Updated: Jun 17
In the long evolution of our economy, beginning with the invention of the limited liability corporation and the steam engine that spawned the industrial age, we have discovered only two fundamental ways – leadership styles – for companies and institutions to organize work so as to meet the expectations of the marketplace.
In today’s turbulent, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) economy, these two leadership styles form an interdependent polarity. All contemporary leadership styles are a blend of the elements of these two polar-opposite leadership paradigms.
The Two Polarities
Authoritarian: “Command-&-Control.” This is the traditional, heroic top-down –“it’s my way or the highway!” – method of organizing the workplace.
The authoritarian leadership style was perfected over the industrial age when the challenge was to get employees to do (what essentially are) mindless, repetitive tasks with the reliability of the machine.
Heroic leaders organized their employees into efficient, reliable, predictable production teams. They wanted the organization to run “like a well-oiled machine.”
Every job, including paper shuffling desk jobs, was broken down into its discrete elements and assembled in a replicable process following the algorithm: “If A, do X; if not A, then do Y.”
In this environment, imagination, innovation and creativity are liabilities. Asking too many “why do we do it this way?” questions guarantees a troublemaker label. Attempting to find more efficient methods is often a career-limiting move.
“If the system is working and the boss is happy, don’t mess with it!” is the mantra that guides one’s career success.
In an authoritarian culture, employees must be passive. Their survival requires a high level of non-engagement and disengagement. They do what they are required to do, but their discretionary energy is shut down.
This is a high-stress working environment, one that leaves talented, capable and creative employees unhappy and unfulfilled. In today’s highly mobile labor market, the best and brightest do not remain long in a high stress, unfulfilling authoritarian environment.
Reliance on this leadership style peaked around 1975, and still has many disciples today. However, the emergence of the knowledge economy requires an entirely new way to organize and coordinate the efforts of the employees to meet the demands of the marketplace.
The Command-&-Control leadership style does not –and cannot – produce adaptive teams of engaged employees in an adaptive and developmental culture evolving as rapidly as change itself.
Cooperative: “Collaborate & Transform.” This Learning Leader style evolved over many years as the workforce became better educated and more skilled. It emerged as a clearly defined leadership style in the late 1970s in response to the increasing occurrence of Adaptive Challenges.
Recognizing the difference between a Technical Challenge and an Adaptive Challenge is essential to navigating the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) that defines today’s working environmental ecosystem.
Technical Challenges can be solved by applying a reliable and proven problem-solving process. Technical challenges are handled by established reliable and predictable systems.
Conversely, Adaptive Challenges will not yield to any existing methodology! They are solved only by discovering new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.
Command & Control must be replaced with Collaboration & Transformation where efficiency yields to innovation, reliability yields to creativity, and predictability yields to experimentation.
Learning Leaders evolve innovative teams of enthusiastically engaged employees. They collaborate in creative, carefully designed experiments to discover innovative solutions to the adaptive challenges presented by disruptive technology and the morphing market expectations.
Rather than “a well-oiled machine” which can only do one thing, adaptive leaders create an organization that evolves as rapidly as the environment evolves, “like a healthy, thriving, living ecosystem.”
In today’s rapidly changing VUCA economy, successful startup enterprises are more Cooperative than Authoritarian in their leadership model.
Of necessity, today’s successful, established organizations are rapidly moving their leadership cultures from the Authoritarian towards the Cooperative model. Their rapidly morphing markets are requiring a more flexible response to their customer’s needs than is possible in an Authoritarian Leadership structure.
The millennial generation will soon dominate the workforce. The best and the brightest are attracted to organizations where their creativity and curiosity are rewarded.