In the modern organisation leaders can’t actually force people to do anything. Sure leaders may have a degree of hierarchical power by virtue of the role they hold but the reality is that workers have actually given the leader that power. In fact, what sits in place is an often unconscious complex social contract where workers actually give authority to their leader in exchange for three essential things; Direction, Protection and Order.

Leadership in our DNA

This exchange is deeply entrenched in our being; it’s been around since the dawn of time and it is as observable in other social animals like the alpha female wolf or the silverback gorilla as it is in the traditional company manager.  We give authority to leaders and in return they provide Direction (where shall we go; what shall we do?), Protection (from threats to our group) and Order (who gets what privileges or resources in the group).

That was then…

In the largely predictable organisations of the mid-20th Century this social contract made absolute sense.  And out of this environment came the “great man” model of leadership, characterised by the heroic figure leading his people to a brighter future.  In return loyal “company men” gave authority to the leader, doing his bidding and sharing in his prosperity.  In giving authority to the leader workers were essentially seeking to reduce their own anxiety about what their futures held.  “It’s OK” they’d think “He knows what to do, and if I follow him he’ll look after me. Thank goodness someone is in charge – now I can relax.”

This is now…

The problem arose when we carried this deeply held social contract into the complex operating environment of the modern world.  The modern leader can’t possibly know, with any real certainty, what the future holds, where the organisation should be heading or what to do to get there. This knowing needs to be divined collectively.  Knowing what has happened in the past provides little guaranteed success in navigating a complex adaptive system, with disruptive competitors, game changing technology and shifts in the fabric of society and the work-force.  And yet, leaders continue to be seduced into thinking they need to provide their end of the bargain while workers persist in expecting it of their leaders.

A new approach for a new world

To be a leader who prospers in the future you’ll need to renegotiate the social contract.  You’ll need to hand the work back to your people so that problems are solved and futures created at the coal face and not in the board room.  You’ll need your people to understand that sometimes you’re not sure either, but you’re prepared to allow a series of experiments to see which of the myriad possible futures is most likely to prove fruitful.  You’ll need to wean your people from their expectation that someone other than them will work it out. You’ll need to hold the line when they come seeking answers from you that you can’t possibly provide.

By the way, this doesn’t mean you abdicate responsibility as a leader, just that you take up your role in a new way.  There will still be an expectation that the organisation achieves its objectives and there will still be boundaries set about what those objectives are and how they might be attained.  The real skill for you to develop is in reducing the anxiety of your people just enough so that they are not overwhelmed by their challenges, but not so much that they fail to face up to their own part in taking the organisation forward.  Harvard professor Marty Linsky put it beautifully when he said “the role of authority figures is to disappoint their people at a rate they can tolerate”.

Renegotiating that social contract won’t be easy; it’s so deeply held that most people aren’t even consciously aware of the bargain they’ve struck, but it will be critical for you to tackle if you are to have any hope of truly serving your people, your customers and your communities in the future. And it starts with you reimagining your own idea of what it is to be a “good” leader.

Cameron Houston, Principal, Batley Evans & Co.

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