This interview with Mike Armour appeared originally as a chapter in Leadership: Helping Others to Succeed, an anthology of in-depth conversations with top leadership experts first published in 2014 by Insight Publishing.
Mike, you’ve been training people to be leaders for decades. What are the most significant changes that you’ve seen in leadership during that time?
The most telling change, in my judgment, has been a shift in what is expected of leaders and what this shift implies for leadership styles.
There was a time, not so long ago, when people looked to leaders primarily to take charge, be decisive, and get things done. But now people also want leaders who will empower them, equip them for success, and position them to fulfill their complete potential.
As a result, people are less and less tolerant of leadership styles which smack of authoritarianism, even in the slightest. They are looking for leaders whose approach is collaborative rather than controlling. Leaders who communicate through dialogue rather than top-down directives. Leaders who see themselves more as coaches than as bosses.
Forty years ago, when I started teaching leadership, you never heard leaders and managers described as coaches. Today the concept of the leader-coach is so widespread that even MBA programs address it. I’ve taught several MBA seminars on this topic myself, and the classes always max out in terms of enrollment. Fifteen years ago almost no one would have signed up.
So, authoritarianism is dead?
No, not entirely. And it never will be. Certain leadership roles will always demand an authoritarian, top-down, command-and-control approach. This is particularly true in military and quasi-military organizations, such as law enforcement or fire fighting.
Because these professions put life on the line at a moment’s notice, they demand the decision-making efficiency and the organizational discipline of a command-and-control culture. But elsewhere, fewer and fewer places welcome military style leadership.
Then what kind of leadership are workers looking for?
When you put that question to workers, they offer a variety of words to describe the ideal business leader. But their responses basically boil down to one thing: they are looking for leaders who are more driven to serve than to be served.
This doesn’t mean that workers expect leaders to be servile or passive or unassertive. Quite the contrary. Today’s workers want strong, self-confident leaders who exercise power and authority well.
But they also want leaders who use their power and authority to promote the success of their people, both collectively and individually.
But don’t many authoritarian leaders care about their people’s well-being?
Oh, absolutely. As a retired naval officer, and now as a leadership coach, I’ve worked alongside scores of authoritarian leaders. Many of them care deeply about their people, far deeper than popular stereotypes suggest.
But what we are talking about here goes beyond simply caring for people or being concerned about their well-being. We’re talking about a depth of engagement between leaders and their people that is rare in authoritarian leadership.
In authoritarian organizations, even the most benevolent ones, it’s always clear that workers serve management and that management sets the agenda, pure and simple.
To the outside observer, it appears that leadership is in place solely to be served. And each level of leadership sees its purpose as serving the levels of leadership above it.
Contrast this to leadership styles which are most effective with the majority of workers today. Here the line between the leaders and the led is far less visible and pronounced.
In this setting leaders still serve the priorities of leadership above them. But they are equally given to serving their peers, their people, and even the broader community which their organization touches. For them the emphasis is not so much on serving as leaders as it is on leading to serve.
What accounts for this shift away from authoritarianism?
Many factors have contributed. None has been more telling than rising education levels in the work place. Since the Second World War we have purposefully opened the doors of higher education to everyone. And not without cause. The technical and operational sophistication of the modern workplace puts a premium on an educated workforce. And in many lines of work, continuing education is both a requirement and a way of life.
By its very nature education ignites dreams, aspirations, and ambitions. It leaves people feeling that they have something significant to contribute. They are not content, therefore, to be treated as mindless cogs in a machine. They want to have input. They want to be heard. And they want to be appreciated.
Service industries have only accelerated the need for a well-educated work force. Jobs in the service sector require brain-power, not brawn. Workers in service industries are best viewed as information brokers. They take data and information from one source, add value to it by applying their own knowledge, then pass the enhanced information to a third party, either an internal or an external customer.
Workers in jobs like these cannot be motivated, managed, or mobilized using the same methods which prevailed in the blue-collar heyday of low-tech manufacturing and construction. Workers in service industries quickly realize that their personal success depends on endless collaboration with colleagues, with experts, and with co-workers in their company. They therefore expect a management style which is similarly collaborative.
Does this mean that leadership has changed in a fundamental way?
No, not really. What is called for today are new styles of leadership, not a fundamental change in the function of leadership. Just as new styles of architecture do not transform the underlying function of a house, new styles of leadership do not change the underlying nature of leadership.
