Translational Leader


In their book on resilience, Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy introduce the concept of a “Translational Leader”. The authors very kindly featured me as one of many transitional leaders in their book, and describe these leaders by their actions. Namely, they:

  • Do not steer from the top, nor do they guide from the grassroots.
  • Demonstrate an uncanny ability to knit together different constituencies and institutions—brokering relationships and transactions across different levels of political, economic, and social organization.
  • Use “middle-out” leadership to interact with all levels of an organization’s hierarchy.
  • Connect with a range of stakeholder groups and form a bridge between those in power and those who might go unheard.
  • Stand at the intersection of many constituencies, knitting together social networks that complement hierarchical power structures.
  • Carry out their duties with candor, transparency, generosity, and commitment.
  • Do not dispense with hierarchies; they recognize and respect their power.
  • Are embedded in a system and are always knowledgeable about how their system works.
  • Work with existing hierarchies to increase communication and aligned function among all levels of a system.
  • Ultimately know when to let go by transitioning from connector to facilitator, changing from being a direct to an indirect leader, and guiding the emergence of new network weavers throughout the community.

DJ Patil, the White House Chief Data Officer during the Obama Administration, is actively calling on change-makers to tackle Massively Multi & Interdisciplinary Problems (MMIPs). “The challenges facing us as a country and as a species are massive and require a fundamentally multi/interdisciplinary approach.” I’ve met DJ in person on multiple occasions and believe he’d agree with this proposition: Translational Leaders can make timely and meaningful contributions to tackling MMIPs given their values, qualities, skills, expertise, experience, and the distinct approach that they bring to the table.

How does one become a Translational Leader? In the Harvard Business Review, April Rinne, explains that “translational” skills are key to future careers, and that broadening one’s career focus and professional identity is essential.

“In a world of uncertainty, talent that can expand their thinking beyond boxes, silos, or sectors will be in demand. Those who make an effort to build a career portfolio [rather than a career path], now will be more prepared to pitch themselves for (and even create) new opportunities, as they will be well-practiced at making creative connections between their various skills and the skills required of the jobs they most wish to pursue.”

April adds excellent advice on how to build a “Career Portfolio.” Translational Leaders also build career portfolios, although perhaps less intentionally? In any case, I would add the following advice:

  • Be inherently and insatiably curious
  • Learn by doing, be a self-learner and a self-starter
  • Seek answers, insights and solutions from other disciplines
  • Work across many different disciplines to adapt new solutions
  • Co-create and facilitate open cross-disciplinary networks
  • Be more impressed by kindness than intelligence
  • Get lucky by being at the right place at the right time
  • Seek strong enabling environments for all of the above

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