Leadership is important but the forces that shaped modern leadership and management are fast disappearing and it’s time to rethink its value.

Henry Mintzberg, the Professor of Management at McGill University said back in 2009; “Leadership is focused on the individual. What we need is communityship. Organisations are communities of people not collections of human resources.”

This article suggests we are in danger of being over-led and over-managed as a working population. It highlights the shift required and points the way to a more effective model. What is required is a rebalancing from developing individual capability towards developing “context architects”, people who create meaning and purpose at work and the conditions for colleagues to flourish. The article also supports Mintzberg’s view that leadership and management are indivisible. You can’t have a leader who doesn’t manage because they won’t know what’s going on and you can’t have a manager who doesn’t lead because that would be demoralising.

A new context

People are not born with an overwhelming desire of wanting to be led but there is a plethora of books and articles on leadership. Most of it is authored by either academics or former leaders. It’s hard to find anything written by those who have endured a lifetime of being led. If written perhaps this would provide a more balanced perspective on the real impact and value of leadership?

Modern leadership had its roots in the industrial revolution, reinforced by cultures ingrained with high levels of deference towards authority and servitude towards hierarchy. These forces have contributed to a post industrial fixation with the “leader and the led” model and a dominant performance paradigm of “how do we get more from our people.”

The legacy of such a fixation remains within many of today’s organisations and is visible within organisational charts, expressed in role profiles and experienced through an inability to adapt to a changing world. Whilst there are a growing number of organisations trying to develop a more enlightened approach there is still a belief, often subconscious, within many of the business elite that the use of authority and imposition of control over subordinates is the main tool for mobilising work.

What is leadership’s value today?

Leadership’s value is justified by stating it provides direction, motivation, decision making, resources, information, control, vision and strategy. The trouble is that these value points are now under severe threat from a society that is more educated, has access to more information, more communication tools, more ideas, more connectivity and creative experiences than ever before. I hesitate to label this population as Generation X/Y/Z because it’s not all about the internet generation.

The ability of people to look after their own affairs, manage their own lives, make their own decisions is constantly underestimated by business leaders and managers. Take the case of a small town in Holland called Drachten. The town was overloaded with traffic management signage – go/no go, no entry, stop, directions, cross here, no parking, one way, speed restrictions etc. In an attempt to make the environment more attractive the council decided to remove virtually all of the signage. The outcry from certain leading figures was anticipated – there will be an increase in accidents, death on the road, control will be lost, chaos and carnage will ensue! The reality was completely the opposite. There was a decrease in accidents, a slowing down in traffic speed and an increase in wellbeing. Why was this? Responsibility for behaviour was transferred from the traffic management signage to the citizens. Over time people took more care, became more cautious and respectful of others.

Academics call the Drachten experience an example of a self-organising system. What was once thought fanciful is now a reality. We are seeing the emergence of a global population that is increasingly self confident, willing and able to be:

  • Self managed in terms of how team decisions are made and resources allocated. Control is exercised through consensus and transparency not by imposition. The Dutch organisation, Buurtzorg is breaking new ground in the provision of healthcare using this approach.
  • Self motivated in terms of what they do and why they do it. Research shows people leave bosses not jobs because they are treated as human resources not resourceful humans.
  • Self directed in terms of setting goals and priorities. A shared problem is a more powerful leader than any individual.
  • Self managed in terms of their learning and development plans. Meaning, value and purpose come through self actualisation and the ability to learn how to learn.
  • Independent of thought in terms of contributing to debates and not having ideas imposed.

In his 2016 paper “Management and Moral Capital” Dr. Jules Goddard, Fellow at London Business School makes the case that the deference towards all forms of authority and the institutions they represent is diminishing as is the sense of servitude towards hierarchy. People are looking for a greater sense of meaning (purpose), a sense of self (identity) and affiliation (belonging) in their life which is not fulfilled through corporate life or indeed many of the traditional institutions in society.

What does this mean?

Most organisational agendas are focused on some form of transformation as they try to become more collaborative, agile, innovative, digitally savvy, adaptive and creative.

The response to developing these capabilities is not to be found in a “leader and the led” model but in a new performance paradigm of “How do we inspire people so that they give their talents and efforts willingly?” We are in a new context and leadership needs to reposition its value proposition if it’s to remain relevant.

In the face of this shift leadership’s opportunity to establish its contemporary value is twofold.

1. The creation of meaning and purpose

This is not to be confused with the communication of corporate values, mission statements or corporate social responsibility initiatives. It is the requirement of leadership to provide deeper meaning as to why work is important and its relevance to support a deeper sense of individual and collective identity.

W.L.Gore, one of the most sought after companies in the world to work for, understand this. If someone wants to hold a meeting and nobody turns up then the matter is deemed not that important. However if people do turn up then the matter is deemed “important” then the host becomes the de-facto leader.

2.The creation of context

Ensuring the practices, procedures and processes within the business stimulate, not hinder people into giving all their energy and talent in the pursuit of improved performance. This requires a redefinition of leaders as “context architects” who focus on creating the conditions which enable colleagues to fulfil their potential.

The work of Dr Deming and the continuous improvement movement and the work of Daniel Kahneman and the Behavioural Economic Science movement demonstrate that having the right contextual conditions is over 85% responsible for driving performance. Not the well intentioned and often “heroic” efforts of individuals and their leaders.

By any measure the internet is the most powerful example of providing a liberating and enabling context on a global scale. It has truly changed everything. Never before have people had access to so much information, the use of so many creative tools and able to freely express their point of view.

Organisations find it hard to transform because the change in paradigm from leader as master to leader as servant is too big a big jump. It was only when HCL Technologies, one of the world’s leading software service’s companies, was on the brink of collapse did they invert the pyramid and implement their “Employee first, Customer second” philosophy. This made all managers and leaders answerable to employees.

In conclusion

If leadership is to re-establish its contemporary value it will need to rebalance technical expertise with a deep appreciation of the human condition. This will require support in building the ability to learn constantly through a process of challenging their own assumptions, experiencing new and different perspectives as well as having the ability and tools to try out new ways of working.

Innovation in the way leaders are developed thus goes hand in glove with innovation in the way leadership needs to adapt to a new context.