In a recent article for CEOWORLD Magazine, I recounted my experience with Warden Exchange. The principals asked me to lead a program that connected the five exemplary practices from The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner with the frameworks from my most recent book, Peernovation: What Peer Advisory Groups Can Teach Us About Building High-Performing Teams (2020). The entire experience prompted me to rethink the challenges facing CEOs and business leaders today. What’s changed regarding the fundamentals of good leadership? What hasn’t, and why?
What’s the Same.
The first edition of The Leadership Challenge was published in 1987. Regarded among the top leadership books ever written, its foundational Five Exemplary Leadership Practices have stood the test of time. Now in its 6th edition, today’s narrative contemporizes what it means to:
- Model the Way
- Inspire a Shared Vision
- Challenge the Process
- Enable Others to Act
- Encourage the Heart
Walking the talk; connecting people’s work to something larger than themselves; challenging time-honored practices in an ever-changing world; providing employees with the resources, training, and freedom from hierarchy to thrive; and encouraging their hearts have always been important leadership tenets. We just had so few positive examples that we didn’t know life could be better. Yet, thirty-five years later, after Kouzes and Posner showed us, these practices matter now more than ever. Why? Because while the fundamentals of good leadership haven’t changed, the way people want to be led has.
Back to 1987
Before exploring how some of the expectations of our leaders are different today, let’s look back at a prevailing leadership style of the time – top-down, command and control. To illustrate, I’ll offer a personal example I covered in my book.
Meet Roy, my sales manager at a Ford Dealership where I worked for six months after graduating college. The owner was essentially irrelevant, at least in terms of direct contact with the sales team. The general manager’s name was John, a well-dressed Bob Newhart figure, with an understated demeanor and dry sense of humor. Roy, the sales manager, was a chain-smoking tyrant. This duo was textbook good cop, bad cop. The dynamic was similar to what I remembered from high school – the ambassador-like principal everyone loved and the badass assistant principal everybody feared.
At the dealership, Roy was our assistant principal, so to speak. To paint a picture, he rode everyone hard, all the time. If he sensed a hint of inactivity in your eyes, he would throw a phonebook at you and tell you to call twenty landscapers and sell them a truck. All “conversations” with Roy flowed one way.
In fairness, Roy was like a turtle: hard on the outside, soft on the inside. I don’t believe he led people the way he did to be cruel; it was just the only way he knew how. His general manager and the owner above him were quieter about it but just as command and control-oriented. It was all most employees, no matter where they worked, knew at the time.
How and Why it Changed – Global Influences
At the close of that decade, in a world where authoritarian leaders ruled nations and companies alike, everything changed. Protests in Poland for freer elections, which sparked peaceful revolutions across Europe, were followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a resounding, demonstrative example that forcing people to live or work under conditions against their will was not a sustainable leadership strategy. Unfortunately, corporate America was slow to pick up the cue with rare exceptions.
Moving on to 2006
The book, Tribal Leadership, published about 20 years after The Leadership Challenge, included research from thousands of companies across the US, revealing that among its five stages of culture, the Stage 3 leadership approach (I’m great…you’re not) took center stage. Top-down leadership continued to prevail.
Maybe it was after “You” (we, all of us) were named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006 that conditions in the workplace started to shift. I have no evidence, mind you, but the timing is interesting.
During this period, as people looked up to their leaders/authority figures, they began to rely more than ever on those standing beside them. (The Edelman Trust Barometer from that year provides the evidence). What’s more, technology offered tools for people to share their ideas and opinions with the world. As consumers, we looked to one another before deciding what car to buy, book to read, or college to pick. We didn’t know these fellow consumers from Adam, yet their opinions heavily influenced our decision-making.
As parents, we started listening and learning from our kids instead of dismissing their opinions and ideas as ill-informed. We recognized that circumstances shaping their views were markedly different from the generations and times that molded ours. While one could argue that that’s always been the case, our kids had a voice this time, and it was growing stronger. As a result, parents and kids adopted a relationship of “we” instead of us and them, and it continues today.
As employees, we engage more frequently in sense-making exercises with one another to size up whether the latest edict from the top was worthy of the employees’ full-throated support. Employee compliance began to crumble as employee engagement started winning the day – slowly but surely and especially in jobs considered part of the knowledge economy. Growing up, I was told, “Good things come to those who wait.” My daughters will tell you, “Good things come to those who act.” They don’t just seek to be heard; they demand it.
As we look at today’s world, the balance of power has clearly shifted. Top-down control is a myth. Place a ping pong ball between your fingers. Hold it gently, and it stays where it is. Squeeze it too tightly, and it will either squirt out of your fingers faster than you can say leadership, or you’ll crush it beyond repair. Try to control people, and they’ll put up a fight.
We are watching it every day in Ukraine, as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lives the five exemplary leadership practices in their full splendor. The fundamentals of good leadership have not changed. As a leader today, focus on what your citizens or employees need from you and how they want to be led. When that happens, everyone wins.
Written by Leo Bottary.
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