April 13, 2024

Styles Of Leadership

Try Styles Of Leadership You Like It

CEOs need to move beyond autocratic leadership style

6 min read

Always one to march to the beat of his own drum, Elon Musk’s iron-fisted reign of Twitter has been one for the ages. Sweeping job cuts, heavily criticized platform changes, and a hostile relationship with the press have defined the tumultuous takeover.
While some Silicon Valley bosses have cheered on his merciless style, Musk’s tactics are the antithesis of what is required in the world we live in today. “It all went south,” former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said recently.

Complex overlapping forces, such as the pandemic, war, migration and energy scarcity, are transforming the world in as yet unknown ways. Today’s leaders need to be collaborative, communicative and agile to be effective in this landscape – soft skills are now essential skills to thrive.

But too many of today’s corporate leaders continue to cling to leadership practices from a bygone era, leaning into archetypes that are ill suited to addressing the world we live in today – highly networked, and rapidly evolving.

Henry Ford and John Rockefeller were influential figures in shaping modern management of big business in the 1910s. This first wave of corporate leaders operated their companies with an autocratic style, viewing lower-level managers and workers as extensions of their own will.

In today’s fast-changing world, the contributions of employees are indispensable, and relying predominantly on top-down decision-making processes results in long delays or inaction. Instead, there is a growing trend toward distributed leadership models that catalyze and empower collective action rather than control and direct it. These people are systems leaders and can drive change.

Systems leadership combines familiar skills such as subject expertise, strategy, program management, coalition-building and collaboration in new and different ways to create systemic transformation that leads to tangible change. It’s a leadership model that acknowledges the complexity of modern society and the interconnectedness of various systems. It allows leaders to identify the root causes of problems and work toward sustainable solutions that address multiple issues at once.

Take Kate Bingham, for example. She left her job as a venture capitalist in July 2020 to head the U.K.’s Vaccine Taskforce, realizing quickly that “we had one shot to get it right and no time.” Without a playbook to guide her, she ordered vaccines from seven developers instead of the EU’s vaccine-buying group, with no certainty that even one of them would work. Bypassing established contracting procedures, she struck “creative” deals, as the government later reported. She was, of course, criticized – but her approach enabled Britain to secure large vaccine supplies and get people vaccinated.

Under Satya Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft has undergone a transformation from a traditional software company to a cloud-based technology leader. One of the hallmarks of Nadella’s leadership style is his focus on empowering employees to take risks and innovate. He has emphasized the importance of creating a culture of learning, where employees are encouraged to experiment and learn from failure. This approach has led to the development of innovative products and services, such as Microsoft Teams, which became a vital tool for remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Microsoft has achieved record growth and profitability, with the company’s stock price increasing more than 500% since Nadella became CEO in 2014.

Too many of today’s corporate leaders continue to cling to leadership practices from a bygone era, leaning into archetypes that are ill suited to addressing the world we live in today.

In the past, business leaders focused solely on serving shareholders and the bottom line. Since they were often making up the rules for nascent industries that didn’t have them, the pioneering bosses relied on decisiveness and self-confidence to plot their course through uncharted waters. And, of course, they had an impact. Ford is credited with developing the modern assembly line and mass-production techniques. He is also known for his commitment to paying his workers a living wage, which he believed would increase their productivity and loyalty to the company. Rockefeller was able to dominate the oil industry and become one of the most powerful men in America. However, his ruthless tactics were controversial  and ultimately led to increased government regulation of business practices.

In the 1980s and 1990s, it was General Electric CEO Jack Welch who put his indelible stamp on how to lead. He took the company from one that only sold appliances and light bulbs to a booming multinational corporation with multiple product lines. Business schools were erected teaching the “Welch Way.” However, the toxic results-oriented culture he created at GE contributed to its eventual downfall. In recent years, many have questioned Welch’s strategy, leadership style and legacy. Was he really a CEO that today’s emerging business leaders should emulate?

Today, having a high-performing, profitable company isn’t enough. In the boardroom, there’s a broader set of concerns that includes sustainability; climate change; equity, diversity and inclusion; and an overall commitment to responsible leadership.

While there is recognition from global corporate leaders that many of the forces we are facing have far-reaching impacts, they continue to be viewed through a predominantly business-oriented lens. The environment, for example, continues to be treated like an external variable that has the potential to affect the bottom line, rather than a resource that has value beyond quarterly reports. The pyramid-style hierarchies with the Welches of the world at the top need to be replaced by leadership models that feature flexible, flatter hierarchies that revolve around shared leadership built on a clear mission and purpose.

Leaders who can navigate complex landscapes with flexibility and creativity are much more likely to succeed than those who cling to outdated models of leadership. Doing this sounds simple and obvious, yet most find it difficult. We are experts at denying or minimizing a new reality: it isn’t all that significant, we tell ourselves, or it isn’t new, and besides, it won’t last very long, and then the comfortable status quo will resume.

Leaders who can navigate complex landscapes with flexibility and creativity are much more likely to succeed.

In times of heightened uncertainty, “leaders that embrace a consistent application of values stand out,” says Narinder Dhami of New Power Labs, a platform to flow capital more equitably. We may not know what lies ahead, but a leader creates trust and a sense of safety by behaving fairly and consistently connecting their actions to values. And because they are confronting new realities, they are also open to pivots and detours if necessary.

Mike McInerney, a former HR executive in corporate Canada and now co-founder of Rapid Alignment, argues that principle-based leaders “create greater, more trusting and communicative relationships that are required to move organizations forward when they are facing turbulent times.”

Traditional models of leadership are no longer sufficient to navigate the rapidly changing world we live in. As such, we must continue to identify and learn from leaders who have moved us through chaos with humanity. Leaders like Jacinda Ardern, the former prime minister of New Zealand, who showed the world that leading with compassion can deliver results. Ardern’s leadership style played a critical role in promoting healing and unity after 51 people were killed by a white supremacist at two mosques. Her focus on compassion, inclusivity and decisive action helped to build trust and confidence in her leadership, and her response to the crisis has been widely praised, both domestically and internationally. Her leadership style also highlights the importance of transparency and communication in times of crisis.

Systems leaders apply an unusual combination of skills and attributes. Like many of today’s leaders, they are smart, ambitious visionaries, with highly developed management and execution skills. But what sets them apart is how they use their “soft skills,” such as compassion and communication, to create inclusive environments where innovation and creativity thrive. These leaders don’t try to place complex issues in silos but take a networked approach and play the long game, placing an emphasis on creating trust, because business moves at the speed of trust.

Shilpa Tiwari is the co-founder of Isenzo, a boutique firm that takes a systems approach to ESG. 


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