by Fred Cohn
The nature of organisational leadership is evolving from a rigid hierarchical model to a more empathetic, people-oriented style. Forward-looking companies are instilling leadership practices that foster collaboration, aiming to give all employees a sense of personal involvement of the organisation’s operations. These new values are especially important to the newest generation of workers: Millennials don’t want to work within a dismissive, unfeeling corporate structure. Instead, they seek positions in companies whose leadership will inspire them and value their contributions.
Euripedes, the Greek playwright,observed that “ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head”, in the fifth century B.C. His wisdom holds true 2,400 years later; in business, as in battle, good leadership is essential to organisational success.
But even though the sentiment still holds, the definition of the word “leadership” is rapidly changing. James MacGregor Burns’seminal 1978 study, Leadership, proposed a distinction between traditional “transactional leadership” which binds leaders and followers together in a transaction based on self-interest, and “transformational leadership” where all parties work together toward “higher levels of motivation and morality.” In some of today’s best-run companies, Burns’ vision of “transformational leadership” has become a reality.
“Things have evolved to let other styles of leadership into the picture,” said Susan Komives, co-author of Leadership for a Better World: Understanding the Social Change Model of Leadership Development. “There’s a higher value placed on collaboration and teamwork.In the information age, organisations need collaborative, broad–based thinking to get the best possible outcomes.”
Needless to say, some hierarchical structure is important to an organisation to prevent it from descending into chaos. Even Google, which takes as one of its tenets the idea that “the best organisation is a flat organisation”, recognises that managers are necessary to support and channel the work of employees.However, organisations are learning to structure hierarchies that support corporate aims without stifling creativity. In the old model, fear is one of the chief tools in a business leader’s arsenal. The leader has the ability to hire and fire employees; the fear of dismissal keeps the employee on alert. But organisations now realise that this is a counterproductive strategy: an intimidated workforce will not take the risks needed for real organisational growth.
“The biggest death knell to empowerment is fear,” said Komives.
“The rationalising, downsizing manager is gone,” said John Adair, author of Effective Leadership. “If you go back the mindset of the old-style manager, it comes down to one word: ‘task’. They were only interested in the task to be accomplished. People were what they called ‘human resources’: they weren’t people.”
Under the new model, Adair said, leaders are still focused on “the common task and the demands of challenges of the business”. But there’s one significant change: “They’re also focused on people.” Of course, a CEO leading vast numbers of people will not be able to forge an individual relationship with each and every one, but the best leaders give a sense that they value the input of all their employees. “They will give the feeling that they care about people individually, not just as a set of numbers”.
“Good leaders can be tough and demanding – and they can show that,” said Adair.“But they should also be warm and human as well. You don’t have to be ruthless: that means without humanity, without pity, which is not the characteristic of a true leader. The best will always be respected, but never despised.”
The quality of a company’s leadership will inevitably affect its employer branding efforts. Potential employees want to feel that they will be empowered within the organisation. This empowerment hinges on forward-thinking leadership: the company’s leaders, on both the team and organisational levels, must be willing to respond to their employees’ efforts and ideas. “True leaders don’t create followers; they create partners: people who have a sense of ownership in the business.” said Adair.
“That’s what keeps the best and the brightest involved. The organisations that can create true business leaders will have a transforming effect on the employer brand.” These issues are especially important to the Millennial Generation: a group of people for whom the term “wage slave” is at best a relic of the past. “Millennials were raised to be seen as talented and special,” said Komives. “They come in expecting to be involved with the organisation. They don’t want to join the company and then lay low for a couple of years before their input is heard. The best companies are those that understand [the Millennials] can see with fresh eyes – and that they should invite them in.”
Needless to say, the quality of a company’s leadership is key to its retention efforts. Even if potential employees may not be able get an exact read on the matter before they join, once they’re in the workplace, they’ll be grappling day to day with the manner in which they’re led. Their leaders play a huge role in determining their attitude toward the organisation – and their desire to stay.
“People don’t leave an organisation; they leave a manager,” said Adair.The quality of a company’s leadership may be apparent at first glance from the moment a prospective employee walks into the office. A sterile work environment – one where employees aren’t allowed to personalise their workspaces – or a too–quiet one will transmit the message that an organisation discourages the free flow of ideas.
On the other hand, Komives said, job candidates can easily get a sense of an environment where progressive leadership ideas have been put in place.
“They need to see how the work environment treats the whole person,” she said. “They need to be physically active, relationally active. The organisations where you stay chained to a cubicle, where you get docked if you take an extra five minutes – those are the ones that aren’t moving ahead.”