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Wanted: Creative leaders for energy

By Dev Patnaik, Special to CNN
  • BP has changed its top leadership, but has it changed its mindset? Dev Patnaik asks
  • Patnaik: Industries like energy have been led by people with narrow experience in that field
  • Patnaik: Inspired leadership comes from people who combine ideas from many fields
  • He says leaders with tunnel vision will not fix root causes of problems

Editor's note: Dev Patnaik is the founder and CEO of Jump Associates, a strategy firm based in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area that works with companies to create new businesses and reinvent existing ones.

(CNN) -- Disasters have a unique ability to capture our attention, and as a result, they often serve as useful turning points in human history.

As such, many of us hope that the tragic sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig, and the resulting flood of harmful crude into the Gulf of Mexico, will be an inflection point in our long addiction to oil -- marking a true transition to a new, greener energy era.

Such transition requires leadership, but not the kind of leadership that shepherded us through a century of petro-based business as usual. Fundamental shifts require fundamentally different kinds of leaders, a breed of strategic thinker who's less reliant on analyzing and modeling the known world, and more adept at generating entirely new ideas.

With BP's broken oil well capped (for now) and the daily environmental disaster at least partly abated, it remains to be seen whether Robert Dudley will be a radically different kind of CEO than Tony Hayward, or just more of the same. But BP and Deepwater are only emblematic of the larger story.

Achieving real success in the energy arena will take more than assigning blame for Deepwater and looking backward to establish tighter safety regulations -- an activity that seems to be a favorite pastime in Washington. Rather, meaningful change will only come if we take a new approach to solving the highly complex and ambiguous challenges of our time.

What's needed is an approach to problem-solving that allows people to weave together expertise from many different fields of thought -- from anthropology to chemistry to finance and more -- to chart a safer path through uncertain environments of risk and change.

The good news is that people like this exist. Hybrid thinkers not only have expertise in multiple fields, but more importantly, the talent to make connections across those experiences. These folks consciously blend different fields of thought to discover and develop opportunities that were previously unseen by the status quo.

They might have a doctorate in cognitive science and years of experience in community development. Or perhaps, they're a chemist, who also happens to be an economist. Regardless of their form, hybrid thinkers share a rare ability to act as one-part humanist, one-part technologist and one-part capitalist.

Gen. David Petraeus, the leader of our military efforts in Afghanistan, is undoubtedly a hybrid thinker of the highest caliber. He didn't develop a new approach to fighting insurgencies by studying the status quo vigorously.

Rather, he used his expertise in warfare, economics, education and leadership to create a radically different strategy in the face of declining public morale and deep ambiguity on the battlefield.

It is Petraeus' ability to blend empathy for the troops and civilians on the ground with years of tactical military experience and a matter-of-fact understanding of our resources that makes him our go-to leader in conflict after conflict.

While Petraeus represents the latest in a long line of gifted American generals, he also represents something fundamentally new. He's not just a narrow expert in the field of military science.

Although it remains unclear if he can replicate his previous success in the immensely challenging Afghan war, we already know that he has the ability to adapt and the wisdom to seek out new solutions to old problems.

In the business world, leading companies routinely face ambiguous challenges. When that happens, the smart money turns to hybrid thinkers. But, as you might expect, this rarely happens at the kind of companies that give business a bad name.

Banks, mortgage lenders, automakers and energy companies aren't often celebrated for combining their business acumen with a touch of humanity and a flair for creativity. More likely, you'll find hybrid thinkers at the companies we most often admire -- the sorts of places that actually create value, not just for Wall Street, but for Main Street.

A perfect example of hybrid thinking in action in business is the growing field of biomimicry, which is the study and emulation of natural forms to create stronger materials and more sustainable technologies. Here, firms such as Calera Corp. are mimicking natural processes in coral reefs to transform carbon dioxide waste from power plants into cement. The result is fewer harmful emissions, reduced mining costs and a quality product with clear applications.

Calera's founder, Brent Constantz, has degrees in biology and geological sciences, deep experience with medical devices, and has run several successful business ventures. Similarly, John Lasseter, a co-founder of Pixar and creator of "Toy Story," isn't admired because he's only good at technology. We love his work because he so effortlessly fuses technical prowess with art and storytelling to create blockbuster after blockbuster.

What Petraeus, Constantz and Lasseter ultimately share is the willingness and ability to tackle ambiguity. And although they work in very different fields, their success is rooted in a singular ability to merge disparate fields of expertise to become greater than the sum of their parts.

Hybrid thinking is the answer to coping with an increasingly complex and ambiguous world. Now, it's time for us to recognize this lesson and apply it to the greater societal challenges of our day -- in the economy, in health care and of course, in energy.

The ongoing threat to the American economy posed by an overreliance on increasingly difficult-to-produce oil isn't just a collection of distinct economic issues, technical problems or social ills -- but rather a massive problem combining all three. And in such situations, we far too often reach out to existing solutions, even when they carry huge risks. The same short-sighted thinking nearly doomed our automotive industry and our financial sector in a perilously short two-year span.

In the case of the energy sector, burning oil, a known and successful way to generate power, threatens to do the same. And leaders with tunnel vision will spend their time trying to put out repeat fires and never fix root causes.

Clearly, we must look for leaders capable of examining the challenge from a diversity of perspectives. Because waiting for an oil well to blow up, putting out the fire and then repeating the process is something we cannot afford. Simply put, we need to ask better questions and find new answers to the problems that ail us.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dev Patnaik.