If you use the words “expect,” “insist,” or “consequences” with most management teams today, you’ll get frowns, quizzical looks, and blank stares. If you dig deeper into peoples’ reactions, you’ll learn that most people think of that language as part of an old paradigm of hierarchical leadership. They consider it an oppressive and outdated overuse of authority that’s unnecessary in the modern workplace, and it will alienate the contemporary workforce.
The cultural pendulum swung from one extreme to the other
In preceding generations, back in the 1940s and 50s, the command-and-control use of authority was the norm. People were expected to do as they were told, not to question authority, and not to complain about anything. Then, in the 1960s and 70s, people began to resist authority because the lack of contribution was so dissatisfying. Comfort trumped conformity and bumper stickers saying “Question Authority” and “Rules Are for Fools” were commonplace. The cultural pendulum swung from one extreme to the other. Consequences were hard to find. Parents tried to be friends with their children. Managers wanted to be called facilitators rather than bosses. To free ourselves from the command and control era, we began treating authority and rules as oppressive. So today, in many organizations, leaders have made management a negotiation, thinking that teams and followers are being empowered.
Leadership research shows us something different. Without guardrails, people get anxious and use their “empowerment” to challenge authority. Instead of focusing on their work, people get lost in discussions about how things should be organized, which prevents any real progress on problems or opportunities for success. For organizations and teams to make progress on their goals and visions, leaders must use their wisdom and maturity to provide guidance and set expectations. Otherwise leaders regress toward consensus, and followers, seeing that, have no desire to mature to become leaders.
Leadership is a call to adventure
Everyone senses the challenge of being in charge, and some leaders are too afraid of people’s reactions to hold people accountable. The thrill of adolescence flourishes and true progress on real problems suffers.
Leadership today is a call to adventure, and the challenge for leaders is to hold the memes of these two cultural eras of leadership simultaneously in our hands. By holding the resolve of authority in one hand and the interest in relationship building and peoples’ contribution in the other, we gain the balance of resolve and relationship.
Leadership requires two kinds of nerve—first, the nerve to set a course with thoughtful determination, and not be thrown off by those who are more anxious and less imaginative about the adventure. And second, leadership requires the nerve to connect with people about their reactions to their challenges—and to your leadership—and to absorb their concerns empathetically without adopting those concerns.
What does leadership nerve look like in action?
- Staying calm and clear-headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection, to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by the emotional reactivity of others
- Relying on thoughtful principles and values to help guide decision-making about important issues, and making fewer decisions at the mercy of momentary feelings
- Expressing empathy for the interests, concerns, and problems others are having, without taking those problems away or leaving others in the lurch
- Acting with integrity, so that what they decided matches what they do
- Making thoughtful choices based on the best interest of the group, not as a response to relationship pressures
- Being true to a vision and knowing others may be disappointed due to this decision, while expressing compassion for the challenges this may stimulate in others
It’s been said that a leader without followers is just someone out for a walk. When you have a balance of resolve and empathy, you become a non-anxious presence. This is the key to leading others toward real progress on the most challenging opportunities and problems.