When I was first a young manager back in the 1970s, most of the supervisors and managers I saw were pretty much 'Theory X' (as Douglas McGregor defined it) - autocratic, macho and tough. As they say; monkey see, monkey do... so I started out that way too. It soon became clear to me (being clipped round the ear often tends to clarify things) that the Stalinesque style wasn't a good approach for a 22 year old trying to lead staff twice that age and I gradually began to allow my intrinsic personality to shape the way I did things, becoming much more supportive, friendly and straightforward in my approach. Then came the 80s and everyone seemed on fast-forward - rushing headlong towards a share-owning, Porsche-driving, home-owning promised land. Gordon Gekko's 'greed is good' speech in the movie Wall Street defined a hard-nosed world where winning was all that mattered.... and lots of leaders and managers watched, learned and wanted a piece of the action. In the same period, Margaret Thatcher defined a leadership style that brooked no argument and gave little room for maneouvre (just ask Nigel Lawson or Michael Heseltine). Now here we are in the 21st century and I look around me and still see a large number of managers doing the 'Theory X Role-Play'... encouraged by a business world that still seems to promote people who are driven, focused on results, able to make the tough decisions and who will stick to the party line. All perfectly helpful characteristics in the right circumstances - but the workplace is a very different world today from the male-dominated and short-sighted times of 35 years ago. Shouldn't our more egalitarian, ethical and humane view of the world be reflected in a shift in leadership style and the role of managers?
Much of the basis for the 'old world' of autocractic leadership came from the 19th century; a world of bosses and workers...where it was quite likely that only the 'bosses' were educated and literate. Not so today. Look around any workplace and you'll probably find staff on the lowest rungs with high-level qualifications, making career choices based on lifestyle rather than capability. The relationship of an employee with their job is a far more complex one than was the case even as recently as the 1990s.... it is rarely these days simply a case of 'working where your father did', of 'joining the local company' or of 'working 9-5 to pay the mortgage'. Such a workforce; diverse in age, gender, ethnicity and aspiration; requires a more sophisticated leadership style. So if the Macho approach can't be justified on the basis of gender, social class or education - is there any other valid reason to be an autocrat? Some would argue (and I might well agree on occasions) that a consultative and democratic approach is slow and causes dilution. Certainly there are times to 'dictate': you wouldn't want a Fire crew arriving to tame a blaze at your house to hold a focus group or conduct an opinion survey to decide what to do. Equally well, if one is leading an inexperienced team or individual, a modicum of 'command & control' or close supervision is perfectly reasonable and will probably be welcomed by the recipient. However - and it's a BIG however, that's no excuse for behaving like a military commander when leading committed and capable people. Frankly, good people expect to be empowered. Maybe there was a time when we could be mean to our staff and they felt they had no choice but to put up with it - they needed the job. But today, even in this recently undermined (largely by poor leadership - perhaps a debate for another time) economic environment, good staff are still a scarce and valuable commodity. If you and your organisation can't provide them with opportunities, enjoyable and worthwhile work and a chance to develop themselves - they will leave. Research indicates that the most significant relationship an employee has is the one they have with their line manager. Their morale, motivation, commitment and therefore their productivity, capability and performance are largely shaped by the way they feel about you as a leader. A survey by Gallup just 3 months ago concluded that the 4 things staff most want from their leaders are Trust, Hope, Compassion & Stability. All 4 are much more likely to be a natural consquence of a Theory Y leadership style. Some commentators have referred to this 'Theory Y' (check out McGregor on Wikipedia or Alan Chapman's invaluable site www.businessballs.com for more info) as a 'feminine' leadership style. While this is always a dangerous generalisation (no-one would have accused Mrs T of having such a style, after all) there is some validity to the idea that Theory Y is more nurturing, supportive, developmental and empowering - often traits more associated with the feminine than the masculine. I think it is crucial to recognise that we are talking here about a 'feminine' leadership style.... and specifically not solely female managers or leaders. It is perfectly possible (I would say advisable) for a male leader to adopt aspects of a feminine leadership style. But first some old prejudices will need to be overcome. As i mentioned in the early paragraphs, the macho style is associated with results and dynamism; leaving Theory Y seen by many as a 'weak' or indecisive style. For what it's worth, my experience has been that it is much easier to be tough, unbending and target-driven with no room for negotiation than it is to lead a meaningful debate with staff that motivates them, engages their support and engenders their full commitment. Some industries are particularly prone to the macho approach, especially those that traditionally have been male-dominated. If you are a leader in such a field, you may have a few extra hurdles to overcome if you want to be a strong yet compassionate leader who inspires trust and commitment to the cause and empowers the organisation's talent. I fear however, that unless the Theory Y contingent becomes predominant we will continue to waste and marginalise some of our most capable staff and fail to gain the support and commitment of our workforces - and that could have very painful consequences for decades to come.