Founders and leaders succeed by becoming the genius maker, not the lone genius - Liz Wiseman, author, ‘Multipliers’

Founders and leaders succeed by becoming the genius maker, not the lone genius - Liz Wiseman, author, ‘Multipliers’

Tuesday July 03, 2018,

9 min Read

This best-selling author identifies five practice areas whereby multipliers invest in employees' growth and let them take initiative.


Liz Wiseman is a leadership consultant and researcher, and author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (see my book review here). A former executive at Oracle Corporation, she worked over the course of 17 years as the VP of Oracle University, and as a global leader for human resource development. She has a Masters in Organisational Behaviour from Brigham Young University.

Based on extensive research on leadership styles, Liz shows how multipliers and diminishers differ in five key practice areas: talent (talent magnet versus empire builder), work environment (liberator versus tyrant), challenges (challenger versus know-it-all), debates (debate maker versus decision maker), and ownership (investor versus micro-manager).

Liz joins us in this conversation on leadership traits, coaching leaders, the role of multipliers, and cultural nuances in management. 

YourStory: What is your current field of research in leadership?

Liz Wiseman: I have conducted significant research in the fields of leadership and collective intelligence. My research and writings offer leadership strategies to help companies maximise innovation, agility, resource leverage, and employee engagement. My work on talent management offers systems to help employees stay current, keep learning, and do the best work of their careers.

YS: How big a role does academics and consulting play in leadership? Can leadership really be formally taught?

LW: With most people and with most of the leadership traits and behaviours, the answer is yes. To be certain, some people have an advantage—either a natural advantage or a situational advantage. This is much like the world of athletics.

Consider a basketball player who is six feet six, and weighs 240 pounds. He will have a natural advantage compared toa smaller player who is five-nine and 175 pounds. The smaller player has to work harder than most of his opponents to excel at basketball. But a smaller player, while lacking a natural advantage, might have a situational advantage through stellar coaching, a strong peer community, and great conditioning.

Similarly, some people in leadership roles have a natural advantage (like the tall basketball player) because they already possess the underlying traits for perpetual rookies (curiosity, empathy, confidence, high aspirations). Others (like the smaller player) will have a situational advantage because they’ve had more coaching or have had more opportunity to practice the behaviours (asking good questions, seeing talent in others, issuing bold challenges).

Those without either of these advantages can develop the traits or behaviours; they will just need to work harder, and perhaps take greater advantage of training and coaching programmes offered through academics or consulting firms. But working harder isn’t the only approach to increase learning. We can manufacture a situational advantage by placing ourselves into situations where we will have an opportunity to lead. Either way—through practice or by putting ourselves in a new situation—leadership most certainly can be developed.

YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?

LW: Multipliers has been extremely well received around the world, and continues to be a best-selling book even eight years after its original publication. While the book has received a lot of praise and acclaim, my favourite reactions have been those that called the book “subversive,” because it challenges some long-held assumptions about what makes a good leader or those that say the book is “painful to read” because it causes the reader to do some deep introspection about how they might be an “accidental Diminisher.”

YS: In the time since your book was published, who are some notable new Multipliers you have come across?

LW: Keith Krach is one. He’s the former CEO and Chairman of the Board of DocuSign, a digital document management company that recently went public on the NASDAQ. Keith is a serial entrepreneur and tech disruptor who leads in a way that garners support and discretionary effort from virtually everyone around him—not just employees, but his board members, clients and peers in the industry.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is another. He’s the songwriter and performer who has transformed musical theatre, including the award winning musical and box office mega-sensation called Hamilton. While Miranda is considered to be a genius, interviews and discussions with this brilliant author and musician reveals that his real genius is bringing out the best in diverse talent. He speaks with ebullience when talking about the team that brought Hamilton to life, and says what he really loves doing is “dropping” some new music and lyrics to a group and then letting them turn it into something magical.

YS: In startups, many people have multiple roles and are learning and fire-fighting all the time. How should founders and entrepreneurs build their Multiplier skills without becoming Diminishers and doing many things by themselves?

