Leadership is an attitude, not a position
In this article, I want to discuss the leadership qualities demanded by Modern Age. Modern Age is characterised by increasing dynamism. This has consequences for organisations and how they function. But above all, it requires something of those who are expected to lead the modern organisation. Modern leadership demands a set of qualities that are at odds with the more traditional view of leadership that we derive from the classical perspective on organisations and management also known as the Taylorist perspective.
Dynamics is the overarching characteristic of the Modern Age
In his book “Living in an Age of Acceleration”, German sociologist Hartmut Rosa discusses the widespread social impression and pervasive feeling of ever-increasing social speed[i]. Change is happening faster and faster, changes follow each other faster and faster. He convincingly argues that developments within our society are actually happening faster and faster even when there are obviously dimensions on which society maintains its old speed. As a rule, a baby is born after nine months. And a day lasts 24 hours. Little acceleration has occurred in those arenas in recent centuries.
Rosa distinguishes three forms of acceleration:
Acceleration of lifecycle
These influence each other mutually and lead to a sensation of ever-increasing speed of change. This sensation is probably reinforced by two factors that have a strong influence on our experience of time and form an essential characteristic of the modern age:
Concurrency: the phenomenon that things increasingly occur simultaneously and thereby reinforce each other
Complexity: an increasing degree of unfathomable coherence of things in which cause and effect are increasingly difficult to unravel.
Overall, this leads to increased social dynamics. For the business world, this translates into the need to deal with this increasing mobility or volatility. Those who do not adapt, those who cannot adequately deal with this increasing mobility will be at a potentially dramatic disadvantage in the competitive game.
Speed and agility
Organisations in Modern Times need to adjust to this ever-increasing dynamism or volatility. Gone are the days of long-term planning and strategic roadmaps with a five-year horizon. Gone are the days of the system bureaucratic principle of separation of thinking and doing. Gone are the days of long hierarchical decision-making processes where the mandate lies with directors who are now far removed from the frenzy and reality the primary process and thus the market.
Dealing with increasing Agility requires a substantial adjustment of the way we organise. That view is characterised by:
Organising around knowledge and knowledge workers
Delegating responsibility and decision-making authority to teams in the operational process
Adaptability and speed of action
New forms of working
In this sense, much has changed compared to the Tayloristic perspective on organisations. The system bureaucracy where tasks are minutely compartmentalised, cast in a rigid organisational chart, where thinking and doing are separated and decision-making is hierarchical.
Attitude, not position
Traditionally, leadership has been seen as a trait with which certain individuals were born, and associated with qualities such as courage, strength and charisma. This view was reflected in the concept of the “great man” theory of leadership, which held that leaders were born, not made, and that they possessed unique qualities that set them apart from others.
During the early 20th century, attention shifted to studying the behaviour of leaders, and identifying the specific actions and practices that made them effective. This led to the development of leadership theory, which argued that certain traits, such as intelligence, confidence and determination, were key to effective leadership.
In the 1950s and 1960s, attention shifted again to the study of leadership styles. Researchers such as Kurt Lewin, Paul Hersey, and Ken Blanchard identified different styles of leadership, such as autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire, and examined their effectiveness in different situations. This led to the development of the contingency theory of leadership, which states that the most effective leadership style depends on the specific situation and the followers involved. But during all these years of development in leadership perspective, leadership remained mainly a hierarchical phenomenon. Leadership comes with rising up the corporate ladder. And the ultimate leadership resides at the top of the organisation.
This brings us to the more recent perspective on Leadership. A perspective that addresses increasing dynamics and volatility and the implications for our leadership idea. In recent years, attention has shifted to a more holistic and inclusive view of leadership, recognising that effective leadership involves not only the leader, but also those who are led, the followers and the organisation as a whole. Leadership as a collaborative process. This has led to the development of new theories such as emotional intelligence, servant leadership and transformational leadership, all of which focus on the leader’s ability to connect, communicate and inspire followers, foster a positive organisational culture and drive change. Within this perspective, the leadership concept is much more explicitly linked to a “way of being” than to a hierarchical position. In this sense, within this perspective, leadership as an attitude rather than leadership as a position. That attitude, that attitude, that attitude has some essential characteristics that are inextricably linked to the leadership challenges of the Modern Age: mobility and speed of adaptation.
Purpose and leadership are two important concepts that are closely linked. Purpose refers to the sense of meaning and purpose in life, while leadership refers to the ability to inspire and lead others to achieve a common goal.
