In the 21st century organisation where digital knowledge work replaces physical manufacturing work, the role of leaders and leadership has become a core need of organisations.
In fact the need for leadership and the role of leaders has been long discussed and understood by management experts. Amongst the most forward-thinking of these were Edwards Deming with his Fourteen Points for Management and Peter Drucker who practically invented modern management.
The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership includes a strong focus on leadership development. Jeffrey Liker and Gary Convis have documented that Toyota invests 25 years to grow a leader. This contrasts strongly with the quarterly-target based management prevalent in most traditional western organisations.
Robert Greenleaf’s famous 1970 essay The Servant as Leader started a revolution around the role of leaders in modelling how their followers should behave. The servant leader puts the needs and behaviour of the operative personnel first, over his or her own needs. The traditional organizational pyramid is literally flipped over. The subordinates are not supporting their manager in reaching his goals: the leaders are supporting their people in finding and aligning goals, in reaching their goals, and in growing as persons and employees.
This is congruent with the Chaordic Leadership approach from Dee Hock, the founder of Visa. He states: “Lead yourself, lead your superiors, lead your peers and free your people to do the same. All else is trivia.”
Motivation of employees features strongly in this frame. Dan Pink provides us with a helpful framework in his TED talk video and book “Drive”. Dan Pink explains that motivation is highly connected to three important matters. These are: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, which all goes hand in hand with the important matters of being a servant leader:
Respect and foster the self-organization. As stated in the fifth agile principle: “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done”. A servant leader trust the employees - even when they are in trouble. You might feel encouraged to intrude in the work of a challenged team (your good intention is probably to help them sort things out), but if you are taking over and directing the problem solving, the self-organization is actually injured for a while.
Give the employees the room and freedom to learn and improve their skills and mastery.
Give the employees the vision of where we are going. Knowing the direction, helps them making decisions.
A modern leader is someone who succeeds through the achievements of her employees. A great leader is someone that sets the direction and supports the environment in which the employees can act and evolve. A great leader is someone that sets the boundaries for the team, but leaves space and freedom for the employees to take responsibility and improve.
To grow into a modern leader you will likely need to unlearn what you were taught at business school and by traditional managers who mentored you. You can do worse than going back to the essentials taught by Deming and Drucker.