Sort of a lonely job

23 January 2023
6 min read
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We need less solitary and more effective leadership

The crisis of leadership

There is a lot of talk these days about the tarnishing of leaders of big tech companies - from Bezos's space travel to Zuckerberg's difficulties to the psychodrama Musk has brought into Twitter. Passing through Reed Hastings leaving his position as Netflix Co-CEO and ending - at least in part - the leadership that built a brand capable of revolutionizing several industries, changing the lives of millions, and introducing an incredibly innovative model of managing organizations. 

Paul Worthington wrote that Musk's recent behavior has cost Tesla a sort of "asshole tax." But if his attitude as Twitter's new father-master is a symptom of at least an altered idea of leadership, analyses of what happened within the platform have revealed that the previous leadership was also anything but healthy: absent, evanescent, and the cause of latent problems and contradictions that Musk's operation has set off. 

At this point, one wonders whether in addition to the specific problems of individual sectors, there is also a more general problem concerning the very idea of leadership

From the how to the why 

The problem of leadership is as old as the attempts to solve it, through principles, decalogues, manuals or theories. From Machiavelli's The Prince to the management theories that have proliferated over the past 100 years, the problem of command, decision-making and leadership continually returns in reflections on society and the economy. 

In recent decades, the leadership discourse has become a kind of refrain, and also an editorial and commodity genre.  

Trait theory, Style theory, Contingency theory, psychological and behavioral approaches: different names for things that look alike, distinctions that generate more confusion than clarity, labels, methods, books, gurus on the fast rise and even faster fall. A cloud of words, more and more ideas about how and less and less awareness that to effectively lead an organization you first need to know why, and where you want to lead it. 

We do not want to add another useless theory to the storehouse of useless theories, but merely observe how leaders have behaved so far and see whether, in their way of organizing priorities, in unraveling what to do, how to do it, and in what order, there may be the cause of the current leadership distress.  

The leadership pattern

Over the past hundred years, leaders have set their priorities in a specific pattern:

  1. The main goal is to make the organization grow and increase profits;
  2. In order to do this, we need to work on the business, by inventing new products and services, finding more efficient ways of production, distributing, selling and communicating better;
  3. Once the project is defined, the right people to execute it must be found.

Today, this pattern has at least a couple of critical issues: on the one hand, it isolates leaders, placing the entire burden of an organization's growth and - especially - innovation on their shoulders, which becomes unsustainable above a certain scale. On the other hand, it does not take into account the enormous difficulty of being surrounding by talented people - finding them, convincing them to work for us, motivating them to stay long enough to complete the projects we have defined.

This model somehow jammed how leadership works, by bounding it too much to hierarchies and decision-making chains. More importantly, it has made organizations less capable of bringing in valuable people, regardless of an already established plan. People who could innovate, do things differently, do unexpected things, disobey and introduce new points of view. 

Lastly, this is a model that squeezes the leader in all aspects - psychological, emotional, physical. And in the end, it leaves them isolated and exposed to the risks of self-centeredness. As Tim Cook said in a lengthy interview in 2016 talking about his role as Apple’s CEO: It’s sort of a lonely job.

Reversing the pattern

To try to imagine what the leadership of the future might look like, we should reverse the order of the points in the pattern we drew above. The relationship between priorities changes, and so does the kind of leadership that can be put into place. The leaders of the future will have to:

  1. Surround themselves with talented people and motivate them;
  2. Let these people work on the business: inventing new products and services, finding more efficient ways of production, distributing, selling and communicating better;
  3. Watch the organization grow and increase its profits.

This is a pattern more in line with our nature as social beings. Regardless of what we want to accomplish - build a business or cultural organization, advocate a social cause or create a movement that changes people's habits - we cannot do it alone. The people around us help us define our success and have the potential to change the course of our lives.

If we embrace this vision, we have only to ask ourselves how to motivate people to join us. This is the one, true mission of the leaders of the future.

The leaders of the future

The leaders of the future lead primarily by showing purpose to the people around them. 

They are the ambassadors of collective motivation, which goes beyond our individual aspirations to unite us all around one shared desire. A leader not only defines and conveys the purpose, they also embody it, live it personally. If our organization exists for a specific purpose, that purpose must shine through in the lives of its leaders: in their choices, their behavior, their words, their actions.

Leaders guide people by making sure they are free and responsible in the performance of their work. There are too many people who think that leading an organization is like guarding a flock of sheep that only responds to elementary stimuli such as rewards and punishments. These people can indeed only be leaders of a flock of sheep.

Instead, those who want to lead the organizations of the future, need to figure out how to keep the right people close, motivate them around a purpose, and let them do it: try, fail, learn, grow, and even take the place that today is the leader's.

It is not about influencing others to behave in a certain way. Nor is it just a matter of surrendering part of their power to enable people to become "entrepreneurs of themselves." Rather, it means facilitating connections that enable people's full realization through work. And above all, to show themselves and others that the purpose is not the preservation of the organization, its growth, its expansion. The purpose lies in what you want to accomplish, and the belief that it is something useful and important. 
The leader of the future builds better enterprises as part of a larger project, in which people have the opportunity to become better, and thus society becomes better, for everyone.

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