New Leadership Paradigm: The Real Difference Between Traditional and Progressive Models of Leadership

  • January 5, 2018

Have you ever had impossibly high expectations influence your performance at work? Have you been motivated by management techniques such as discipline, punishments, or threats? Or, perhaps worst of all, have you ever been micromanaged?

These are the tactics of a traditional leadership style—also known as directive or command-and-control leadership—which has roots in the industrial revolution. As author and organizational development expert Peter Block writes in his best-selling book Stewardship, this dated model enabled businesses to “hire, train, monitor, corral expertise, and deploy people best when [organizations had] a pool of homogenous resources to draw from.”

In these systems, Block says, consistency and control were achieved through coercion and dominance. Organizations were set up as pyramids in which power was distributed linearly from a small, select number of people at the top who controlled the majority of people positioned at the bottom. This top-down style of leadership was inherently hierarchical. Each leader was vested power and authority over those below them. These leaders often ruled with compulsion, force, control, secrecy, and—when necessary—physical, psychological, and/or economic violence. Thus, the tenets of traditional leadership as we know it were established.

Suffice it to say that times have changed. Technology has evolved beyond the industrial era, and with it, our ideas about leadership, progress, and productivity. Unfortunately, much of the business world is still stuck in the past. Decades ago, management expert Peter Drucker showed us why organizations need to manage knowledge workers differently, but many of today’s leaders still rely on the same outdated techniques from the industrial revolution.

The good news? There’s a better way to lead, even if it’s been slow to catch on. Here at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, we call it the “new paradigm of leadership,” and it’s a theme that has been core to our mission since our founding in 1992.

Alternatives to Traditional Leadership: The New Leadership Paradigm

So what exactly is the alternative to the traditional command-and-control style leadership? In essence, it is a leadership style that values sharing, collaboration, and service over the old values of exclusion, control, and self-interest. For example, stewardship, as defined by Block, is a progressive leadership style that fits into the new paradigm, because it is “the choice to preside over the orderly distribution of power.” In this context, it means giving individuals at the bottom of an organization a choice in how to serve a customer, a citizen, and a community.

Below, based largely on Block’s vision in Stewardship, we expand on several key differences between traditional and progressive models of leadership.

Class Systems vs. Egalitarian Structures

Progressive leadership models often seek to abolish class systems common to traditional leadership models. This means that everyone, regardless of rank or position, is subject to the same rules of behavior, processes for getting things done, and reward systems. Contrast this with a traditional model based on a class system: Groups at the top are generally given vast advantages over other groups, with executives rewarded as much as possible and everyone else rewarded as little as possible.

An egalitarian structure opens the door to creating non-hierarchical organizations in which leadership is dispersed among all staff, not concentrated in a small number of people at the top.

Information Restricted vs. Information Shared

In the old models of leadership, information is restricted and passed down to those who “need to know.” Maintaining progressive models of leadership can be difficult in sticky situations, even in organizations with progressive leadership. Leaders may hesitate to share sensitive information with all staff members. For example, Block references the difficulty of openly discussing the reorganization or termination of a project or the reduction of staff.

“These sorts of actions destabilize our lives and create unanswerable anxiety,” he writes. But stewardship means telling employees about cutbacks, reorganizations, and the details of projects as soon as possible so they can make informed decisions about their life. “People who are owners and responsible for the unit need to be part of these tough dialogues and learn to live with the anxiety that goes with them,” writes Block

Employees are often left in the dark about how their company is doing. To create a progressive culture that’s marked by transparency, Block suggests promoting business literacy—that is, understanding the essential indicators of how a business is doing.

The point: Hoarding essential information provides a layer of protection for top leadership against the proverbial lower level of the traditional pyramid. But this protection is unnecessary. “Customer, financial, and work-process responsibility is essential to everybody’s job,” writes Block. “Anyone who does not want to learn these things cares little for the well-being of the larger organization.” By sharing information with employees, progressive leaders empower everyone and increase collaboration.

Open information also ensures that ideas flow more freely across all levels of an organization. Great ideas that may have gotten stuck at the bottom are now more likely to flourish out in the open.

Profit and Self-Interest vs. Purpose and Service

In traditional models, leaders are driven by self-interest in order to maximize their own power, make money, generate profit, and achieve a prominent status. And, as Block argues, many organizations’ current attitudes toward money are “healthy remnants” of direct command-and-control systems.

In the new leadership paradigm, leaders are motivated by improving the well-being of people and communities in ways that have lasting, intrinsic value. In short, they put service to the organization or community ahead of self-interest. This means that profit becomes a secondary motivation to meaning or purpose. This isn’t just a value held highly by millennial workers, either. As studies have shown, baby boomers and Gen Xers are not exempt from being purpose-driven. In fact, the drive for purpose actually increases as we age and gain more experience.

Ultimately, the new leadership paradigm is driven by concepts such as service, kindness, and transparency. Although these concepts may be deemed “soft approaches,” there is evidence that progressive leadership philosophies drive results. In fact, according to one employee engagement survey, management transparency is the No. 1 factor contributing to employee happiness. In that same survey, team play and collaboration—concepts that are rooted in purpose-driven leadership—ranked as the top traits that employees love about their peers. Another survey found that employee trust greatly impacts engagement, workplace happiness, work quality, and employee retention.

With the rise of consumers interested in the public good, we need to examine our long-held beliefs as to why a company exists. “You want a story that inspires employees, excites partners, attracts customers, and engages influencers,” the Harvard Business Review writes. What companies need is a compelling narrative. A narrative that fleshes out the world that we want to create together.

Progressive leadership starts this conversation. And it offers a clear alternative to traditional, command-and-control models that have dominated the conversation for so long.

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