Louise Garrivier, Jules Devaulx de Chambord, Jérémy Plantier
After our studies, we are all destined to work in companies or build new ones. Some of us will even become managers and will have to rely, more than any other employee, on his colleagues to reach goals. The responsibilities are, thereby, high and being able to inspire a team is one of the qualities that are necessary to be a leader. But actually, are we born to be a leader or do we learn how to behave in such a way?
The leadership has been at heart of debates for decades and even centuries. Before the 19th century, particularly around the 1840s, the theory of the Great Man was admitted: some people in the world were born to be leaders because they had a unique set of characteristics which made them innate leaders (Benmira, Agboola, 2021). Jesus, Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte were considered as Great Men. But a century later, researchers acknowledge that behavior was more suitable to define, instead of innate characteristics: the behavioral theory, whose authors consider that leaders learned to lead and were not leaders from their birth, was born, still according to the mentioned article.
Little by little, it has been discovered that the surrounding environment and external factors have an influence over how people are managed. A leader would not have the same response towards a situation that is expected for a while, compared to an emergency situation. The latter one is happening more and more because the environment changed: the characteristics of the economic environment have been summarized under the acronym VUCA, standing for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
While “Volatility” means that the current environment is quickly changing, it is also uncertain as companies don’t have an influence over all the different aspects of the situation. The environment is then complex, especially culturally-speaking as companies become bigger with an increasing multicultural workforce, and it is also ambiguous as putting theory into practice might bring different results from what was expected (Bennett , James Lemoine, 2014).
Due to the evolution of the environment, leaders needed to adjust the way they lead and their characteristics changed to take into account a different environment affected by various transformations such as the emergence of the Internet. How leaders evolved from the past to nowadays? This paper addresses the developments in leadership over the years to point out the changes generated by leaders during the last centuries.
The leaders of Yesterday
A good leader in any platform forms the pillar of growth and success (Mehra, 2017). But, the definition of leader has evolved to a great extent with the current states of globalization, corporate advancements and the podiums of networking etc. Indeed, being a leader today can mean many things. In short, let’s focus on what a leader was yesterday and what they represented. In fact, the situation in which yesterday’s leaders were able to operate is quite different from today’s, i.e. a completely different way of operating and different skills needed to be mastered by these leaders.
Quite the skills used in previous centuries are for example a strong authority in a system based on the importance of maintaining a hierarchy. Furthermore a leader used to spend his whole life in the same organization depicting his dedication and loyalty which meant that he did not need to adapt to different environments or teams as there was much less turnover than today.
Over the course of history, our planet has seen the birth of many leaders. Over the years the style of leadership has changed a lot. To illustrate this I will use one of the great leaders of yesterday called Henry Ford. He is typical of 19th century leaders. In fact, at that time, leaders were mainly white men in their fifties. The type of management they used was very much based on a strong balance of power between managers and workers. He created his own management style, Fordism.
Fordism refers to a method of production management. It is both a method of organization and management of the workforce. Indeed, it consists of dividing work by separating design from production, sequencing tasks, and using an assembly line. All this comes down to assembly line work, standardizing parts and products, which has the advantage of producing large series.
Of course, Henry Ford is one of the men who revolutionized the world of work and is one of the great leaders of his time, he helped create the image of the American dream. Unfortunately the style of governance is no longer adapted to the current situation. It is clear that his ideas revolutionized the automotive world and industry in general at a time when, particularly in the United States, fortunes were just waiting to be made.
This example allowed us to highlight the management and the type of leader in the past. Thanks to the second part, we will realize that these methods have particularly evolved
The leaders of today
The business world is constantly changing. Companies have to face the evolutions and the expectations of society. Lately, for example, Covid-19 has particularly disrupted the world of work, especially with the generalization of telecommuting. A reorganization that has pushed leaders to change their way of managing. We will see in this section which factors have contributed to the emergence of today’s leaders.
