It was easier before.
In the command-and-control organization, the role of the leader was clear. The boss was supposed to know. The boss made the decision and the employees did as they were told.
In today’s flatter and more fluid organizations, where employees are generally “knowledge workers”, it is more difficult to define the role of the leader.
Some people say that leaders ought to be teachers. It is not a bad metaphor, if one means “somebody who leads a learning process”. It is more problematical if you mean “somebody who imparts knowledge”. Because if you are a leader today, your people are likely to be as smart and knowledgable as you are. Who are supposed to teach whom?
Others say that leaders are motivators. This is a common assumption behind many leadership programs. The leader is supposed to find out what motivates people, to “energize” them, and reward them for good performance.
This is important, of course. But what do you do, if your people are already motivated? If you employ highly educated, curious, and enthusiastic people (as you should)? They are likely to be self-motivated.
Here’s another view. Don’t try to teach your people, they probably know how to do their jobs better than you do. Don’t try to motivate them. They are as interested as you are in doing a good job, and they don’t need your pep talk.
Instead of trying to find out what motivates people, find out what demotivates them. Instead of communicating a bold vision, identify why people can’t reach the goals they already have.
Perhaps it is the lack of clarity about the mandate for your unit. Maybe it’s the lack of resources from corporate, which you should have fixed a year ago. Maybe it’s the conflict with the production department that has been festering for years. Or maybe it is unecessary complexity in roles and processes.
The late management guru Sumantra Ghoshal had a neat word for it: “Context”. People don’t need very active “leadership” from their leaders, but they do need a supporting context.
Be an architect. Design a better organization. Remove the obstacles for productive work. Create a better context. That’s the proper role of a leader in modern organizations.
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Question to you: Do you accept this view, and if so, what implications do you think it might have?