Meriam-Webster defines a leader as follows – a person who has commanding authority or influence. The Business Dictionary is a bit more specific. It includes establishing and realizing a clear vision, coordinating conflicting interests, and thinking and acting creatively in difficult situations. Furthermore, Kermit Burley defines traditional leadership as a style where power is given to the leader based on the traditions of the past. Now we know what a leader and traditional leadership are by definition. However, neither attempts to outline how a leader or traditional leadership is supposed to influence and direct an organization.
Leaders have historically relied on established structures of hierarchy. In short, the higher up they were, the more authority they had, and the more they could do what they wanted. Yes, there were advisors. However, if they didn’t appease the leader, they ran the risk of being ignored and pushed aside. The traditional leadership system was extremely patriarchal in nature. It favored men of higher social status and essentially left those behind who weren’t part of the old boy network. Besides a small handful of exceptions, women were all but excluded from any sort of official leadership positions altogether.
The Industrial Revolution didn’t see much change during a time period when democracy was still in its infancy and slavery was still a common practice. Aspiring companies were run by men who lorded over their businesses like kings. While eliminating an employee for having a different opinion had gone out of style, it was still frowned upon to even constructively challenge a leader. This was an essential pillar of what we know as traditional leadership. Yes, there were laws limiting labor hours and abolishing child labor in the early 19th century, but the majority of labor legislation wasn’t produced until the 20th century. Furthermore, discrimination laws didn’t come into effect until the 1970’s!
As a result, veteran CEOs and managers who run companies today had climbed the ranks in accordance with the old-fashioned style of leadership. They still operate modern companies via century-old practices. 19th-century cultural norms define their expectations for how they treat employees and how they expect to be treated. It is safe to call these leaders nothing more than dinosaurs. Such that they exhibit characteristics that should disappear upon retirement and younger leaders who operate with a 21st-century mindset take the helm.
Today, however, many multinational firms often define the global expectations of corporate culture in accordance with outdated norms. This means that the traits continue to exist through modern leaders who emulate the dinosaurs – aka traditional leadership. However, new technology, improved education systems, and a different, more inclusive worldview have redefined how people relate to one another. Sadly, traditions typically bind us. As long as new leaders feel they have to continue age-old traditions, we will continue to engage with these unhealthy practices.
Unhealthy practices associated with traditional leadership
- Traditional leaders make decisions without considering or utilizing the sometimes superior knowledge of those who report to them.
- They follow the blame model and outsource responsibility for their flawed decisions and choices to others.
- Traditional leaders act out their negative emotions, their frustration, and anger by exploding, yelling, or being unavailable for constructive conversations.
- They feel entitled to special treatment, big salaries, and huge bonuses that undermine fairness principles and disenfranchise the workforce.
- Traditional leaders manage people with the same matter of fact attitude they manage tasks – with little focus on building a trusting and empowering relationship.
- They expect their staff to put their lives last in order to get ahead at work, pressuring and guilt-tripping them into compliance.
It is rare to witness all of the above traits in one leader. However, it is not uncommon to observe a number of them in many modern leaders.
It’s essential to change this traditional model of leadership because…
It is essential that we do away with the old model of leadership and adopt a new style such as servant leadership. Why? Well, leaders have a massive impact on those who report to them…it’s really that simple.
Culture lies below the surface of observable behavior. It includes how you make decisions, how you deal with authority, and how you communicate. Unwritten rules and norms define an organization’s culture. Furthermore, the culture in which the workforce grew up also influences an organization’s culture.
Up until now, science has explained human behavior in terms of nature or nurture – genetic inheritance and other biological factors (nature) or the influence of external factors such as life experiences and education (nurture). However, according to new science, there is another element that shapes you, which has big implications for leadership – epigenetics.
Genes are the hereditary building blocks of life. They make up your cellular structure based on the material your parents provided. Recent research shows that your genes are not hardwired. Instead, they respond to what you perceive when faced with adversity. In fact, your environment influences your emotions and thoughts, which, in turn, determine how your genes express themselves. This is especially true when it comes to your stress levels, health, and overall well-being.
This means that leaders have more of an impact on their employees than just getting them to do their jobs. Leaders can quite literally affect their employee’s genetic make-up, both for better and worse. When traditional leaders develop a toxic culture, stress and anxiety can evolve into illness late in life and can even seep into the next generation.
