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Is Leadership a series of actions or a process? and, by the way, who is the Leader? Leadership in the Knowledge era (Part I)

Leadership models of the last century have been products of top-down, bureaucratic paradigms; suitable for an economy built on mass production aiming at satisfying mass consumption but not adequate for an economy dependent on innovation that seeks to deliver intangible offerings to customers on demand. Innovation is sourced in the intellect; in the force of existent knowledge to create more knowledge and use it differently and the capacity of imagination to envision a product or a service that does not exist.

The Industrial era started with the First Industrial Revolution in the 1760s when human muscle was replaced with iron machine and continued with the Second Industrial Revolution in 1890s when the railroad, the telegraph and electricity opened the way to modern-style mass production and urbanization. It led to the Third Industrial Revolution (IT automated production and Internet as Platform) in the 1980s and the Fourth which is built on but is distinct from the Third in the 2010s. Κlaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF, calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution “the age of global connections that have the power to transform entire systems of production, management and governance” (1).

The evolution described above has brought a shift in the organizational model of management as well as in the leadership qualities required. The first two industrial revolutions focused on a form of organizing that generated economies of scale aimed at servicing and expanding mass markets and mass consumption. Organizations were seen as“brick” constructs. Taylor’s principles of scientific management linked with Weber’s bureaucratic hierarchy of authority and accountability generated the efficiencies consistent with views of the organization-as-machine (2). Working meant compliance with supervisory directives, conformity to job descriptions, organizational rules, and imposed standards.

Leadership, within this schema, was approached as stable (predictable, consistent across settings), detached (as if reality was “out there” and not “right here”) and singular (the influential act of an individual or individuals on their followers). At the beginning, it involved the application of proven solutions to known problems by a knowledgeable leader (an expert). With time it raised to an elevated and romanticized position of the leader as a “hero”; a charismatic individual, who is possessing a unique blend of traits, skills and competencies that enables them to function at their highest potential independent of their psychological state or of environmental conditions and complexities (3).

Within this context, the (positional) leader has been given a central place in improving action processes, organizational performance and adaptation through enforcing principles, motivating employees and communicating future goals and visions to strive for (4). Part of this development was that the psychological contract between the organization and the employees shifted from inducement-contribution exchange to institutional values. Whereas in the past the inducements were mainly wages and benefits, now the inducement expanded to offer a sense of belonging. Assimilation to the organizational values and belief system led to membership to the “organizational family”. Another point of interest in this traditional leadership approach was the implicit dependency between leader as a powerful subject and follower as a passive object. Followers were assumed to remain in a followership state to a leader who was assumed to know more than their followers and whose role was to provide continual motivation. Accordingly, the quality of the relationship between the leader and the followers was functional and instrumental and not interactional. The philosopher Martin Buber distinguishes these two different kinds of relationships as the “I-it” secondary relationship (the other is an object; a thing among things) which contrasts with the “I-thou” primary relationship (the other is a presence). The "I-it" is functional and instrumental as in “what I can do for you in exchange for what you can do for me” whereas the “I-thou” implies interaction as in “I am through interaction with You” (6).

Since the Third Industrial Revolution the focus has shifted on maximizing individualized customer service by improving the ability of organizations to deliver intangible offerings to customers on demand. Unavoidably, knowledge has become a core commodity and the rapid production of knowledge and innovation critical to organizational survival (7). Despite the shift, manager-subordinate authority relations have continued to govern members of the organization. Much of the leadership thinking has failed to recognize that leadership is embedded in a complex interplay of numerous interacting forces(8).

Having stepped into the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace we advance deeper in the knowledge economy. This blog's questions: "Is Leadership a series of actions or a process? and, by the way, who is the Leader?” take centre stage.

I will continue their exploration in my next blog.

Stay tuned!

1. Schwab, K. (2015). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. SNAPSHOT (Dec 12, 2015)

2.1 Lee, M. Y., & Edmondson, A. C. (2017). Self-managing organizations: Exploring the limits of less-hierarchical organizing. Research in organizational behavior, 37, 35-58.

2.2 Pfeffer, J. (2013). You're still the same: Why theories of power hold over time and across contexts. Academy of Management Perspectives, 27(4), 269-280.

2.3 Weber, M. (1946). Politics as a Vocation” and “Bureaucracy.” Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Ed. HH Gerth and C. Wright Mills. NY: Oxford University Press.

3.1 Endres, S., & Weibler, J. (2017). Towards a Three‐Component Model of Relational Social Constructionist Leadership: A Systematic Review and Critical Interpretive Synthesis. International Journal of Management Reviews, 19(2), 214-236.

3.2 Meindl, J. R., Ehrlich, S. B., & Dukerich, J. M. (1985). The romance of leadership. Administrative science quarterly, 78-102.

3.3 Petriglieri, J. L. (2015). Co-creating relationship repair: Pathways to reconstructing destabilized organizational identification. Administrative Science Quarterly, 60(3), 518-557.

4. Day, D. V. (2000). Leadership development: A review in context. The Leadership Quarterly, 11(4), 581-613.

5. Pearce, C. L., & Conger, J. A. (2002). Shared leadership: Reframing the hows and whys of leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

6. Raelin, J. A. (2016). Imagine there are no leaders: Reframing leadership as collaborative agency. Leadership, 12(2), 131-158.

7. Buber, M., & SMITH, R. G. (1937). Ich und Du. I and Thou... Translated by Ronald Gregor Smith. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark

8. Boisot, M. H. (1998). Knowledge assets: Securing competitive advantage in the information economy. Oxford:OUP

9. Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The leadership quarterly, 18(4), 298-318.

Eleftheria Egel