Organizations spend billions of dollars a year developing leaders -- in the U.S. alone annual leadership development spending is above $15 billion. Not everyone has access to these company sponsored leadership development interventions particularly those who fall outside organizational talent pipelines or those who work in smaller organizations and startups where there simply aren´t the resources to fund expensive LD programs. Such a demographic tend to pick up the basic tenets of leadership as they go along through reading or learning on the job.
The challenge of this type of self-taught approach is that it oftentimes lacks the structure and clear learning objectives that more formal programs provide. With this in mind, self-taught leaders will do well to examine the following four key pre-war leadership legacies because they shape and inform contemporary twenty-first century leadership:
1. Leadership is homogenous.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries had very fixed scientific views of management and leadership. This is the era of Max Weber’s bureaucratic management theory and Frederick Taylor´s Principles of Scientific Management, both commentators posited standardized procedures and a clear chain of command. Modern leadership is more situational -- Warren Bennis and Burt Namus see it as a “deeply human process, full of trial and error, victories and defeats, timing and happenstance, intuition and insight.” Modern leaders are attuned to the business climate and changing customer need and are able to adjust their leadership style to motivate their teams.
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2. Leadership is innate.
The idea of a natural born leader was a commonly held belief in the 19th century leading to elitist assumptions of a divine right to lead which influenced natural succession and reinforced directive leadership attitudes and behaviors. Modern leadership commentators have dispelled the idea of hereditary in favor of the principle of leadership as a learned set of behaviors. Modern leaders have what Japanese philosophy terms kaizen, meaning improvement (often linked to continuous improvement). They have the desire and mindset to learn new things and thrive on self-renewal and see mistakes in themselves and others as learning opportunities.
3. Leadership is about positional power.
Positional power was very important in pre-war organizations with its emphasis on hierarchy and status. The assumption in the industrial age was that leaders drove production. This mindset has been debunked in recent times. The rise of the knowledge worker begat various shared forms of leadership (stewardship, servant leader, empowerment, participative leader and more recently, holacracy) that is shifting emphasis away from the type of structured management control that defined pre-war leadership. Modern leaders deliver results through others and influence and motivate without recourse to positional power.
4. Leaders have all the expertise and ideas.
This certainly was the mindset in the 19th century where aspiring leaders focused on technical skills to make it to the top; and vision, strategy and decision-making were hatched in closed board rooms and disseminated down the organization. Modern leaders coach rather than instruct and openly encourage diversity of thought and ideas and collaboratively build shared vision.
Leadership has transitioned from past legacies of driving production using fixed and directive behaviors to modern leadership principles of working with and though others using adaptive, learner-centric, enabling and collaborative behaviors. What this teaches us is that there is a strong correlation between business context and effective leadership -- leadership approaches that were apposite in pre-war assembly-line environments are not effectual in a post-war knowledge economy. As leaders we need to draw a line under obsolete pre-war legacies of natural succession, status, positional power and autocracy that strangles innovation, motivation, decision-making and leads to employee fear and talent drain when applied to the modern workplace.
Margaret Wheatly wrote in "Leadership and the New Science", “we need the courage to let go of all the old world, to relinquish most of what we have cherished… to see the world anew.” Taking an historical perspective can inspire us to create a leadership approach that befits the 21st century and to let go of pervading legacies that are holding us back.