Are There Are Any Flaws In Today’s Hot Theories on Leadership?

What does it take to cultivate strong relationships with the folks that you find yourself leading or managing?

As I listen to the folks in HR, and those that talk leadership, it occurs to me that a specific style/approach is being advocated: be nice to folks, listen to them, don’t lose your calm, delegate/share power, make them feel they matter…  If this is the case then how is it that Steve Jobs is held up as one of the most effective business leaders of all time? Steve Jobs, at least what I know of him, was not the exemplar of this approach.

We can ignore anomalies, breakdowns/holes in our existing take on reality, or look into them, explore and learn. Today, lets take this breakdown to see what it might conceal. As it happens this was a matter that I was grappling with whilst I found myself incapacitated for 4-5 weeks. I’d like to share with you what showed up for me. I invite you to listen to the words of Douglas McGregor as spoken in his book The Human Side of Enterprise (bolding mine):

Many subtle behavioral manifestations of managerial attitude create what is often referred to as the psychological “climate” of the relationship. During childhood ….. each of us acquired a high level of skill in perceiving aspects of parental behavior which told us whether everything was “all right with the relationship. Even very small children are amazingly sensitive to quite unconscious manifestations of parental attitudes of acceptance or rejection...

Granted that the subordinate’s dependency is far less in the employment relationship, it remains materially true that his ability to achieve his goals is materially affected by the attitudes of his superiors….. The climate is more significant than the type of leadership or personal “style” of the superior. The boss can be autocratic or democratic, warm and outgoing or remote and introverted, easy or tough, but these personal characteristics are of less significance then the deeper attitudes to which his subordinates respond. 

What Do You Get When You Swear At, Drive, Discipline, Dictate At Those You Lead?

Let’s continue this conversation by listening to Douglas McGregor share an anomaly that he encountered at a manufacturing company (bolding mine):

The mechanical superintendent in a small manufacturing company was the prototype of the “bull in the woods” manager. He swore at his men, drove them, disciplined them, behaved superficially like a Napoleon. He was the despair of the staff group who were carrying on a program of supervisory training in human relations. Yet, oddly, his subordinates appeared to have high regard to him. They said, “Oh is bark is worse than his bite.” Morale and productivity in his department were both high.

Let’s stop here for a moment and reflect. Here we have a real life example that goes against the conventional wisdom of human-relations – at least the wisdom advocated by leadership gurus, and HR advisors/practitioners. What is going on? How is it that someone who swears, drives, acts like Napoleon calls forth high regard, morale and productivity from the very folks he is swearing at, driving and disciplining? I say we are back to Steve Jobs and the question that I posed at the start of this conversation.

Is Effective Leadership Limited to Creating a Deep and Satisfying Emotional Certainty of Free Treatment?

I invite you to listen some more to the words of Douglas McGregor (bolding mine):

Probing revealed some significant facts. He was known as a “square shooter” who dealt with his men with scrupulous fairness. Despite his superficial toughness he was sincerely and warmly interested in his subordinatesWhen they were in trouble – whether it was a simple matter of a few dollars to tide a man over until payday, or a family crisis – he helped out in matter-of-fact way that left no uncomfortable feeling of being patronised.

Most important of all, he was known to be ready to go to bat for his men on any occasion when he felt they had not been accorded a fair break by higher management. The men spoke with awe of two occasions during a ten-year period when he had stormed into the office of the big boss to demand that a decision be altered because it was unfair to “his boys.” When he was refused in one of these instances, he resigned on the spot, put on his hat, and left. His superior actually followed him out to the gate and capitulated.

Douglas McGregor concludes his take on this superintendent and his leadership/management style with the following words of wisdom:

His managerial attitude cuts across authoritarianism, permissiveness, paternalism, firmness and fairness, and all the other “styles” of management to create a deep and satisfying emotional certainty of fair treatment.

It occurs to me that Douglas McGregor’s take on leadership/management accounts may just account for the success of Steve Jobs as a leader/manager. From what I have read, Steve Jobs surrounded himself with A players: those that showed up as A’s were treated as As, those who did not were pushed out.

I Find Myself Disagreeing With Douglas McGregor. Why?

How is it that I find myself left uncomfortable and in disagreement with Douglas McGregor? I say that the ground upon which the exercise of human-centred leadership occurs is ‘care’: genuine care for the wellbeing of one’s ‘boys and girls’. Care is more than fair treatment. And is illustrated by this superintendent in two ways. First, when “his boys” were in troubles he helped out “in a matter of fact way that left no uncomfortable feelings”. Fair treatment in the workplace does not require one to lend money to the folks you are leading or help them out with family crises. Second, he resigned. Fair treatment would require that the superintendent go to bat for his boys – to make the case. It does not require one to resign. So how does this resignation show ‘care’? It occurs to me that it shows the other (usually hidden side) of care: care for one’s stand in relationship to what will and will not stand for. In his case, the Superintendent was not willing to stand for anything less than fair treatment for “his boys”. I bet that “his boys” were proud to be called “his boys”.

Note: this conversation is a modified version of the conversation published earlier at CustomerThink.com

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.