The Leadership Conundrum

The Leadership Conundrum

Imagine sitting reading this article. Not today, but instead in 1920.

Ok, you’d be a little freaked out by the whole ‘internet thing’, but putting that aside for a moment and suspending your disbelief, a coupe of things would be true.

Firstly, if you’d graduated in 1920, you’d be one of only 4,357 students to have obtained a first degree in the UK that year – this during a period when the economy shifted from a one being fuelled by agriculture, to a one driven by manufacturing. It was the era of the rise of Ford and the inception of mass production – of assembly lines and factories. In addition, you and I, in 1920, would be hoping that our kids would leave school and get a steady job, working in one of these new and magical places.

We’d tell them that if they knuckled down, that come their retirement in 40 years or so, they’d leave with a small pension. And that would be enough.

To put the technological advances of that era into perspective, it was only a few years earlier that we would have been delighted when, in 1916, the transistor radio was invented. Choices were limited and surplus and abundance weren’t acknowledged terms.

And so consider the leaders of the time and their style. What was needed? Division of labour meant coordination. It meant management in the most basic and tactical sense, with the need for command and control. The lack of alternatives for employees meant a very real tool for management to ensure adherence to requirements.

In an era when there were more people than the jobs could accommodate, the employee needed the employer far more than the other way around. As choices were limited, conversely tolerance (from the employee) was high. They’d do what they were told, get in line, and exchange a fair day’s pay for a fair day work. Or so they thought.

Fast-forward some 30 or so years to the next generation and by 1950, some 17,337 students would have obtained a first University degree in the UK.

In post-war Britain, business and babies were booming and there was a shift from manufacturing to management and professional roles. In other words, with more people in work, there was the need for more managers to manage. Consequently, from working on the line, then the next obvious step was to become the one in control of the line. The one managing the line.

And so at that time, we’d be encouraging our children to leave school and get a job with the aim of managing. It was the advent of the white-collar worker but University was still reserved for a privileged few. For that select group, then a growing number of them would do enough to qualify as a doctor or lawyer and would be heralded as the critical members of society.

As this shift occurred, it’s no surprise that around this time, business journals such as HBR started to gain popularity as did writers such as Peter Drucker, the famous management consultant. With more managers out there, the idea of management – and leadership – became more popular as did the desire to learn more about it. As growth in industry accelerated, so did the idea of what it meant to manage and to lead.

By I956 the first computer hard drive was used – in a protected environment – and was able to store a little under 4MB of data. And in 1960, Theodore Levvit wrote his much acclaimed ‘Marketing Myopia’. Change was coming on the horizon, and so was choice.

Shift forward again to the next generation and in 1980, some 68,150 UK students obtained a first University degree and the tide was beginning to turn as advances in technology and education started to breakdown once seemingly impermeable barriers in connection.

The professions – medicine, law, accounting and business had gained popularity, as had the financial industry. No surprise then that Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street were set in 1987 as commerce changed hot off the back of the first PC to be invented and commercialised in 1981 by IBM. Life was about to change all together.

Consider what we’d want at that time for the next generation and the likelihood is that we’d want our kids to move into professional or commercial roles where the chance of higher salaries, benefits and options would be more prevalent.  As more companies expanded, then higher profile roles accompanied them and the idea of the senior manager became more of a reality. More employees meant more hierarchical layers and more opportunity for advancement.

But had the idea of leadership changed dramatically since the shift of the 1950s?

And now move to the present day, or close to it.  In 2011 350,800, students obtained a University degree – an exponential rise in graduates compared to the previous generation. In technology, the iPhone 4s was released that year amidst some of the greatest technological advances ever – in an alarmingly short period. More qualified people out there vying for more professional jobs, more management jobs, and more leadership positions. All able to connect – instantly.

Barriers to trade and connection and commerce were practically distinguished and for a few hundred pounds, anyone could be equipped with the means to start a business or make a connection. Napster, Facebook, GirlPez, Rockstah all examples of this.

But as a result of this, the power shifted away from the employer. In an economy of choice – the employee was met with a greater number of choices than ever and a lower tolerance to accompany.

So in an age where media and information is now readily accessible through multiple and parallel forms, what now? What do we wish for the next generation? What role is the right one, the best one or the one most likely to support?

If the 1920s was about agriculture to manufacturing…

If the 1950s was manufacturing to professional…

If 1980s was professional to commercial…

Where does that leave us today?

Commercial to what?

And what does this mean for leadership today?

Well, it’s likely that in a hyper-connected world, that those who are most capable of connecting will be the ones who benefit the most. And not connections as in LinkedIn connections, Facebook friends or Twitter followers (although this is one part of it); but real connections with real people. The ability to connect with someone and create an impact. To be able to create and make a difference.

And the great leaders of today and tomorrow will be the ones who see that opportunity for connection and embrace it.

Because in an era where there are more choices and less tolerance – less tolerance for the average, for the mediocre, for the sub-optimal – we want everything on demand. Today. And so if people don’t see the opportunity to create the life they want working within their current organisation, chances are they’ll decide to move on.

We’ll all be working longer and free from the legacy of conventional thinking of what a 40 year career is.

As a result, the idea of leading by control and fear is out-dated and a thing of the past. It’s not even about democracy or collaboration or a consultative approach. Because we can’t assume that people don’t have another option. There are many. And unlike the 20s or the 50s, there isn’t the same reliance on the employer as their once was.

If you don’t connect with the person beside you, then with multiple choices and low tolerance, they’re likely to be off. Literally and metaphorically – and explore opportunities elsewhere.

For the first time, we’re faced with the brightest kids not wanting to become Doctors or Lawyers or Senior Managers, but connectors of people – who make an impact with others and a profit in return.

As a result, we risk being faced with a talent gap in critical roles in critical industries. Not just business and commerce, but in the traditional professions, including healthcare.

With that in mind the leadership conundrum isn’t really a puzzle but a simple question to answer.  And the answer is to understand the importance of connection and get there – quickly.

Connection can be between you and another – your team, your friends, you followers, your customers or your suppliers – and it can also be that which you create between others – between individuals or groups.

Connection comes from generosity – from giving something without expectation. Because when you give generously, you create a connection and you cause an effect. It could be a change in mindset or a change in behaviour, but when people notice that change has occurred, they feel an impact.

It could be a connection based on generosity of time, money, energy or knowledge. It could be through giving resources, an idea or a favour. But ultimately it is that generosity – in giving to someone else – which makes a difference.

Leaders today need to explore new ways to connect, to allow those that work with them to see the real person, with no façade or management rhetoric.

Employees want to know and see the person they work for and believe in them. And in order to believe, then they need to connect.

It’s a virtuous cycle.



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