Matters Column

Leadership in context: What kind of boss should you be?

September 28, 2018
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A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about leadership after the national political conventions had taken place but before the actual presidential election. In the article, there was a lot of commentary about what leadership looks like and things that good leaders do. To a certain extent, it was a comprehensive look at the concept of leadership. However, it didn’t address some of the critical points that can have a profound impact on those who are in the sphere of the leadership in consideration.

To some extent, the article presents a good backdrop to what we are seeing on a regular basis in the news and political arena. However, the attention to leadership the media coverage has ramped up when it focuses on events typically springs from a perspective of emotion and how things have gone bad for one group or another. Even when it goes well, there is the perspective the steps taken have just not gone far enough, fast enough or overlooked some key element of the situation.

In this environment, those who do address the various events often are criticized because they don’t support the work or position taken by those with the power or influence to shape the events. In general terms, it seems no one is happy about what is happening in the world, the country, our state or our lives. We want things to change for the better but are frustrated because we often don’t see a course where this can happen.

Consequently, we can’t seem to escape the leadership sphere that impacts our lives. This feeling of impotence has many negative connotations. However, a shift in mentality can make a great deal of difference. We just have to start with a better understanding of the circumstances and take action from what we have learned, which often is not apparent at first.

Putting things in context

When we start to learn, we encounter a situation or some facts. This information by itself is generally of limited value. We have to hold it up to some frame of reference for it to have real meaning or value. For example, when a child begins to learn words, it is necessary to associate those words with some behavior or feeling for it to have impact. Otherwise, it is just a concept that is difficult to apply for useful purposes. The same is true as we address more complex concepts such as leadership.

In my college management classes many years ago, the professor presented the idea that there were basically two types of management: Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X was described as authoritarian. You rule by power and fear of authority and everyone stays in line or else. Theory Y, in contrast, was highly participative authority, very democratic in nature, everyone had input and the decisions were through consensus whenever possible. The leader was a strong facilitator as opposed to a decision-maker.

The reality is rarely the extremes but some degree of each concept. Although it feels like those who subscribe to a version of Theory X are becoming more common. Again, it is necessary to put things in context, especially when we look at the environment most close to us, such as family, work and social community.

Each individual’s situation is different, but in our country, the leadership of the family has changed from “father knows best” and no one questions it, to the wife, regardless of gender, has a very large role in family decisions — perhaps for no other reasons than increased education and economic independence of family members. This also changes the context of social impact and influence in the labor market.

Business leaders with notable influence, through one methodology or another, who do not recognize that the current operating environment has changed over the years with increased rapidity will fail to obtain the full opportunities presented to them. The millennial mentality style of involvement is just an example of the latest change. Leaders have to apply a multitude of practices to manage the typical mix of the employee workforce. This workforce is not only homogeneous; they will utilize a variety of tools to protest practices they view as inappropriate. Examples are Glassdoor reviews, #MeToo, anonymous feedback channels or underground subversion to official policy.

What is to be done?

Just as those who are observing leadership behavior and deciding to take some form of action so things align better with their objects, leaders can be smarter and proactive about what they want to achieve. One of the easiest techniques to avoid a divisive work environment is transparency. That means lots of directed communication and access for clarification when necessary. With open discussion, leaders don’t have all the answers, so more ideas can be considered. Too many new organization leaders come on board with the idea that they have to hit the ground running, making notable changes immediately to impress whoever made the hiring decision or their reporting superior. This can often be the exact opposite of what they need to do, even if they truly know what needs to be done.

Generally, a more prudent practice when a new CEO comes on board is to get the lay of the land. This doesn’t mean just talking with the VPs and the executive administrative staff or your peers if you are a midlevel position. It can involve a period of inquiry throughout the organization or at least within your operating sphere. This can be followed up with communication to the group(s) involved as to your findings. This gives people a chance to concur, challenge or maybe only supplement your findings. One of the hidden values of this approach is the building of trust. It also builds a team where people see their role, and people can clarify and adjust expectations along the way.

The next step is to identify what needs to be done and, again, communicate within a reasonable but reflective amount of time. Again, looking for feedback. Once there is a reasonable degree of concurrence, you can progress to the steps of how and when the goals are to be achieved.

Reasonable agreement doesn’t mean everyone immediately buys into the established direction. It will take time for some and others may never get on board. Everyone wants to be part of a winning team, they just have to see how it can benefit them. For those who can’t make the transition, a new organization may be the solution.

Holdouts have to be addressed, but the vast majority has to come around. If not, you will be moving back up the continuum in more use of Theory X strategy. There are almost no winners in full-blown Theory X environments, just as a full-blown Theory Y rarely accomplishes the original objectives. Keeping an eye on how your leadership style fits with the environment of operations and making adjustments as needed will, in the end, gain the most good for all concerned.

Ardon Schambers is president and principal at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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