Cultivating leadership that we all deserve

In January 2020, I moved to the American Midwest for a job that any early career academic would consider a dream. I am in a largely research focused position with a smattering of Undergraduate teaching. I research and teach into university courses on leadership and power, negotiation, organisational behaviour and in general, workplace behaviour. I also moonlight as an Organisational Psychologist back in Australia, consulting on topics related to those listed above.

Being in America, you could imagine that similar to pretty much everyone else here, I have been tuned into the US Election. Through my work, I have also been spending a lot of this election cycle thinking about how the changing leadership within the White House has shaped the societal barometer of leadership here in the United States, and beyond. In 2016, I was collecting data for my PhD and studied the implications of Hillary Clinton’s defeat on everyday Americans’ beliefs about women leaders in business. In a nutshell, the implication of her loss shaped beliefs about women business leader’s appointment and promotability. Really pared back, my research shows that reminders of leadership in our broader social context, shape our beliefs about leadership in the business context.

I’ve had quite a few conversations with various colleagues, academics and friends, in an effort to grow my own understanding surrounding the 2020 election, namely Trump’s re-election bid and his anticipated success. Now more than ever before, I am acutely aware of how our expectations of our leaders and their leadership is rapidly changing and this is shaping how we expect people in our workplaces to behave. Now, I am no political science scholar, nor am I an expert on American government so perhaps I can let those folks unpack what the unfolding events mean from those perspectives. What I would like to contribute, are a few insights on the implications these unfolding events have for leadership in organisations, and how we might come to understand how these inform the psychology of people at work.

From a leadership viewpoint, this election could be understood as a referendum on our expectations of leaders. How we expect them to conduct themselves in public, how they generate support and coalitions among other leaders, and how they orient us towards goal achievement. There is a myriad of ways in which leaders can work towards shared goals and expectations. In academic terms we might use theoretical frameworks of transformational, relational, and authoritarian leadership, and so on. Simplified, these theories argue that there are a whole range of different ways leaders can effectively ‘get the job done’ using their charisma, their interpersonal networks, direct instruction of subordinates, just to name a few. At this stage, remembering that the votes are still being (re)counted, the public appear to see Biden as being most popular – translated, he is seen as being the preferred President and leader, on the basis of raw count of votes across the nation.

Societally, voting behaviour signals the ‘leadership’ we are willing to accept

In corporate organisations, we rarely have the opportunity to ‘vote’ our leaders into their roles as they’re generally appointed. Yet, in organisations we frequently – albeit informally – ‘vote’ on the behaviours we are willing to accept. At an individual level, we vote all the time through those leaders we elect to spend time with; those leaders we engage with inter-personally; those leaders we spend time with outside of our working lives, or; remain in contact with when we leave a job. Consider, those leaders whom you’ve stayed in contact with since leaving a job, what behaviours did you admire or appreciate in them? I daresay you have severed ties with (or drifted away from) those leaders whom you did not treat you in ways that were supportive of your career and/or personal growth.

At the organisational level, we vote on the behaviours we accept through the processes of performance management, reward and recognition, and promotion. Behaviours that we are willing to accept and support are rewarded with more responsibility, bonuses or even larger salaries. This begs the question therefore, what is the leadership we are voting for in our organisations and in our everyday working lives? In the case of Trump, perhaps his ascent is really symbolic of our disconnect between what we really want and what we think we might need. The reality is, when it comes to the data, we don’t like leaders who we believe are autocratic, dispassionate or whom we see as lacking empathy. My own research shows that those leaders whom we see as being most effective are those who are supportive of others, empowering of our skills and capabilities, and who consult meaningfully on important workplace matters. Yet, and here’s the paradox, the people whom we afford ‘status’ too, are the Trumps of the world – those that are autocratic and authoritarian in their leadership behaviours. The result is that whilst we say we want to be led in one way, we reward and afford status to another very different – and destructive – way of leading.

The reasons we reward authoritarian leadership, are complex, nuanced and perhaps best understood within the contexts in which they occur. My working hypothesis is that there is something about another person ‘taking control’ or ‘claiming authority’ that makes us feel safe and secure. Through this lens, an autocratic leader who takes the reins absolves us of our own feelings of responsibility and that can feel like a weight off our shoulders. When someone else is willing to step up and take responsibility for a workplace outcome, or decision, I know I can sometimes feel relieved. But I would argue that this comes at a cost. When leaders insist on controlling outcomes or being the single decision-making point, the cost is too high, particularly when we lose all of our ability to make informed choices or express our own dissenting views and be heard. Furthermore, the costs of rewarding this behavioural style in leaders – through bonuses, promotions or putting these leaders on a ‘pedestal’ – can extend beyond the relationship between a leader and their team, permeating the very cultural foundations of the organisation. So, what should we do?

What is ‘leadership’ and how do we foster this?

