Today’s world moves lightning fast. The 24-hour news cycle has diminished to the time it takes to refresh a website. Technology becomes obsolete the moment it comes out on the market. Fortunes are won and lost on Wall Street by one computer outjockeying another by nanoseconds.
But are our notions of leadership keeping up with the times? Or are we tethered to leadership theories that don’t serve the modern world?
Leadership studies can be traced back to the 1840s with the emergence of the Great Man Theory. Originated by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, this philosophy contends that leaders are born, not made.
We still see remnants of this thinking throughout business today, when executives are chosen by pedigree or title. That might include a company hiring a decorated and well-respected military official or government bigwig with no business acumen or emotional intelligence as the new chief security officer (CSO).
Early in the 20th century, the Trait Theory emerged. Trait Theory posits that people can become great leaders by improving skills typically found in leaders. Those characteristics include intelligence, self-confidence, initiative, persistence and so on.
Among the problems with this theory is that no one could agree on the specific leadership traits; other leadership factors are ignored; and no tests exist to measure these traits or how well they perform. Trait Theory in security today may take the form of identifying, grooming and coaching young professionals for leadership positions based on observing specific characteristics commonly associated with leadership.
In the 1970s, Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership theory gained currency. This theory says that no one single style of leadership is optimal; leadership must be adapted to both the people who need to be influenced and the task that needs to be accomplished.
Hersey and Blanchard viewed leadership as falling into one of four behavioral styles — delegating, participating, selling or telling. For all Situational Leadership’s advantages — flexibility chief among them — not all leaders can adapt in the way prescribed. In addition, shifting between leadership styles can confuse followers or reporting staff. In security, which is often compliance-based, Situational Leadership can come across as flaky or inconsistent.
Transactional Leadership, which gained popularity in the early 1980s, is a structured method for optimizing staff performance that relies on the carrot and stick approach to motivate employees. Leaders do not actively engage their staff; they intervene only when an issue arises.
Transactional Leadership may be found in security departments that are under pressure to reduce or minimize costs. Expected to achieve an ongoing sequence of short-term goals, these leaders set specific tasks for their staff and entice them with rewards.
Another method is Transformational Leadership, which emerged around the same time. With Transformational Leadership, leaders inspire their staff to collaborate toward a shared vision.
Servant Leadership stands traditional leadership on its head. With servant leadership, leaders serve those who report to them, ensuring that they develop, have necessary resources, feel empowered and otherwise thrive.
Although the theory hatched 50 years ago, Servant Leadership has truly blossomed since the turn of the millennium. Focusing on empathy and transparency, it remains one of the most prominent leadership approaches today. One of its most ardent practitioners and advocates is Mike Howard, the former CSO of Microsoft and author of “The Art of Ronin Leadership.”
This quick hopscotch through the history of leadership theory omits several other philosophies that have found favor, but they all overlap and coexist in many ways.
What’s clear is that there is no magic formula for security leadership — or any leadership for that matter. While the Great Man Theory might be considered archaic today, it’s a good thing that leadership principles don’t change at the speed of Google. Being a leader is a lifelong process.
As Mike Howard puts it in the first chapter of “The Art of Ronin Leadership,” “In the… journey to becoming a great strategic leader, I always like to say you must crawl, walk and then run.”
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