Leadership permeates our lives. Good leadership has the ability to uplift, just as poor leadership corrodes. We will consider the effects in terms of team makeup, team perspective, and team health.
Note: This is part of a series sharing my thoughts on leadership. Read the introduction here.
In this final article of my series on leadership, I want to tie everything together. So far, I have written about the importance of trust, a leader’s role to protect and provide which both require high trust, and the three stages of leadership, the highest of which, servant leader, is the only that actually fulfills the roles completely. I want to conclude with the consequences of all of this.
As I constantly try and help my seven young children understand, we are free to make our own choices, but we do not get to choose the consequences of those choices. Therefore, it is vitally important that we understand the natural results of different courses of action so that we have the ability to influence them.
There are a number of different effects of leadership that we could consider in evaluating the impacts of the stages of leadership. As a quick review of my last article, those stages are as follows:
- Cruel tyrant. Punishes bad behavior.
- Benevolent dictator. Rewards good behavior.
- Servant leader. Unblocks and trusts.
I will explore just a few of the possible effects: team makeup, team perspective, and team health.
On a team that is led by a cruel tyrant, people are not focused on achieving together. They are just worried about their own necks. This type of leader creates a team comprised of scared, resentful individuals. The potential output of this team vastly exceeds their reality because most of their time and energy is being spent trying to ensure survival.
With a benevolent dictator, the overall tenor improves. People on the team are not operating as much out of fear. This leader creates a team of happy, complacent individuals. They have been robbed of their intrinsic motivation for their work, and now respond mainly to external motivators—rewards. The quality of their work usually falls to whatever level is required in order to be recognized, or to stand above their peers. Much of their time and energy is spent seeking advantage over others.
A servant leader creates a completely different kind of team. Instead of disparate individuals, a sense of esprit de corps prevails. This leader fosters a united, driven team. Because the efforts and energy of these people are dedicated to their common objective, much more is typically accomplished. Members of the team feel a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves, and they are willing to make personal sacrifices to ensure the success of the group.
A cruel tyrant views other people, especially those on their team, as disposable. The people themselves don’t matter—as long as they don’t create problems, they are largely ignored. In the parlance of Arbinger Institute, these leaders see others as objects, and more specifically, as irrelevancies.
This has a dramatic effect on the members of the teams led by cruel tyrant. Because they are living and working in fear, other people on the team or in the organization are enemies. Each one is a possible informant; someone watching for the slightest mistake in order to report and thus avoid personal punishment.
Benevolent dictators have a similar, but slightly different view of others. The people still don’t matter, but the results do. Others are viewed as potential output. Again, in the Arbinger Institute language, other people are objects, specifically vehicles. The leader may be nice, and even act caring, but all in the service of achieving the desired results.
On teams with a benevolent dictator as the leader, people see each other as competitors. One person’s success means another person’s lost opportunity, so team members are constantly looking to one-up each other. They similarly see others as objects, in the Arbinger Institute sense, but now as blockers.
With a servant leader, all of the insecurities are removed. This doesn’t mean those leaders and those teams are perfect. But they all see each other as people. No one matters more, or less, than anyone else. This allows them to work together in a united way to accomplish whatever outcomes they have prioritized. As mistakes arise, people are understanding and forgiving of others, even when those mistakes are a failure to be understanding and forgiving. This is not only a nicer environment in which to work, but also the most logical and rational approach to business, and to life.
There are three areas in which the health of a team is affected by the leadership stage at work. If you think of the stages as a progression, these areas are all positively correlated, meaning that each increases with the stages. These are: psychological safety, conflict, and sustainability.
As the leader moves from the cruel tyrant to the benevolent dictator to the servant leader, the prevailing emotions change on a team. They go from fear and distrust to hope and greed to love and trust. As these emotions become more positive, the environment in which people live and work becomes safer. With that increase in safety, the emotional temperature changes. People are more free to speak their mind. Their thoughts are seen as valuable, and considered without prejudice. Creativity flows more naturally because the mental energy the team is expending focuses on the work instead of personal protection.
All of us face challenges and stresses to our mental health. When work is a place of high stress, we become less able to cope with the normal ups and downs of life. But when our professional life is rewarding as well as safe, we can develop greater reserves with which to meet the challenges that we will inevitably face.
Some people are surprised to learn that healthier teams often fight more. Now, the word “fight” may not be the perfect term to capture exactly what is happening, but it is often how the situation looks to anyone on the outside. Having a healthier environment means that there is more opportunity for differing opinions to be shared and discussed productively. In my experience, people often get extremely passionate about the projects they are building, and the way in which they are built. Some of the best, and most productive conversations I have been part of were scarcely indistinguishable from heated arguments. The key is that the passion and emotion is directed at solving problems together, and not directed in animosity at other people.
This kind of conflict that exists on healthy team is sometimes hard to distinguish from a toxic environment. But there is a huge difference. It does not necessarily mean that members of the team want to hang out together outside of work hours. One of the key indicators is the level of respect that people have for each other. When respect is high, people are more able to bring all of themselves to a situation or a problem, and feel free to point out shortcomings that they see in the solutions being discussed.
One of the reasons that I bring this up and feel so strongly about it is that I have seen many leaders become so conflict-averse that they quell any disagreement out of fear that it could lead to an argument. Whether these leaders realize it or not, they are acting as dictators or even tyrants. They need to be more comfortable themselves with the knowledge that they will not always have the best ideas or solutions, and that the only way to maximize the ability of their team is to foster everyone contributing as much as they are able.
I want to make one final point that feels intuitive to many of us, but also has a strong business or financial component. When people feel comfortable and respected, they are likely to do more and to do it better. They are also likely to want to keep doing it. These are the teams that are the longest lasting, as well as being the most productive.
As leaders, we are often seeking ways to unblock our teams, or to enable greater efficiency and greater productivity. The simplest answer is sometimes the easiest to overlook. The best thing we can do is not to set up extra programs or incentives or gamify work. Instead it is to become genuinely interested in the people that we lead and find ways to help them flourish and grow. Our job is to create an environment in which people can truly thrive, and then work carefully to maintain and enhance that.
When I wrote my series on what mental illness feels like last year, I commented that it was my best writing so far. I meant that in the context that it was the most impactful and meaningful writing I had done, not necessarily that it exhibited any special skill of mine as a writer.
I feel similarly about this series on leadership. These concepts are some of the most important to me. They have been floating around in my mind for a long time, and it was extremely helpful to be asked to present on them and to be forced to take some time to crystallize them. I feel so strongly about the importance of good leadership, and I have ideas and thoughts about what that means that are ultra-specific to a degree not surprising to anyone who knows me.
My sincere hope is that something in this series has been helpful for you. But my primary audience for this is future me. I know that I will need a reminder of these principles that burn so brightly in me right now. Time and life have a way of dulling us, and if we are not intentional, we can lose some of the things that matter most to us now through neglect. Here’s to better leaders everywhere!