When considering what we ought to do to encourage the leadership we want, we also need to be thinking about what leadership behaviours we reward. If creating change is reduced down to a behaviourism perspective – think Pavlov’s conditioning of his dogs – then we must explore how we reward the leadership behaviours we want in our lives, our workplaces, and within our institutions. Simple, right? I’m kidding, this is clearly a much more complicated beast. We can’t just conjure the leadership we want by pairing bells with desirable behaviours and giving out treats as a reward.

In the first instance, we must reimagine how we see leadership. Leadership is not just for the CEO and the top end of town. Behaviours synonymous with effective leadership such as: consultative decision-making, empathy, or compassion, occur throughout the organisation – from the boss’ office on the fancy floor to the concierge directing calls on the ground floor. The degrees of consultation, and the impact of decision-making may be different, for example, but the means by which an organisation’s goals and objectives are achieved must be equally ‘leader-like’ throughout the organisation if we are to create organisations and institutions that embody true leadership – the behaviours that we all say we want to see and experience whilst at work.

Lofty ideals Miriam, but how do we do this?

  1. Be accountable to yourself and others

Accountability from a leadership perspective can be understood through formalised policies and procedures that all employees are managed against. However, adopting a democratised view that sees ‘leadership is for everyone’ we can extend accountability beyond a check box approach to see that accountability is something we are all responsible for individually and within our collectives (e.g., teams, workplace or organisation).

As an individual, this can be as simple as noting our personal beliefs about leadership, jotting these insights down for clarification or sharing these with a colleague or friend. Then, holding ourselves to these behavioural standards in our everyday interactions. For example, to me leadership is about compassion, a willingness to stand-up for issues that I believe are meaningful and important, and collaborating with my peers on important decisions that impact our shared goals and objectives. But here’s the catch, there are plenty of times where I do not make enough time to engage in robust collaborative decision-making or times where I have not stood up for my views on issues that are meaningful to me. Like many others, I am a work in progress. Part of ensuring I embody the leadership I want to see in the world and in my workspaces, is allocating time to speak with my colleagues when we have to make business decisions or holding compassionate space for those I lead in the workplace.

As a collective, there must be a suite of leadership behaviours that we all agree are desirable. Now, we don’t necessarily have to sit down together and determine these (though we have done this with teams and organisations in the past, and it is incredibly helpful). What we can do is start to ‘set the tone’ by reinforcing the everyday instances of these valued leadership behaviours in our daily interactions. We can also set about prioritising time solely for engaging in meaningful leadership behaviours such as collaborative decision-making or asking our peers and colleagues about their lives. These meaningful activities do not have to take exorbitant amounts of time, nor do they have to be emotionally taxing. Done well, and done at all levels of the organisation, these leadership behaviours distribute the emotional and interpersonal labour that may otherwise be assigned to ‘leaders’. What’s more, engaging in these subtle shifts in behaviour can produce massive transformations in organisational culture over the longer term

2. Acknowledge and reward the leadership we want and deserve

Pared back, this is about acknowledging and rewarding leadership behaviour that is impactful and supportive for our growth in the workplace. This could be as simple as saying thank you, but at its best, rewarding actual leadership behaviours is integrated into an organisation’s DNA through the very structures, systems, processes and procedures that govern how organisational goals and objectives are achieved. At worst, organisations purport to endorse effective leadership behaviours (e.g., collaboration, empathy, shared decision-making) yet promote and provide bonuses to those that engage in anti-leadership (e.g., manipulating others, inconsistent decision-making, backstabbing). In these contexts, there is no quick fix, and whilst positive change may be possible, re-imagining such a workplace culture and the foundational leadership behaviours that govern this, requires significant overhaul and sustained change efforts across people, systems and processes. Possible, but incredibly hard work.

3. Note: Leadership does not happen in a Dyson

In simple terms, leadership does not occur within a vacuum, meaning there are a range of extraneous factors that impact on our ability as individuals, teams or organisations to embody the leadership we want to see. Sometimes there really aren’t enough hours in a day to get the good work done. Part of being a great leader at any level of the organisation, is also being able to reflect on your own leadership behaviours and recognise when they aren’t quite what you want them to be. And, being okay with this.

In spite of the lapses that happen from time to time through environmental stressors, time restrictions or ‘life’, we can still set a standard of leadership and set an expectation in our workplaces that we will make the time to engage in robust decision making or engage in our colleagues’ lives in useful or meaningful ways. There may be times where we have to make sacrifices, but this ought never to be at the cost of leadership that is focused on the very foundational elements that bridge the space between the leaders and the led including compassion, integrity or sound moral reasoning. Where we are clear in our foundational leadership principles (i.e., those that you jotted down earlier), it makes it easier to remain steadfast in our baseline behaviours that we enact ourselves, and the leadership behaviours we reward in others.

Miriam Yates is a Registered Psychologist and co-owner at Within Consulting. She is currently undertaking a Research Fellowship exploring topics of leadership, power, interpersonal influence, social justice and organisational behaviour in corporate organisations.