In the psychoanalytic therapy method, Transactional Analysis, traditional leaders assume the parent role, such that they are either nurturing or critical. When a leader embraces this persona, it generally sets up a counter-productive behavioral pattern. Because they require the boss’s approval, employees respond from the Child role by either complying or rebelling against the leader. Neither party benefits. Leaders feel that they must bear the burden of responsibility; subordinates learn that making decisions is a risky endeavor that attracts disapproval and blame. As a result, they learn to keep themselves small and never develop their potential. Should a Child be promoted into a leadership role, they generally step into their Parent’s shoes and follow in their footsteps by replicating the same behavior while sometimes flipping back into the Child.
Transactional Analysis offers a third role that interrupts the unhealthy behaviors of the Parent and Child – the Adult. What does this actually entail? Before we delve into the meaning of this, I’d like to differentiate between a legal adult and a mature Adult.
A legal adult is what we tell children they will become when they reach the age defined by law when they have come of age and are therefore a ‘grown-up’. This is someone who is (theoretically) no longer dependent on their parents or guardians for survival.
If they are functional, they:
- go to work;
- pay their rent, mortgage, and bills;
- have a family;
- have a social circle of friends and professional associates and
- pursue hobbies of their choice.
Grown-up does not equal mature Adult
Unlike a mature Adult, a legal adult and traditional leader may:
- be unable to consider the costs and consequences of their decisions and actions;
- ignore their physical wellbeing for short term indulgences and immediate gratification;
- not be able to effectively deal with life’s challenges and conflicts;
- be unable to manage their negative emotions like anger and frustration;
- react to situations from a place of ego and entitlement;
- take unreasonable risks and
- make decisions based on wanting to avoid disapproval or gaining the approval of other people (operating from their inner, immature child).
The following is nothing more than food for thought. The points made are intended to stimulate you into formulating your own leadership model, one to which you aspire and that motivates you to be the best version of yourself in your role as a leader. Whether you manage hundreds of people, a few, or just yourself, leadership always starts with how we deal with ourselves and the expectations we have.
What does a productive leader look like?
Here are a few points from my list of competencies and qualities, in no particular order, of what I think it means to be a mature Adult and emotionally productive leader, someone who:
- considers the overall and long-term impact of their actions – on themselves and others;
- is accountable for their mistakes;
- takes constructive actions instead of resorting to victimhood and blame;
- surrounds themselves with people who don’t pander to their mediocrity but who encourage them to reach their highest potential;
- walks the walk and talks the talk with integrity;
- is able to park their ego;
- is not afraid to constructively rock the boat if things don’t work and/or if things could be improved;
- mindfully resolves conflict with consideration for reputation and with the aim of retaining respect and, if possible, reconnection;
- intends to be an example of mature behavior for the next generation – not be a buddy or protector;
- empowers people to be mature adults;
- has the wisdom to allow people to make their own mistakes rather than stop them from failing;
- has respectful manners that recognize the needs and autonomy of another person;
- exhibits an open-minded, integrated view of the world attained through active reflection and education;
- makes time for self-care and knows to put the oxygen mask on themselves first before helping others and, of course,
- effectively maintains Emotional Productivity by managing anger and frustration while maintaining trust and connection.
My challenge to you
You may agree with some points and not with others as you compile your own list. If, however, you think leadership is just about you and your job, please consider the bigger picture. The world demonstrates how old-fashioned leadership values and behaviors serve neither people nor the planet. Traditions bind us. Isn’t it time to break these ties and find more productive ways to save the Titanic?
Speaking of ships, you may have heard of the trim-tab effect described by futurist and systems theorist Richard Buckminster-Fuller. When a huge ship needs to turn, it takes massive power to counteract the hydraulic pressure to shift a rudder that may weigh hundreds of tons. The trailing edge of the big rudder features a small rudder that only weighs around a hundred pounds. This smaller rudder, or trim-tab, helps the ship to turn more quickly. This trim-tab adjusts first and does so easily. In doing so, it allows the larger rudder to follow suit. Buckminster-Fuller used this as a metaphor to demonstrate how little things can impact matters significantly, or how one person can make a big difference.
Are you a trim-tab?