Should a leader be loved or feared? This is essentially the question asked by Machiavelli in the 16th century, in his famous treatise The Prince. For a long time, history responded to the Italian thinker’s question by exalting “warrior heroes” from Alexander the Great to Winston Churchill, via Julius Caesar.
The first foundations of the modern management of work, laid at the start of the 20th century, were naturally modeled on this traditional authoritarian model. At the time, a manager was expected to be a “real leader” who commands, organizes and controls. This directive form of management precludes any negotiation or discussion of orders. Decisions are taken on high, without consultation.
This pyramid model has long prevailed in companies around the world, leaving little room for employee dialog or creativity.
Even though the concept of collaborative leadership was first addressed in the 1960s by Douglas McGregor, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Boston (USA), with his "Theories X and Y", it would take many more years for the "traditional" top-down approach to be progressively questioned and then replaced by collaborative leadership, which is gaining ground today.
Emancipated from its "authoritarian" big brother, this new, more open management encourages employees to be flexible and involve everyone in order to achieve a common goal.
The crisis as a catalyst
Initially hesitant, this more horizontal management of teams – particularly in the tertiary world – has been gradually gaining ground for the last few years, to become a tangible reality and even practically a prerequisite during the recent pandemic.
Successive lockdowns, the transition to working from home and even the adaptation of rotas on production sites have required employees to become more autonomous. The breakdown of organizational structures has required them to be more flexible and adaptable. The Covid-19 crisis has therefore served as a launch pad to reshape management rules and interpersonal relations.
“The transformation of leadership is now inevitable,” reckons Valérie Gervais, Director of Saint-Gobain University, interviewed for the Hacking Human Resources podcast. “In a world where everything is moving very fast, employees have numerous expectations. They are no longer looking for Trivial Pursuit-style managers, with answers to everything. The world urgently needs a new type of more flexible leader.” In fact, we now expect managers to be able to inspire everyone’s commitment in order to successfully manage the numerous transformations required by contemporary challenges.
So are companies moving towards a new social contract? Yes, and that contract relies heavily on emotional intelligence and the team’s commitment to a wide-ranging corporate project. Like orchestra conductors, modern leaders need to set the direction of the company to music, as part of a symphony of authenticity and a culture of trust.
Exploring new leadership methods
In radical opposition to frequently rigid traditional management, participative leadership encourages employees to give their opinion, but also to demonstrate creativity – all in a spirit of shared innovation. Suggestion boxes, brainstorming, team-building: in this model, the manager is no longer a general who rules their troops with an iron rod. Instead, they become a leader who gets involved and who inspires and encourages cooperation and openness to the many ways of thinking.
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With a focus on trust, accountability and collaboration within the Saint-Gobain group, expressions of this more cross-functional management style are encouraged on a daily basis. Through this more agile positioning, the Group wants to strengthen its culture of innovation by promoting creativity, individual initiative and risk-taking. By having a strong power of action and decision-making, teams feel more involved, adhere to the corporate culture and fully participate in overall performance.
This is the whole point of true collaborative leadership – it needs to offer an inclusive working environment, be exemplary and promote training to improve understanding of diversity. Everyone can gain from this, employees as well as the company, which becomes more efficient and more agile in a competitive environment.
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Moreover, for the American social psychologist Kurt Lewin, the founding father of social sciences, this participative leadership is by far the most effective management to promote commitment from everyone.
Another type of leadership is delegative management, which gives teams a roadmap with tasks and results to be achieved while granting them significant decision-making power in the pursuit of their objectives and implementation of their action plans. According to Kurt Lewin, this type of management should be reserved for qualified and independent experts who have already developed a long-term project vision.
Another style, persuasive or visionary management, in the mold of Apple founder Steve Jobs, is a clever combination of directive and collaborative. Driven by a charismatic leader, it sets precise objectives, explains decisions and seeks to convince... The art of this approach lies in pushing the team to reach a high level of performance while providing it with a reassuring and creative framework.
No miracle formula!
But don’t imagine, however, that there is just one magic formula for successful leadership. The secret of a good leader is first and foremost knowing how to adopt the right approach at the right time!
“The first thing to deconstruct is the idea that there is only one correct type of leader and a single competency model,” advises Valérie Gervais. “Reinventing management ultimately means teaching our leaders to shift between different styles. Between strength and compassion, for example. Between the capacity to challenge and the capacity to reassure. Or between bringing clarity and vision, while also being attentive.”
In other words, a balancing act which requires a good level of self-knowledge while agreeing to abandon the traditional archetype of the warrior or superwoman – Zeus, Artemis, Hades, Athena – and be open to new possibilities... To become "rounder" said the psychiatrist Carl Jung, that is to say to become more complete, by reintegrating all the facets of our personality to be able to have the good attitude and the good style in each situation.
The crisis has accelerated the trend towards this compassionate management (simultaneously collaborative, visionary and balanced) in which the leader is in turn a guide who shows the way, a Pygmalion who inspires, and a trainer who develops each individual’s qualities for the collective good. A management that ultimately aims to develop the sense of belonging to a “family”, in order to win unanimous support.
Collaborative, “delegative”, visionary, compassionate… Yes, all of these are essential, but be careful to stay focused: “The idea is not to define a leadership model and try to make people conform to it,” emphasizes Valérie Gervais “The key to success is taking people as they are and making them flexible, more complete. You have to develop leaders who are balanced, who manage to draw on their inner resources to bring a more inspiring, caring and motivating energy to their work.”
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