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Why Leaders Need to Lead Differently Today

October 2012

We attended a very interesting talk by Johan Herholdt at one of Knowledge Resources’ breakfasts. Entitled ‘Humanising Leadership’, his talk focused on how the ‘Rational Man’ is evolving into the ‘Agency Man’ in organisations, and how this evolution calls for a different style of leadership.

Early on in the 20th century, the ‘Rational Man’ determined how things were done. There was a sequence to events. There were inputs that were put through a process to produce outputs. Most of the information needed was available. The style of leadership then was very much a command and control one. People were managed in a strict hierarchical and bureaucratic structure.

But the concept of an organisation has changed over time, from being a legal entity, to one that is a live working system, to one that is an aggregate of human beings with their own thoughts. It is people who ensure the success or failure of an organisation. However, people change, the new generation today thinks and acts differently to the older generations, and if all these thoughts are not aligned, then the organisation will not survive in the future.

In the world of philosophy, human agency is said to be the capacity of human beings to make choices and to then implement them, hence the term ‘Agency Man’. The idea is that people are responsible for their own thoughts and actions. They require information to make choices, and today there is so much information available (sometimes it even seems that there is too much and paralysis sets in). However, it is not perfect information. Too much is happening today for anyone to state categorically that something will happen in the next 5 minutes, or two years, etc. As a result, very little happens sequentially with near perfect information, á la the Rational Man. So the question is, how does an organisation ensure that information is translated into thoughts and actions that are for the greater good of the organisation?

As in the animal kingdom, where animals model their behaviour on that of their leaders – think of elephants and the matriarch’s influence over the younger ones - people in an organisation model their behaviour on that of their leaders. For example, if a leader does not listen to the thoughts of the people in the organisation, then most of the people will in turn not listen to the leader.

Effective leadership today is where the thoughts of all the people are aligned to a common purpose and to common goals that will make the organisation successful. The leadership must set this purpose and these goals, and ensure that everyone understands them. They must then allow the people to make their own choices and decisions as to how the purpose can be implemented and the goals met in order to ensure success. Many different ideas brought together from the diversity that exists in organisations today will generate many more innovative products and services that will ensure the survival of the organisation.

A command and control style is no longer appropriate. The Level 5 leadership as defined by Jim Collins is far more appropriate for today. Here leaders combine strong professional will to do the best for their organisation with their own humility and acknowledgement of the strengths of each individual person in the organisation, i.e. Level 5 leaders assume the role of the ‘Agency Man’.