lead Walmart,” as did Tómasdóttir, who argued that “leadership is not given to the few — it’s inside all of us, and life is all about unleashing that leadership.”
Sapient leadership prioritizes humane, trusting, and adaptable team relationships rather than relying on a top-down, deterministic leadership that is ill-equipped to face unexpected challenges. It’s grounded in the idea that a linear approach to problem-solving cannot handle an environment of exponential change. Sapient leaders build organizations that are better able to forecast and adapt to change by drawing on a network of diverse perspectives, skills, and ideas.
Sapient Leadership in Action
Sapient leadership is premised on four interconnected fundamental pillars. First, leaders should consciously operate with humility, authenticity, and an openness to new ideas. This leads to the second pillar: a culture of trust and psychological safety throughout an organization.
Third, once this culture is established, individuals and teams will feel empowered to voice new ideas that challenge the status quo. Engaging with these ideas enables continuous learning. A culture of psychological safety and openness to learning will emerge, and this supports the final pillar: shared purpose and values that enhance focus, cohesion, and resilience in the face of change.
Gutman describes how he implemented sapient leadership’s four pillars at Intrivo Diagnostics, a company that he led to become one of the most successful providers of test-to-treat solutions during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the importance of an openness to taking intellectual risks and learning from mistakes. As part of the On/Go culture in Intrivo, Gutman instituted informal weekly educational meetings where team members shared new ideas, taught one another about valuable and timely topics, and collaborated on shared interests, values, and goals.
“My motto is to instill a culture of success and learning,” said Gutman. “We have only two modes at Intrivo and On/Go: one is success and the other is learning. Success is: ‘We did something, it worked really great so we celebrate.’ Learning is: ‘We did something, it didn’t work that well, so we learn from it how to do better next time.’ The only way one can fail is to repeat things that didn’t work.”
Gutman describes how, when he visited Walmart’s offices prior to the pandemic, he was struck by the prominent display of founder Sam Walton’s motto: “To succeed in this world, you have to change all the time.”
“I was used to seeing quotes like the one from Walton in Silicon Valley companies,” says Gutman, “but did not expect to see it also in the headquarters of a retailer’s giant in rural Arkansas.”
— Ron Gutman (@RonGutman) May 11, 2022
Learning To Lead With Compassion
After two years of tackling the pandemic, an important question facing leaders in government, health care, technology, and business is: What are the lasting lessons?
Ron Gutman highlights that it’s crucial not to forget the compassion and agile problem-solving the most effective leaders practiced when responding to COVID-19.
“I believe that as a society we need to ask ourselves what are the lasting lessons we’ve learned. Can we continue feeling while we’re thinking? Is it high time we make more room for taking care of people’s physical and mental health? Do we need to pay more attention to how we take care of people who are older, sicker, and more frail? The answer is now more than ever: Absolutely, yes. Sapient leaders can take this opportunity and deploy compassion at scale to change humanity for the better.”