Leadership: two strategies, many variations

|Matt Offord

In past blogs, I have shown there are two basic leadership approaches: dominance or prestige-based influence.  This is, of course, very simplistic but even this is too nuanced for some who believe in a romantic notion of unchanging leadership values and characteristics.  Ironically, these values and characteristics have changed greatly in recent times.  Just a few decades ago, the prevalent view of leadership traits were based on assertive, masculine and dominant individuals.  Today there is a widespread belief that confident decision makers may not be ideal in all situations and that those traits are not exclusive to men either.  I hope that most people accept that leadership goes far beyond what people look like, and choosing leaders based on first impressions is flawed and leads to bad hirings and promotions.  Quick decision makers might be good in a crisis but Information Age complexities make it much more likely that quick decisions are the wrong ones.  Thinking has turned to values, beliefs and behaviours as the modern paradigm of leadership.  This has the great advantage that anyone can become a leader provided they spend the time to embrace and develop those behaviours.  This seems more natural and practical.  But it is still idealistic.  Leaders may not have values that align with organisation ones, but they still may be very effective.  Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini did not have values we attach to good leaders but they achieved an exceptional amount of influence.  In fact, one could argue that those leaders identified with the values of an emerging class within those countries who were fed up with the values espoused by their governments.  Sound familiar?  Matching values with the crowd is not necessarily good leadership.  My argument is based on a single value: servant leadership.

A journey through the history of leadership shows how leaders are granted influence so long as it benefits the group as a whole.  Those who cry that this is no longer the case and cite fat cat tycoons who greedily siphon company profits have a point.  But just because these individuals can get away with that behaviour doesn’t mean that society at large approves.  Media coverage demonstrates the outrage at kleptocratic leaders.  If we accepted that leaders gather all the spoils, nobody would be interested in CEO salaries.  In fact, the lack of transparency over wages in the private sector generally remains a cause for concern and is increasingly under attack.  This, and the ongoing dissatisfaction with experts and authority, just goes to show that resistance to leadership is as necessary as leadership itself.  Society is moving from a dominance based authority model to a prestige based network model.  Those leaders who fall back on authority are increasingly finding themselves without power or influence.  Sustainable leadership is useful leadership.   It just happens that during the Industrial Revolution, leaders were needed that could organise a large and highly differentiated work force.  The most efficient model to do this was a authority hierarchy with centralised decision making.  But things are now changing again.

So even dominant leadership provides a service.  When dominant leadership is needed, followers are more tolerant of the obviously selfish gains these sorts of leaders can make. Servant Leadership as a model was popularised by the late Robert Greenleaf in 1970.  For a while it was very popular.  The basic idea is that leaders exist to serve and subordinate their needs to those of the group.  Greenleaf wrote an allegory of a person who joined a group to help them achieve a goal.  He did everything he could for them but they did not appreciate it.  It was only after he left that the group realised that he was critical for their success.  This idea is not new, ancient Taoists espoused that leaders should be unseen by their followers by being utterly unremarkable.  When asked about their success, followers would be convinced they had done it themselves.  But Servant Leadership did much to popularise this view in the 70s and 80s.  A new trend, Transformational Leadership, first coined by James MacGregor Burns, eclipsed Servant Leadership although it is now enjoying a resurgence.  Transformational Leadership does not depend on dominance, it is about how leaders transform followers, unlocking their potential.  There is some cross-over there but, for me, Transformation Leadership is a little bit too romantic. 

Both Servant and Transformational Leadership focus on what leaders can do for us.  This, as we have discussed, is how leaders build up prestige.  The only other strategy is to dominate, where it doesn’t matter what the leader can do for her followers because she has the power and they do not.  There are overlaps.  Dominance leaders in lawless societies can afford followers with protection even though they were downtrodden.  Authority provided Industrial Age society with organisation, even though it was downtrodden.  Prestige based leadership is not utopian either but there are checks and balances on assertive leaders. Leaders who overstep the mark are dealt with ruthlessly in so-called egalitarian societies.  Even in the workplace, gossip can be cruel.  Leaders may loose their jobs if they fail to engage their work force.  So this is not a binary situation of good versus bad leadership.  In previous blogs, I pointed out that early leadership was based on prestige and prestige is becoming more important in the Information Age.  Working in a networked digital environment relies heavily on listening skills and the ability to work with diverse groups.  This tends to make dominance-based leadership less effective.

If we look at prestige and dominance over human history, we can the ever-changing balance of prestige versus dominance.  But if we zoom in to specific times and places, or work situations we will quickly see an explosion of leadership strategies.  This is why leadership is so difficult to define despite having really only two approaches and one value: service.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.