The present seems to be marked by the development of the Internet and more generally of new technologies: we talk about a digital revolution. Enterprisers project (Enterprisers project, 2016) defines digital transformation as the integration of digital technology in all areas of a company, which leads to fundamental changes in the way companies operate and in the way they provide value to customers. The integration of IT tools and information systems within companies has therefore considerably changed the working environment but also the role of leaders.
In parallel, the decision-making process seems to have evolved. In the past, decision making was very centralized and hierarchical. Today, decision-making is localized and distributed. With the insertion of new information and communication technologies, decision-makers are spread out over different territories and organizations. Communication, consultation and delegation therefore seem to be in force to obtain a quick and concrete decision. Digital and virtual communications allow this.
It is also important to note that the hierarchical aspect of management seems to be fading. Indeed, today, the role of the leader is to federate a team and to motivate it. According to Mark Moses, (Moses, 2019), employee motivation is one of the driving forces behind the growth of a company. To develop this, the leader must first of all understand the strengths and assets of each employee in order to use them to the benefit of the team’s success. It is therefore essential to know and recognize each employee as an individual and not as a number or an objective. Recognition plays a key role in the well-being of employees and consequently in their motivation.
In addition, a strong emphasis seems to be placed on the well-being of employees. Moreover, the term Corporate Social Responsibility is becoming more and more the norm. Today’s leader must therefore take this factor into account. The leader must then implement a benevolent management. It consists of setting achievable objectives for employees and valuing their investment in their tasks. The benevolent manager also knows how to create a climate of trust that stimulates the work of employees.
In this social approach, today’s leader must promote inclusion. His or her role is to involve and value individuals who are different in terms of their background, origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, physical or mental condition in the same work environment. Inclusion must be recognized as a strength for the leader and the entire team.
Finally, it appears that today, all organizations are subject to a significant pace of change that management (institutional, strategic and operational) must be able to control effectively. A set of changes that contribute to the emergence of today’s leader.
Through decades, the leadership has changed dramatically and is still evolving through the apparition of new theories. Before the 21st century, leaders were mostly focused on the productivity of their workers. Efficiency was the key word at that time and well-being was only considered if it could increase the number of products leaving the factory at the end of the day or the month. Leaders were like a father, imposing his views and looking for loyal partners to work on the long run.
However, nowadays, the pyramidal organization of companies is endangered. Leaders want to inspire their employees and consider them as humans, not factors to raise profits. Their well-being is now at the heart of companies’ strategy and they collaborate actively with their leaders by communicating and debating. This is easily facilitated by the systematic usage of IT, especially during the Covid-19 crisis, which helped leaders to build closer relationships with their employees.
Nonetheless, IT will have further developments in the future: the generalization of robots on the manufacturing lines and even beyond. Robots can be helpful because they can reduce the number of employees in a company by doing exhausting tasks instead of humans so the well-being of employees is higher. But how will leaders interact with robots as partners? Will they even be considered as leaders at this point?
Benmira S, Agboola M (2020). Evolution of leadership theory. BMJ Leader 2021;5:3-5. Article from BMJ Journals. [Accessed 22 April 2022] https://bmjleader.bmj.com/content/leader/5/1/3.full.pdf
Bennett N, James Lemoine G (2014). What VUCA Really Means for You. Article from Harvard Business Review. [Accessed 22 April 2022]. https://hbr.org/2014/01/what-vuca-really-means-for-you
Enterprisers Project (2016), “What is digital transformation?”, Article from Enterprisers project. [Accessed 24 April 2022]. https://enterprisersproject.com/what-is-digital-transformation
Moses M (2019), “The Top 10 Leadership Challenges” ,Article from CEO Coaching. [Accessed 24 April 2022]. https://ceocoachinginternational.com/problems-with-leadership/
Reckman N (2022), “What Is Corporate Social Responsibility?”, Article from Business News Daily. [Accessed 24 April 2022]. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/4679-corporate-social-responsibility.html
Mehra S (2017), “Leaders of yesterday VS leaders of tomorrow”, Article from LinkedIn article. [Accessed 25 April 2022]. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/leaders-yesterday-vs-tomorrow-sunit-mehra
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