Four models for a modern leader

Modern leadership requires more art than science.
Modern leadership requires more art than science.
Image: REUTERS/Simon Dawson
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Taylorism began with the question, “How many tons of pig iron bars can a worker load onto a railcar in one working day?” The “scientific management” practice involved managers closely controlling workers in aim of maximizing productivity, and laborers were reduced to mere cogs in the machine. 

With the rise of knowledge work, a new model of management is taking hold. Author and McGill University professor Henry Mintztberg calls it “emergent strategy.” In this model, every employee gets an opportunity to make certain decisions regarding their work and the organization as a whole. Because power is dispersed throughout the organization, each employee is accountable for both revenue and culture.

Modern management of this empowered workforce requires an upgrade from an outdated industrial mindset to one that is compatible with today’s emergent era. We need different modes of leadership that are premised first and foremost on trust—more of an art than a “science.” These modes include:

  • The Teacher: empowering employees to continuously grow
  • The Learner: embracing change, encouraging experimentation, and learning from new ways of working
  • The Mobilizer: anticipating and responding to organisational needs and facilitating vital and timely change
  • The Giver: playing the long game by putting others first

The Teacher

The Teacher focuses on leading and educating by example. By distributing authority to team members, she champions transparency, knowledge sharing, continuous learning, and feedback. As four-star general Stanley McChrystal puts it: the interplay between leaders and their teams is a case of ‘eyes on, hands off.’  In other words, the Teacher stays acutely aware of what her team is up to and how to best support them, but doesn’t meddle for the sake of it. This mode of leadership is entirely dependent on trust. And treating workers as competent professionals is something that we can, and should measure.

This was the bedrock for the rich company culture that Patty McCord cultivated at Netflix—simply treating people as responsible adults made them accountable, empowered, and engaged.

The Learner

As industrial systems grow ever larger and more complex, leaders must develop new expertise on the fly in order to pull the right resources together, at the right time, from across departments.

Learners are conduits, synthesizing and applying information—providing a key intersection along information paths.

Tim Casasola, organizsational designer at the Ready, is a good example of a Learner. He helps Fortune 500 leaders adapt to the new world of work. That requires a mind open to continuous education, not only for employees, but for himself. “It’s easy to fall into an outsider mindset,” says Cassola, “But I remind myself I’m not the person with all the answers. I’m just someone that’s there to help facilitate their change — one they might know more about than I do.”

The Mobilizer

The Mobilizer is acutely aware of organizational needs. As new information emerges from different and sometimes far-flung teams, it’s the Mobilizer who responds with enlightened choices, bringing others into the fold to prompt collective action from the team.

As a fresh-eyed CEO of industrial conglomerate Alcoa, Paul O’Neill spent much of his time listening. He decided to put all his chips on the table and focus on one thing: safety. He encouraged all employees to regularly share information about worker safety. They did, and gradually started sharing all sorts of other information—including ways to boost efficiency and productivity.

Focusing on one item caused a domino effect across the organisation. Alcoa became one of the first companies to use an intranet, catapulting it light years ahead of its competitors. O’Neill’s safety culture had completely transformed its business. Alcoa witnessed a 5X increase in net income and $27 billion in market capitalization.

The Giver

Soft-spoken, selfless, a big collaborator, and an all-around nice guy — these are not the characteristics you’d typically expect of someone at the helm of one of the world’s largest companies. Yet that’s exactly what Sundar Pichai is known for as the CEO of Google. His management style is pretty darn simple: helping others succeed. Pichai typifies the Giver who thrives in the new economy.

Abraham Lincoln was a Giver. He set ego aside, appointing his bitter opponents to the Cabinet knowing this would best serve the entire country. Lincoln was renown for putting the interest of others before his own. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant explains that in stark contrast to Takers, when Givers succeed, something extraordinary happens: “It spreads and cascades.”

Not surprisingly, companies that foster a culture of giving report more profitability, productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction. And when a leader has Giver qualities it also helps to attract top talent and lowers turnover rates. Givers play the long game. While Takers might win 100-meter sprints, Givers win gold in marathons.

What Every Leader Should Be Asking

Mintzberg’s model leader, according to his colleague Karl Moore, sees that, “Strategy emerges over time as intentions collide with and accommodate a changing reality.” This adaptive way of leading can’t be neatly stored inside a pre-ordained plan, for the simple fact that it must bubble up from within the business.

All four models of new leadership focus on building transparency and trust. Which one to use at any given time begins with the question: How can I help my teams to do their best work?

Jonas Altman is the founder of Social Fabric.