Modern leadership literature increasingly emphasises the role of meaning in leadership. Leaders who help their team members find a sense of purpose in their work create a more engaged, motivated and productive workforce. Leaders who focus on creating a meaningful work environment create a more positive organisational culture and greater satisfaction among their team members.
That sense of purpose eludes, transcends the daily tactical frenzy. It even transcends the multi-year strategic plan. It orients itself to the idea behind the organisation. The raison d’etre of the organisation. It offers a view of what the organisation is on earth for. And in that sense, it forms a beckoning perspective, a guiding beacon against which day-to-day activities can be measured. Does what I do, what we develop, the steps we take fit within and add to the fulfilment of our raison d’etre?
An essential characteristic of Modern Leadership is keeping this raison d’etre alive and vital. Is the continuous “reinforcement” of the organisation’s purpose. Not so much its strategy, but its reason for being. Who are we? What do we stand for? And how do we give form and substance to that? In doing so, that raison d’etre is a relatively constant factor. It is mainly at the level of form and content that we experience turbulence and dynamism and constant development. For the organisation to maintain direction in that dynamism and find orientation in its raison d’etre, Purpose is an important component of Modern Leadership.
Because besides direction, a strong sense of Purpose brings something else: Identification. Feeling connected to and identifying with the Purpose of the organisation. And identification with “doing the right thing” is increasingly a driving force for those entering the job market. A salary alone has long since ceased to be a beatific motivator. Modern people, faced with the excesses of decades of monomaniacal economic profit-seeking and the progressive flexibilization of labour relations, seek a better balance. A balance between People, Planet and Profit.
Respecting the work
A world of increasing complexity and speed requires leaders to be highly committed to and focused on the primary process. The central axis within the organisation’s value chain. This is because it is precisely at the level of the primary process that the speed of change occurs and the solutions are no longer obvious. The process is subject to constant development and it requires a knowledge worker, a professional to find and generate solutions that fit within the complexity of the market and technology. The focus of modern leadership is on facilitating and encouraging this constant adaptation process by high-quality professional. This entails a number of things.
Knowledge of business
The modern leader is obviously knowledgeable. Of markets, of processes and of people. That is where his or her primary focus lies. With the work and what it requires. Not with the management game and certainly not with the political power game. To the on the other hand, that leader is aware of his or her own knowledge gaps and thus the acceptance that he or she can no longer know everything himself or herself, that he or she also no longer has to have a solution for everything and that that is no longer his or her job. Acceptance of the fact that there are others within the organisation who know better
Autonomy and speed of action
The modern knowledge worker and the complexity and speed of markets and developments require a high degree of decision-making power, autonomy, where the primary process takes place and where the primary process takes shape. In old Tayloristic terms, we would say “lower in the organisation”. Perhaps it is time to change that to “at the front the organisation”. Namely, where the primary process takes place. Modern leadership implies giving autonomy to that knowledge worker and teams of professionals. The space for self-organisation. The ability to respond quickly and adequately to market turbulence without having to go down the long hierarchical road of decision-making. This requires trust in the competence and knowledge of professionals “at the front of the organisation”. Something at odds with the time-honoured principle of system bureaucracy in which thinking and doing are separate and in which one thinks and the other does. The Modern Age demands exactly the opposite: delegation of responsibility of thinking and doing to those teams acting in the primary process.
New technologies enable new generations of knowledge workers to organise their working lives differently. In the Modern Age, we will have to get used to digital interaction, working from home, working wherever, job sharing, combined with forms of physical meetings and cooperation that are desirable and necessary from the point of view of team dynamics and cohesion. Modern leadership is open to these new forms of working. Even when they involve a perceived loss of control and supervision.
Caring for People
Focusing on the work, rather than the game, is an essential characteristic of modern leadership. Knowledge and expertise is an important component of this. However, knowledge of business and prioritising the primary process alone are not enough. There is more to it, because:
‘Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care’[ii].
The Modern Age brings us things like “remote working” and “increasing use of technology”. These forms of physical collegial distance are counterproductive to feelings of connection with team and organisation. In times of Corona we have just about all experienced the indispensability of the central coffee machine our organisations. In this sense, the importance of paying attention to people increases as organisations further digitise, flexibilise and embrace new virtual forms of work. But that attention should not only ensure Connection. In times when emotional distance due to physical distance is potentially increasing and the speed of change is increasing, when organisations are making greater demands on employees’ willingness to change and adaptability, leadership should not only focus on connection but also on providing psychological safety. All kinds of studies overwhelmingly show that change readiness and adaptability correlate strongly with feelings of safety. No safety, no willingness. In other words, “Care to dare” as the title of George A. Kohlrieser reads[iii].
