Leadership Styles... They Are a-Changin'

On my way into work this morning I was reading a blog from a millennial. It was written as a letter to a former employer and in it the author outlined why the current corporate culture is so unattractive to those born around 1980 or later. I have spoken to many people about this and I find it boils down to: a general desire not to have to accept the status quo. “You may have been fine with this, but I deserve something better.” It’s one of many articles, books and discussions taking place at the moment as people in businesses try to understand how to engage the generation that is rapidly forming a larger part of the workforce.


Fast-forward and I’ve arrived at the office; with a portfolio career, I work in a few different offices and it so happens that the CEO of the company I was working with today had sent me three emails already. Each email arrived with an undercurrent - exactly as I expected – ‘Do it this way.’


I’ve spent many hours during my career fighting to put my stamp on the work I do – it’s probably why entrepreneurial jobs appeal to me so much. As a result when working in a business I’ve learned a simple trick – I’ve learnt to hold things lightly. I always do my best, but when I send something through to a boss or client I expect it to come back looking very different.


As I responded to the CEO’s emails the woman who supervises me walked in. She was somewhat annoyed at the emails that had been sent to me. It was at that point an interesting conversation and idea occurred to me. Somewhere in the middle of our self-appreciation session we both mentioned that we liked working together due to a shared value – teamwork. We both felt the only way to improve the business was to make the team greater than the sum of its parts. We both believe in a collaborative form of leadership where people are honest about strengths and vulnerabilities and work collectively to support each other and lead.


That’s when the light went on. I always associated my millennial tendencies to my ‘cusp’ status being on the tail end of GenX. But it may even be more complex than this. I entered the workplace during a much different, much bolder cusp. This is the cusp of organisational change – our workplaces will be changed forever and hats off to the millennials who are pushing this shift much faster than we might otherwise have done.


So what is this shift in the workplace? Well there are many things happening, however my most recent epiphany is the change in the leadership that is required in the workplace. There are lots of articles on management and leadership styles some basic styles include: autocratic, directive, coaching, and affiliative. If you’ve studied any of these you learn we should vary our style dependent on the situation. One thing I often try to help people understand is we often have a default position we fall back on either subconsciously or when things get tough.


My experience of the work place has been, that it is not uncommon to find managers who default to being autocratic. Think about it – the boss rewrites everything; do it this way; any time you make a suggestion an alternative is chosen; you subtly make the boss think it was her idea and so on.


While this autocratic style of management is fading it still exists and I find it pretty endemic – managers who use the phrases “well that’s how I was taught” and other phrases that denote because it was done that way before it is fine to do it that way now.


I think there has been a lack of satisfaction with this style of leadership for more than a generation, however past generations have accepted it. Those of us who value collaborative leadership have found ways to work beneath the surface – making suggestions – playing the game and eventually building our own teams that work differently. We’ve felt isolated and alone. At times we’ve found ourselves disenfranchised and have chosen to simply move on when we’ve become tired of working the system.


I define collaborative leadership differently than it might be elsewhere. To me this is about allowing people to use their skills, leaders who step back and make space for others to stretch their wings and try something new. These leaders in turn empower others, and want to work with others to make things happen rather than wanting others to work for them.  


But now people who value collaborative leadership have raised a generation who expect something more! We are raising children to do what we failed to do, with an expectation that they have something to contribute and that their ideas are valuable and worthy of recognition. This is a generation that is ready for collaboration and co-creation. They are hungry to develop their skills and abilities. They want to innovate. They want to see credit where it is due and they want their contribution to be valued.


Now is the time for organisations to embrace collaborative leadership. I like to think of collaborative leaders as gardeners. We prepare the soil. We plant the seeds. We water. We remove pests. We tend the garden, helping create the best possible conditions for growth, blossoming and in the end production. We don’t make the growth happen, or the blossoms beautiful or the fruit appear. We take pride in our ability to tend the garden but I didn’t make the apple you’re eating, the tree did that.


In the same way collaborative leaders need to create the space for leadership to grow and develop. We can take pride in the conditions we create so that others can thrive. It requires empathy and outrospection as Roman Kzarnic states. It also requires introspection because collaborative leaders need to understand their own interaction with others to ensure they are at their best as they offer support.


If you’re looking to ensure your organisation remains relevant as the workplace continues to change, you need to be developing collaborative leaders who are confident enough in their own abilities to allow others to shine. To do that you need to grow self-aware leaders who are able to understand the needs of others.