In the last decade, there have been a high degree of new leadership terms circulating, some short-lived and others more pivotal. The type of leader described is one you have seen before, but are they revolutionary?
The thing is, everybody wants to be the pioneer of something. We’re all guilty of thinking that we were the first to ruffle up an idea, only to search for it on Google and find that someone a century ago published a whole dossier on it.
Leadership influencers are not exempt from this habit. As a result, there are a wealth of different self-proclaimed leadership styles rotating the internet, depicted as groundbreaking approaches but merely echoing the same models introduced centuries ago (only with a special focus on one word, such as ‘innovation’ or ‘disruption’).
So here it is, our breakdown of the hottest trends in leadership development and the types of leaders that have arisen from them:
In recent years, there has been a shift away from bureaucratic leadership and traditional constructs of team formation, specifically those based on static hierarchies which put both a physical and figurative distance between managers and juniors. Recent studies have deduced that this distance only serves to break down communication, lower engagement, performance and respect for leadership and so new approaches aim to appeal to emerging trends of relationship building and diversity in the workplace.
As a result, variations of participative leadership (democratic leadership), servant leadership and transformational leadership have become more popular, putting more emphasis on the leader's responsibility as a contributor, as opposed to the employees. Trailblazers of new approaches posit that traditional leadership which only rewards productivity (transactional leadership) and individual competition (i.e. climbing the corporate ladder) stunt business success.
First proposed almost a century ago by Jim C. Collins, in his book Good To Great, humble leaders were described as those that detach themselves from their ego and instead direct their energy towards the greatness of the company as a whole. Recently, the term has re-emerged, revitalised by professors in organisational culture, Edgar and Peter Schain.
This leadership embraces vulnerability and empathy and uses it to their advantage. Whilst humility can certainly be linked to both servant and participative leadership, there have been a few studies that isolate it as a characteristic, demonstrating its positive effects on employee turnover, employee satisfaction, and companies’ overall performance.
One notable study found that this leadership promotes the organisation’s overall performance by implementing employee identification and boosting solidarity amongst senior managers (Ou et al., 2014). Further research has proven that the main strength that humble leaders share is a willingness to admit to their own mistakes and vices and such leaders are prevalent amongst companies that have high growth performance over the past century.
“As organizations face more complex interdependent tasks, leadership must become more personal in order to ensure open trusting communication that will make more collaborative problem solving and innovation possible.”
The marketplace is changing more rapidly than ever and with Brexit on the way, we need the leaders that are willing to embrace the ambiguity and the unknown, accept outside input and admit when they’re wrong. A leader that is aware that they do not have all the answers - and is willing to branch out to the rest of the team to get them - is far more equipped to protect an organisation against unexpected changes than one who thinks they’re right about everything.
The term ‘disruption’ has become, to say the least, a bit of a buzzword in recent years, especially in the tech industry.
We are in an era of insuppressible innovation, product development and technological advances and watching entrepreneur after entrepreneur, with a slightly different way of doing things, shoot to unfathomable positions of wealth has given the word an almost seductive element. So, it is not surprising that concepts positing the strong link between disruption, innovation and leadership have begun circulating (or shall I say, re-circulating) the web.
After reading several pieces on disruptive leadership, it is apparent that there is no fixed definition of the term, with some merely associating it with famously disruptive CEOs and others seemingly convoluting the different uses of the word itself.
Take one blog, for instance...It begins by stating that businesses need to be prepared for any disruptions coming their way (disruption here read as problems), but then proceeds to explain that, to do this, one must copy the “disruptive voices” of Steve Jobs and Dan Goman (presumably here, disruptive should be read as ‘innovative’).
So far so good, the two definitions of the word do not conflict each other at this point, however, it is the next part that throws me.
The author goes onto describe a disruptive leader as one that “continuously seeks to find new solutions and change things from the ground up "What Do Steve Jobs, Tim Kobe, Dan Goman and the like Have in Common?") to achieve results”. Whilst this is definitely indicative of a strong leader, and perhaps a disruptive one, it doesn’t paint a picture of any of the aforementioned men.
Take Steve Jobs, renowned for advocating a ‘no excuses’ form of leadership, even described as a “corporate dictator” by some, was susceptible to fits of rage and micromanaging - not the type of leader that emits an openness to hierarchical change or democratic participation.
What made Jobs disruptive, or at least his products disruptive, is that:
These things certainly gave Steve Jobs his famous edge but, whilst being different is part of being disruptive, this approach seems to be more descriptive of charismatic leadership than anything.
Whilst inspiring in many ways, Job’s leadership style has its issues and could easily go the other way (as discussed in our blog on personality and leadership, a controlling leader can often negatively impact work quality). The fact that only a small number of people could pull this way of leading off, deems it pretty useless for the majority and hence, should probably come with a ‘don’t try this at home’ warning.
