There was a time when "strong leadership" conjured up images of a general marshaling the troops with stern directives and threats while devaluing or even humiliating those who underperform.
Those days are gone.
The new leadership paradigm is based on a holistic approach that recognizes that workers are human beings, not robots, and leaders realize that when they help employees flourish, an enterprise flourishes.
This approach is not based on vague, "feel good" notions. It has its foundations in the latest behavioral science, and it has been tested for its effectiveness. Let's look at some of the most important principles of 21s century leadership.
Happy, Healthy Leaders Gain More Willing Followers
We've all seen that harried, hassled leader running from meeting to meeting in a breathless display of near-desperation. For this person, every task is equally urgent, catastrophe seems to be just around the corner, and being a perfectionist and a workaholic seems to be the only way to ward off disaster. There is an air of incompetence about such a person.
Effective leaders today lead balanced lives, with as much emphasis on relationships as a career, and they move through their tasks with grace, and a sense of both competence and confidence. Such a person becomes a role model for followers, who may mimic the behavior they see. Employees will also be more likely to be on board with initiatives.
The reason for this easy compliance is employees are treated with the same dignity exemplified by the leader. They don't feel threatened or cajoled, their jobs aren't on the line with every mistake, and there is a recognition that they have many strengths that make their contributions significant for the team and the company.
Effective Leaders Know the Difference Between Intuition and Instincts.
Instincts are most often a response to fear. They can lead us astray because the emotional centers in the brain (primarily the amygdala) override the rational signals from the prefrontal cortex. Once useful in the wild, instincts have three basic modes: freeze, fight or flight.
You can see the destructiveness of instincts in the workplace when an employee is so afraid of ridicule he ceases trying to innovate (freeze). Or, a leader may "fight" for a bigger budget out of fear of not seeming important enough to warrant increased funding. Another example is when someone quits a job to alleviate the stress of working under constant stress (flight).
Intuition, on the other hand, is never based on fear. This response integrates the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It also utilizes the nerves in the gut. That's why we call intuition a "gut feeling". In addition, signals from the heart are strong and steady, with none of the rapid beating associated with instincts. In short, the health of the body and nervous system play a role in working with the brain to find solutions to problems.
The Overly competitive person, running on instincts, does not like to work in groups. This person becomes unbalanced by creating tension and fear, which can lead to health and money problems, as well as more sick days due to a stressed nervous system. The competitor tries to shine at meetings rather than make group ideas work. When a team of collaborators is infiltrated by a competitor, the joint effort tends to bog down in objections and roadblocks set up by the lone wolf.
Strong modern leaders don't overschedule employees, ask them to multitask or compete, and they encourage trying new things, even if those efforts occasionally fail. Effective leaders also recognize the importance of a work/life balance and the need to show individuals that they matter to the team. Employees treated in this manner tend to have effective intuition. Such intuition is seldom wrong, whereas instincts often are.
Strong Leaders Recognize that the Only Real Motivation is Self-Motivation
Attempting to motivate employees through fear tactics and threats is seldom sustainable. Employees burn out and become more likely to make mistakes. This is because of the stress hormone cortisol. Stress floods the brain with cortisol, shutting down rational thinking and sound judgment. Constantly attacking employees guarantees increased errors.
Effective leaders recognize that self-motivation can overcome struggles, mistakes, and failure. When employees find their reward in the task itself, when they do things for the enjoyment of learning and accomplishing, they tend to be more productive and effective. They gain confidence with each success and become motivated to take on increasingly complex tasks. They don't so much seek approval as self-mastery and a strong sense of their own competence.
Leaders recognize that self-motivation requires balance. It is important to have rest and a healthy lifestyle, along with a desire to contribute and to matter to others.
Curiosity drives self-motivation and leaders who value curiosity show it by encouraging employees to try new things, even those ideas that have not yet been approved by people higher up in the organization. When an exploration leads to a dead-end, the leader doesn't chastise or ridicule the employee.
The Bottom Line
Leaders today remain keenly aware that people produce more when they feel relaxed, happy, secure, and important. Such leaders offer an example through their own graceful days of meeting deadlines without desperation.
Employees not only learn by example but by instruction from an enlightened leader. This kind of leader assists individuals in finding their strengths and outgrowing their weaknesses. The job is not a competition; it is a collaboration, and leaders are not generals; they are mentors.
Modern leaders certainly have authority, but they are not authoritarians. Authority comes from demonstrated knowledge and effectiveness; authoritarianism is the attempt to hold sway based solely on a person's position in a hierarchy.