That attention to people only works if it has an authentic, honest foundation. If my intentions are genuine. When there is genuine commitment and interest and when there is valuing the input of every employee. In this sense, modern leadership is servant-centred and sincere. The focus is on the other person, not the leader. The other person takes centre stage because the leader puts him or her there. In doing so, the leader is not side lined, the leader is not the neutral observer. The leader is inextricably part of the interaction. Because only in interaction does authentic interest, authentic commitment take shape. That is far from non-committal. That is binding.
Hartmut Rosa makes an interesting point on the point of connection when he argues that connection is fundamentally human two-way traffic. Because to connect, I have to enter into a relationship. So I must open up to the other and be willing to let myself be touched by the other. A view at odds with our traditional, hierarchical view of Leadership, in which things like aloofness, unapproachability and invulnerability play an essential role. In extending Rosa’s views, it is this invulnerability in particular that stands in the way of real connection. Because to connect is, by definition, to allow vulnerability.
Illustrative in this regard is President Barack Obama’s first weekly address of in the year 2016 in which, after a year with many gun violence fatalities in 2015, including 64 in, on and around schools, he again raised the need for gun control. As he commemorated the deaths of 20 elementary school children in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, he got tears in his eyes. He deviated from his prepared lines of speech, fell silent, words falling short, overcome with grief. No one remained unmoved. People behind him grabbed each other. The cameras clicked loudly in the overwhelming silence, until applause broke the intense moment of collective grief. For a moment, those present were united in their grief before the eyes of the nation.[iv]
Attention to the employee, relative autonomy of knowledge workers, connection within a purpose it can be explained in the sum as a happy children’s playground where everyone does what they feel like and freedom and joy reigns. A common criticism of the idea of self-direction. Now, of course, that is not the starting point and certainly not the intention. Consequently, modern leadership also focuses on what I call “Guarding Fairness”. A level playing field of dealing with each other and with task orientation. We could also say the functional, organising and monitoring role of modern leadership. Because in that increased speed and that increase in distance and autonomy, task orientation and the corresponding organisational honesty must not be lost. In fact, the modern leader has the task of shaping and guarding it for the sake of the functioning of the whole. A loss of Fairness is counterproductive to the increased degrees of freedom that the modern organisation now holds. “Without good governance, uncertainty and distrust grow and organisational continuity is jeopardised”[v].
And here we touch on an interesting paradox within the modern leadership idea. A challenging arc of tension. Because on the one hand, speed and agility and the autonomy of knowledge workers in an environment of physical distance demand space, freedom and trust. However, guarding organisational fairness requires order and clear transparent frameworks and agreements. This creates “an act of balancing”: how do I offer space and how do I set frameworks? Because too much space potentially leads to organisational dishonesty and arbitrariness but an excess of frameworks and uniform agreements are potentially lethal for initiative, creativity and speed. Within that act, considerations of integrity are paramount. Perceived arbitrariness kills feelings of fairness, trust and connectedness.
There is a clear common thread in the four characteristics of Modern Leadership: Connection. Connection through meaning, Connection between people, Connection with the work and Connection with the organisation. And therein also lies directly the major difference from the more classical views on Leadership in which it was mainly about the Leader himself. In succession: the great men theory, the behaviour school of leadership and the theories on the styles of Leadership. In all those views, the Leader was central and that leader housed at the top of the organisation. In the modern view of Leadership, however, it is not the man or woman who is central yet the hierarchical position but the Connection that is central. And a leader is he or she who brings Connection at all kinds of levels.
[i] Hartmut Rosa, Boom Uitgevers, 2016
[ii] Fragment uit Over leiderschap, Koen Marichal en Jesse Segers, juni 2022.
[iii] Care to Dare, Professor George A. Kohlrieser IMD, John Wiley & Sons Inc, June 2012
[iv] Based on Over leiderschap, Koen Marichal en Jesse Segers, juni 2022
[v] Fragment uit Over leiderschap, Koen Marichal en Jesse Segers, juni 2022
Sydow, J. (1998). Understanding the Constitution of Interorganizational Trust. In C. Lane, & R. Bachmann (eds.), Trust within and between Organizations (pp. 31-63). Oxford: Oxford University Press.