Navigating the Choppy Waters of Conflicting Approaches to Leadership

So it occurs to me that we’re nearly two months into the current session of Emerging Leaders Academy and we haven’t had any explicit discussions about what we all mean by the term leadership.

This isn’t to say we haven’t been discussing the topic in all sorts of ways. We’ve pondered what the future might look like in the public sector, a world where efficiency, adaptation and trust may be crucial to getting anything done.

We’ve talked about listening skills as a way to make sure we’re remembering to tune into others’ needs and desires as we forge ahead in sharing and implementing our ideas and plans.

And we’ve talked about identifying areas of strength and passion that we can build on as well as areas where we have a need for skills development if we’re to attain our goals in order to identify and reach out to the right people to play mentoring roles.

Implicit in all of these discussions, from my point of view, is the issue of leadership–the Public Management Center approach just happens to be one where we assume that each of us has to define what leadership looks and feels like for ourselves.

A class can offer tools to facilitate that development and some suggestions about what approaches might most enrich those who lead and those who would follow. And a class can offer stories and examples that reflect what leadership has looked like in particular times and places. But our classes won’t offer lessons or stories that assert this is what leadership should or must look like.

Because of this, we fall squarely into what Dr. Ronald Riggio calls “new wave” leadership–a belief that there is no fixed set of theories or practices to guide decision-making and a belief that good leadership requires a focus on the followers as much or more than a focus on the leader.

According to Riggio, “the most popular leadership theories today are transformational leadership and Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory. Both of these theories assert that effective leadership depends on the leader’s ability to engage, energize, and develop followers. In addition, theories of shared leadership are emerging. In shared leadership, the decision making power and responsibility of leading the team is dispersed among many members.”

Riggio asserts that there are 3 main themes in this new wave approach, which he describes as follows:

1) A Greater Focus on the Follower. The successful leader is able to engage and motivate followers. There is shared, or at least consultative, decision making and followers are empowered to take on responsibility and act independently. In transformational leadership, for example, the leader’s goal is to develop followers’ leadership capacity – eventually turning followers into leaders. Moreover, effective leaders recognize the individual strengths and needs of followers in order to allow each follower to maximize potential.

2. Decentralized Decision Making/Empowered Followers.
Often speed of action is critical, so followers need to be empowered to act without direction from the leader. In today’s knowledge-based world, a leader cannot hope to lead alone. In all likelihood, followers have more accumulated knowledge about the team or organization’s purpose than does the leader, so it makes sense to share the responsibility.

3. Recognition of the Complexity of Leadership.
The increasingly interconnected and international world of the 21st century, the ever evolving technology, and the constantly changing environment, means that this is not your father’s or mother’s world. Today’s world is fantastically complex and requires all of a leader’s capacity, and the shared capacity of the team, to stay competitive and effective.

I lean towards agreeing with Riggio and find myself keenly aware that this means PMC Director Charles Jones was right when he identified trust as a key element of public sector leadership in the future: relying more on one’s followers means that a leader must believe in their capacity to act in the best interests of the leader and the organization without paternalistic oversight.

This also points to a challenge, however, in that we’re in a moment of generational transition in the workplace.

Some, perhaps many, of today’s agency and department heads learned leadership and management skills in a much more Theory X era, one which understood motivation as coming more from sticks than from carrots and which assumed employees had little intrinsic motivation to perform or achieve. This tends to make for controlling leadership behaviors.

Today, however, hese folks have been joined in the workplace by Generation X and Generation Y who, as employees, generally expect their needs, opinions, and expertise to be at least consulted but more often actively taken into account in planning and decision-making processes.

So this leads to several questions. First, do Riggio’s views of the characteristics of today’s leadership ring true? If not, what’s missing?

Beyond this, though, how do we keep Gen X and Gen Y–and, of course, those baby boomers who also believe in a more shared sense of leadership–engaged in the workplace when they’re reporting to more “traditional” managers? How big an issue is this?

Chime in below in the comments.