The most successful aret the ones that are able to spread out their leadership and adapt it in tandem with their companies stage of growth. Here at PeopleGoal, we provide managers and employees alike with the tools to align their individual goals with specific company objectives. If leaders can do the same with their leadership style, then companies will be able to navigate through times of change, uncertainty and of course ‘disruption’ far better.
One CEO, TÜV SÜD’s Niranjan Nadkarni, called these volatile times “tipping points” and proposed that it is their approach to leadership itself that individuals need to disrupt, in order to provide timely interventions, clear direction and confidence in the employees’ transformation journey. He provides examples of when his company was in different stages of its life-cycle and how he designed different approaches for each based on the problems they posed.
The first stage required him to be an activator, adopting a more paternalistic or humble leadership role to instil a common goal amongst workers and create a positive work culture.
The second phase of growth required him to switch to a bottom-up, more laissez-faire type of leader, in an attempt to diversify their talent bank and cultivate more leaders. This enabled the company to grow sustainably whilst promoting profitability.
Finally, after going international, TÜV SÜD’s leadership “needed to address diverse culture, different management styles and socio-economic conditions”. He would have to teach the collective group of new leaders the core values of the corporation that were in line with his global vision and ensure consistency and efficiency across all sites. In order to do so, Nadkarni adopted a slightly more autocratic approach to leading this time.
Change cycles for business are getting shorter and shorter and for that reason, it is crucial for a leader to be able to constantly reinvent their approach to leading, in order to remain relevant to the business’ evolving need and to maintain drive in innovation.
Researchers at MIT Leadership Centre set out to identify patterns across organisations that “have been around a long time—and therefore have frequently adjusted to changing conditions”: PARC, Xerox’s R&D company in Silicon Valley, and W.L. Gore & Associates, the multinational science company. After rigorous research conducted between the years 2009 and 2011, with updates in 2019, they identified three distinct types of leaders, along with several cultural norms firmly integrated throughout the organisations.
The three types of leaders were found at different seniority levels (or, as Tuckman would say, ‘maturity levels’) of the company:
Found at the lower levels of the organisation were entrepreneurial leaders, creating value for customers with new products and services and thereby moving the organisation into “unexplored territory”. They exude self-confidence, charisma and have the strategic mindset to “sense and seize growth opportunities, lobby for early-stage resources, pull colleagues in with their vision for moving forward, and fully exploit the opportunities that pan out”.
Venture into the mid-levels of the team and you find the enabling type of leaders. These executives work to ensure that the entrepreneurs have the resources to do their job to their best ability. Their main skills orientate around: coaching and development, seamless communication and resourceful networking - often connecting entrepreneurs to end-users or other projects happening within the company. They have the bigger picture, and they utilise that knowledge to put lower-level leaders in the right place at the right time.
At the top of the chain of command, you will find the architects. MIT observed this type of leader to be more regulatory; “They keep an eye on the whole game board, monitoring culture, high-level strategy, and structure”.
It is their job to decipher which decisions made lower down the chain are suboptimal for the company as a whole, focussing on making the overall output more efficient and economical (for example, when PARC decided to hire PhDs in science that also had entrepreneurial ambitions). At times, these leaders will have to take a top-down approach but senior managers at PARC and Gore executed this effectively by balancing intervention with listening.
Despite these distinct observations, these three roles are not completely disparate and are more fluid than one might expect. This is partly because one of the cultural norms that both PARC and Gore push is ‘distributed leadership’ and the belief that “leadership should rest with whoever is best positioned to exercise it, regardless of title”.
“At both PARC and Gore, a remarkable number of employees refer to themselves as leaders; the culture expects them to.”
The cultural norms and all three types of leadership work synergistically, and together they create a system that’s adaptive, self-reinforcing and, in many ways, self-managing. Many employees pick and choose their own work assignments and thus need to be persuaded to join a project, meaning early-stage funding goes to the projects that attract staffing and talent and resources are drained away from less-promising projects. Consequently, the companies themselves become collective prediction markets that pool talent around good ideas and drain it from bad ones.
Whilst many understand that power, decision making, and resources should be distributed, the fear of complete loss of order is defeating. PARC and Gore dismantle the need for bureaucratic regulations in the following ways:
The different names given to types of leadership styles such as laissez faire leaders, democratic leaders, charismatic leaders or transformational leaders, are never-ending and will likely continue to grow. But what is apparent, more so than the approaches themselves, is that the complexities and speed of business innovation are demanding much more from our leaders. That is, to be able to adopt a number of different leadership types, either themselves or spread amongst their team members, and, on top of this, to be able to identify at what stages in their growth cycle what leadership skills need to be implemented.
As more people learn of these findings and the efficacy of distributing power, we shouldn’t be surprised if ‘dynamic leadership’ or ‘versatile leadership’ or 'collaborative leadership', as presented by Lorna Davis below,are the next hot topics in leadership development.
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