From written records we can trace the work of leaders over thousands of years. Whatever the century, leadership has always performed the same basic functions. Yet leadership styles have varied widely, even in the ancient world. That’s because effective leadership is always congruent with the culture and context within which it functions. As a by-product of human progress, history routinely thrusts leaders into circumstances that mark a sharp break with the past. When this happens, leaders must adopt new styles of leadership if they are to be effective in the new context.
That’s what’s happening today. With the emergence of the post-industrial economy, we have seen an extraordinary shift in the nature of the workplace. This shift is so sweeping that it has few historical precedents. Perhaps the only equivalent in Western history was the transition from the agrarian and feudal society of the Middle Ages to the urban and industrial society of the modern world.
With change of such magnitude, we would expect new leadership styles to arise, and so they have. It’s no mere coincidence that the information age opened by introducing us to new leadership terms, such as "servant leadership," "transformational leadership," "participative leadership," and others.
What is common to most of these newer leadership styles is that they put as much emphasis on helping workers succeed as they do on helping the organization succeed. Or to put it more accurately, they share a common belief that we assure corporate success only by ensuring employee success. From this perspective, leaders contribute directly to the company’s enduring success by developing, equipping, and empowering workers.
In the old days, leaders tried to recruit successful people for key positions. They still do. But what impresses workers today is not so much the successful people whom a leader has hired, but the successful people whom the leader has developed.
You’ve said that the underlying function of leadership remains constant over time. How would you define that function?
Once you start reading books on leadership, you quickly realize that leadership is defined in dozens of ways. For myself, I prefer a definition which is equally valid for leadership wherever you find it. This includes leaders at every level of organizational life, in both profits and nonprofits, and in emerging economies as well as established ones. Many definitions of leadership, I find, fail this test of universal applicability.
I therefore developed the following definition, which I use in training and coaching and in my keynotes:
Leadership is the art of rallying people around a shared purpose, then motivating them and mobilizing them to achieve it.
From what I can tell, this is what leaders in every age have done. All leadership enterprises center on some shared purpose.
The name which we give to this purpose depends on the size of the undertaking. The purpose can be called a cause, a vision, a mission, a campaign, a quest, an outcome, a challenging goal, or a set of objectives. Whatever the name, all leadership pursues some purpose which others find valuable, so valuable that they rally around the leader to achieve it.
And how does this definition relate to the new styles of leadership that you have mentioned?
The new styles of leadership do not differ significantly from earlier styles in terms of pursuing a shared purpose or pressing to achieve it. Where they do differ — and significantly so — is in the way that they rally people, motivate them, and mobilize them.
Let’s take the rallying component, for instance. Traditionally we have thought of rallying as the process of bringing people together in a common place, in the manner of pep rallies or political rallies. The purpose of rallies is to build esprit de corps and to unite people emotionally and psychologically around the leader and the leader’s goals.
In business it was far easier to develop such unity and esprit in a day when workers shared a common workplace. Increasingly, however, workers are dispersed far and wide. Frequently they work out of their homes. And members of work teams may be scattered across the nation, or even around the world, having never met most of the other team face-to-face. Rarely, if ever, will all of them be together in the same place.
The task of building unity and esprit is considerably more daunting in this kind of environment. It requires leaders and managers to be astute in their people skills and in their ability to engage and motivate people, even at vast distances. It also calls for solid mastery of communication skills in order to maintain clarity, avoid misunderstandings, and keep everyone pulling in the same direction.
This puts a premium on things like emotional intelligence and trust-building, which are commonly called "soft skills." This term is often used derogatorily, to suggest that soft skills have only secondary importance. But given globalization and today’s workplace realities, skills in engaging people effectively, even at great distances, are hardly secondary.
This is the very thing which Alvin Toffler foretold decades ago in his book Future Shock. Toffler warned about the advance of technology and its threat to interpersonal relationships in the workplace.
Modern technology has given us a world in which people can work in relative isolation, yet still be productive. As they depend more and more on smart machines rather than other people to get things done, the quality of human interactions and connections inevitably erodes.
Yet organizations are at their best when people are deeply connected with one another. For this reason, Toffler argued that the upcoming generation of leaders would need a "high touch" style of leadership.
He famously coined the phrase, "high tech, high touch." His counsel has indeed proven prophetic. If anything, he actually understated the challenge, for even Toffler failed to anticipate the scope and scale of today’s workplace technology.