The origin of ‘Leadership’

The origin of ‘Leadership’

Numerous in-depth studies have reached the same conclusion: Organisations that invest in leadership development perform better than those who do not. But leadership has many different meanings to many different people and organisations. And more than before, the terms leadership and leadership development, seem to be the flavour of the day. Why?

In the old days, jobs were largely transactional: you get paid for doing yours as instructed. No questions asked. Purpose, self-empowerment and emancipation were vague notions associated with anarchists and the flower power scene. Since the early days of industrialization and before, leadership has evolved from overpowering people to empowering people. Old school authoritarian leaders believed employees were intrinsically lazy and it was widely assumed that people are mainly motivated by monetary benefits with disciplinary systems (known as “Theory X”). Managers who followed this theory took an approach of structure, control and supervision over their employees. Theory X assumes that most people prefer to be directed, are not interested in assuming responsibility, and want safety above all else. It explained some, though not all of human behaviour within organizations. The behavioural factors were only considered and integrated into theories from the mid 1960’s (“Theory Y”) where work environments became more conducive, influenced by principles like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Today, organisations are transforming into places where people are empowered, encouraged, and supported in their personal and professional growth throughout their careers. Great leaders attract, hire and inspire great people because they truly understand and value human needs such as purpose and recognition.

I strongly believe some phenomena induced the development of great leadership over management. After World War II, Western Europe started rebuilding on the ruins left by 5 years of destruction. A whole generation grew up in a context of scarcity; nothing could be taken for granted and for many, every day was a matter survival. Although Maslow had yet to publish his needs hierarchy theory, one could say that masses of Europeans were struggling between Maslow survival levels 1 and 2 (food/water and shelter). It is the generation that left a profound legacy; conscious of the fragility of life and material wealth, they were careful not to waste their resources. The nation had one common goal; to resurrect the society.

In a context of scarcity and poverty, there was little room for existential questions and extrinsic motivations of the individual and self-actualisation (purpose) high up on Maslow’s needs model. Moreover, whether you practiced religion or not, the church and the community largely dictated your life’s rhythm, your purpose, conditioning people into a framework of desired behaviour. At the same time community and church provided clarity, a sense of security, belonging and to a large extent a common identity. Though for the creative mind, the free spirit, those days were challenging from a deep desire not to fit the mould; especially so for women who sought independence.

Nowadays, in the global online community we created, we can choose which group or community we want to belong to (or “Like”). In the western world we can choose to express ourselves as individuals without fear of reprisal. Civil movements have ascertained basic rights and freedom for many of the privileged global citizens; first and foremost the freedom of choice. That freedom of choice can both be a blessing and a curse. The paradox here is that for some this individuality equals freedom and opportunity, for others it triggers a deep-rooted fear; not having some kind of a predefined structure of roles and expectations; a common identity to which to belong, a common set of values and beliefs as guiding principles. Our behavioural preferences that are rooted in our brain stem influence the extent to which we are comfortable with this; some prefer to naturally lead (direct); others prefer to fit in (accommodate). It is valuable to discover what your natural style of leadership is so to better manage your wellbeing and that of those you lead.

In our working groups, the subject of leadership as such is not so much about leading an organisation to achieving its goals. That is the result and -in my view- more concerned with management. Leadership is about self-mastery; knowing who you are, what you stand for, what you believe in and the willingness to act on it. About truly understanding your inner motives and fears. About a conscious sense of direction and effective behaviours to get you there in a way that others will follow and support you willingly, regardless of your status or social class. And since there is no such thing as the perfect or ideal leader, it is a great investment to discover what kind of leadership works for you.

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