LW: When a company is small, there are situations where the leader needs to be “hands on” and do much of the work themselves. However, here are a couple of strategies for handling these situations so as to avoid a diminishing effect.

  1. Let people know what you are doing. Instead of randomly micro-managing or dictating, let people know that there are parts of the business that you need to manage very closely yourself, and explain why. Tell them that you want them to take more ownership in other parts of the business.
  2. Treat these situations like true exceptions. It is easy to think you are the only person who can do certain types of work. While it is true that few other people are able to do it exactly like you do something, there are likely others who could achieve the same result but do it differently. Delegate everything that you can, do only those things that ONLY you can do, and keep your hands-on work and micro-managing to a bare minimum. It will help you minimise your Diminisher tendencies and maximise your Multiplier moments. When a manager leads like a Multiplier by rule, they can get away with operating like a Diminisher by exception.
  3. Remember that many founders and visionary leaders have a mixed bag of Diminisher and Multiplier traits.Sometimes founders need to surround themselves with other leaders who can become Multipliers to their teams.

YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

LW: Technology has enabled our business cycles to spin so fast, that we face new problems every day. Gone are the days when a leader (even an innovative visionary) could offer a static view of the future and then lead the team to this destination. More and more, leaders need to be able to lead their teams into the unknown, and to adapt or pivot in changing conditions.

Leaders need to be able to hold constant an aspiration, but be willing to flex as to the route or even the exact destination. And, they need to build teams that have the same level of adaptability (and what I call Rookie Smarts in the book by the same name). As we grow as leaders, we must not forget to remain learners. The best leaders know when it is time to draw on the wisdom of experience and when it is time to think anew. In a fast moving environment, it’s not what you know, it’s how fast you can learn.

YS: What are some ways in which employees who are not managers or leaders themselves can become Multipliers?

LW: Leading like a Multiplier is not a model of management reserved for those at the top of a hierarchy or even those in formal management positions. Leadership can come from all directions and from anywhere in an organisation. It is particularly vital in times of change and in complex organisations where influence is as important as authority.

YS: What does your research show in traditional societies (e.g. parts of Asia and Europe) where people expect leaders to be in charge and employees are not expected to speak up to their bosses? How can Multipliers appear in such cultures?

LW: The research was done in thirty-five companies on four continents. We find the Multiplier way of leading (and the positive impact it has) to be pervasive across cultures. However, we find that in cultures with high levels of hierarchy, the diminishing impact tends to be greater (with the average Diminisher receiving between 30 and 40 percent of people’s intelligence instead of the global average of 48 percent). We also found that in these more hierarchical cultures, leaders need to make extra efforts and greater precautions to establish the levels of intellectual, emotional, and organisational safety people need to fully contribute their best thinking.

Mostly, remember that Multipliers don’t all lead in the same way. While their individual leadership practices vary, what they share is a common mindset and assumption: a belief that the people they lead are smart and will figure it out. Also, they are aware of the impact that their own intelligence and presence has on their team and actively work to create room for others to contribute. These actions may follow different forms to be culturally appropriate.

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

LW: I’m exploring the employee side of employee engagement. Multipliers looks at the manager’s role in creating high-engagement, high-contribution environments. I’m currently researching and identifying what employees can do to ensure they are utilised at their fullest and have an opportunity to do their best work.

YS: What are some new tools or frameworks you have added to the original five practices in your book?

LW: The revised and expanded edition of Multipliers has a number of new tools, including the following: a) a chapter on “The Accidental Diminisher” that offers a number of remedies and workarounds to help well-meaning managers avoid diminishing their teams, b) a set of experiments to build Multiplier skills, c) a blueprint for building a Multiplier Culture and d) a set of strategies for dealing with the inevitable Diminishers around you.

YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?

LW: A company can grow to a certain size based on the strength of the founder’s intelligence. However, for a company to grow to its potential, become successful, and endure, at some point these leaders need to develop into Multipliers or surround themselves with other leaders who have the Multiplier effect.

And, remember that at the top of the intelligence hierarchy isn’t the lone genius who has all the answers; it is the genius maker, the leader who establishes a bold challenge and utilises the intelligence of others to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

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