We often think of leadership in terms of traits or competencies but we also have leadership models: Level 5 Leadership (Jim Collins), Servant Leadership, and Authentic Leadership among others.
Older thinking about leadership focused on leadership styles instead of models but style-talk was too simplistic to capture the complexity of modern leadership. However, an effort to develop new leadership models can learn useful lessons from the thinking behind leadership styles.
I want to make a case for moving beyond the classic leadership styles of autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire. I suggest replacing "autocratic" with "controlling" and "democratic" with "engaging". I won't discuss the laissez-faire style here.
Controlling leaders make the key decisions (autocratic) AND monitor execution closely. Engaging leaders involve team members in decisions (democratic) AND foster a deep sense of joint ownership, trust and empowerment. Engaging leaders are not laissez-faire, however, because they don't completely relinquish control.
With the old styles, it is possible to be autocratic in deciding what to do without closely monitoring execution. Also, a leader could make decisions participatively but still closely control execution. This points to the main limitation of the classic leadership styles. They limit themselves to one dimension only: how decisions get made.
Why Shift our Focus
Another problem with the classic leadership styles is the one-sided focus on the leader, how the leader behaves. Today, we need a more interactive, relational concept, one that places more emphasis on collaboration and is less individualistic.
A focus on autonomous individuals – leader and follower – worked well enough in an older industrial era when we could function on a fairly self-sufficient, independent basis. Today, however, the requirement is for a much higher degree of interdependence and collaboration.
Recent discussions of "followership" testify to the growing interdependence of leader and led. The "wisdom of crowds" suggests that groups can make better decisions than any one individual. "Collaboration" is a relatively new buzzword that fits in with the new premium on interdependent working, an absolute necessity in the face of escalating complexity. Further, recent attacks on the notion of "heroic" leadership point to the demise of the Lone Ranger style of leadership.
Are You Controlling or Engaging?
Why are some leaders controlling? There are some reasons that apply to specific individuals as well as some structural or cultural factors that influence virtually all leaders.
- Organizational hierarchy fosters competition for scarce slots at the top, which, in turn, encourages a territorial mindset. To get to the top, executives need to operate like politicians campaigning for election. They need to convince those with the power to appoint them that they know what they're talking about. This makes it hard to share credit with others.
- Specialization and the drive for tangible results go hand in hand with individual accountability.
- Because leadership is commonly associated with decision making (rather than influence), senior executives are expected to be more competent than others to make decisions. With so much reputation at stake, it becomes hard for them to admit to mistakes or to accept challenges from below.
- Individuals at all levels identify with their ability to analyze and make decisions. We are all "solution generators". This is like wanting to work as a professional or individual contributor rather than as a manager, but it is deeper than that, because even effective managers want to do their own thinking, generate their own solutions and make their own decisions. This is why they often restrict the type of input they seek to factual information rather than fostering full-blown joint decision making.
- Some cultures are more controlling or demanding than others. Strongly controlling cultures expect all of their executives to be on top of everything. There can also be a clear but unstated message that the consequences of non-delivery will be severe. Such cultures more or less force executives to be controlling.
- Short-termism: pressure from markets can induce some companies to invest disproportionate energy in delivering today's numbers, leading to an anxiety that fuels a controlling style.
Some leaders are more controlling than others for their own reasons. Here are a few of them:
- Need for power: the status and authority to call the shots.
- Strong achievement drive: setting very high expectations, thus being excessively demanding.
- Anxiety to do well: a strong concern to get everything right at all times, a fear of failure that can escalate as one's profile rises and more is at stake.
- Distrust: thinking that others lack what it takes or won't do the job as it should be done.
- Role-identity: Needing to DO things, not wanting to major on being a catalyst.
The role-identity factor needs further elaboration. It's similar to our fourth structural factor above but it can vary widely across individuals. These leaders are often characterized as being "hands-on", not just for the sake of control, but because they feel that this is their job, it's what's most interesting about their work. There is also the feeling that they have nothing else to do.
An executive who was coached to become more of a catalyst and less of a "doer" responded by saying that he could see the point but he felt that operating as a catalyst wouldn't feel like doing "real" work, like making a "real" contribution
An Engaging Model of Leadership
Engaging leaders, like the level 5 leaders of Jim Collins, are not soft on performance. They can set high expectations and hold people accountable. They differ from controlling leaders by fostering much greater shared ownership for decisions, greater trust and fuller empowerment.
A core shift in thinking here is to break the link between leadership and decision making. Instead, leadership can be portrayed as an influence process and, of course, making decisions is not a form of influence. From this point of view, all employees who exert even occasional influence down, up or sideways show some leadership.
In a senior executive team meeting, all team members can influence the final decision on a particular issue thereby showing some leadership. Where the executive in charge needs to resolve a debate, we can view that as making a management decision rather than as showing leadership.
Again like level 5 leaders, engaging leaders have humility. This is necessary because of rapid change and complexity: no one person can know everything or generate all the solutions.
More fundamentally, there is a wholesale mindset, role-shift here, from executives seeing themselves as authorities to taking on the mantle of catalyst or facilitator. Their job is no longer to make the lion's share of decisions but rather to get mental work done through others.
Management has long been described as "getting things done through others". However, this phrase was more appropriate in the industrial age when the "things" getting done were mainly manual tasks.
Today, mental work is much more to the fore. The best way to foster creative thinking to solve complex problems and to innovate is to engage people's brains. The best way to do that is to ask the most engaging question: "What do you think?"
The primary function of the executive today is to ask great questions to stimulate the thinking of others, thereby to generate better solutions but, more importantly, to foster greater shared ownership for all decisions, both strategic and operational.
Differences with Collins's Level 5 Leadership
The engaging leader model is very like level 5 leadership but the focus on drawing solutions out of others is more central for the former. Level 5 leaders do this as well, but Collins doesn't make it the cornerstone of his model.
The other major difference is that the engaging leader model is really a model of management, not leadership. Although I have referred to "leadership style" and the "engaging leader" throughout this discussion, the act of engaging people is really a managerial way of behaving.
On this account, leadership is only shown through influence. This means actively promoting a solution, not drawing it out of others.
The main advantage of this shift in perspective is that it paves the way for even greater humility on the part of senior executives. Leadership is a glory role; we romanticize and idealize leaders, so everyone wants to be seen as one. But, in a complex world where all employees have good ideas, regarding one person as the leader is self-defeating.
We need to flatten this psychological hierarchy, see everyone as able to show occasional leadership and regard the person in charge as a manager, not in the controlling sense but rather as a catalyst and facilitator.
In summary, therefore, 21st century executives can be most effective as engaging managers who occasionally show some leadership-as-influence but who spend the bulk of their time asking engaging questions to draw solutions out of others. They still need to make decisions where there are irresolvable differences of opinion, but this is part of what it means to be a manager, not a leader.
This level of engagement fosters wider ownership, making trust and empowerment easier. Where executives take the lion's share of ownership for decisions, it's naturally harder to trust others. It's psychologically harder to trust people if you have to tell them what to do. Further, modern intelligent knowledge workers are demotivated when they have no share in deciding what's to be done. This is a self-defeating vicious circle.
I have shifted in this discussion from talking about leadership to talking about management. I started talking about leadership to keep it simple, because most people assume that the person in charge of a group is a leader.