The Evolution of Leadership

It’s impossible to really understand what things were like a generation ago. We apply our perspective from today and come up with a distorted version of the past. We can’t imagine how leadership worked at the turn of the last century, with authoritative leaders creating a group of employees only slightly removed from slavery. We look at a new generation of workers and wonder why they behave differently than us when we were starting our careers – and fail to recognize that this is both true and untrue at the same time.

It’s time we hopped a ride in the way-back machine to get a better picture of what things used to be like, so we can understand the changes that are happening – and what it means to us.

Safety and Fear

The common thread that we’ll find as we walk through the changes in society, and therefore leadership, is the prevalence of safety and its relationship to fear, both physical and psychological. Human behavior is shaped by fear and safety in large and small ways. When looking from the leadership lens we see that we need to lead in ways that are more aspirational and less authoritarian. Why is that case? As it turns out, there’s a reason that drives this change in leadership styles.

Physical Safety

Our ancestors primarily considered their physical safety. Given their mortality and the struggle for water, food, and shelter, they didn’t have much room to consider how they felt. The introduction of “the pursuit of happiness” to the Declaration of Independence was, at the time, a foreign concept. Most people were locked in the struggle for mere survival, and happiness wasn’t a concept that was worthy of consideration for all but a select few.

The driver when it came to safety was our physical well-being and the well-being of our families – because they were a part of our safety net.

Driving Safety

It’s 1926, and Route 66 is becoming the experience of a lifetime for many travelers. It’s a call to adventure and an opportunity to explore the country in ways that hadn’t been possible before. The road was a continuous stretch from Chicago to California – but it was just that: a stretch. Automobiles had been made practical through Ford’s innovations of mass production, and since 1908, they were an affordable way to travel. Ironically, Ford shut down manufacture of the Model T shortly after Route 66 was completed. (Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Model_T.)

Reliability of the automobile isn’t what it is today. The first Indianapolis 500 in 1911 wasn’t initially a race as much as it was an endurance test. Getting automobiles that could travel 500 miles without breaking down was a challenge. Sure, there was a winner, and the goal was to cross the line with the highest average speed; but of the initial field of 40 cars, only 12 finished. Another 14 still had engines running, but flagged out when they were disqualified – the remaining 14 cars weren’t functional by the end of the race. (Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1911_Indianapolis_500.)

These were the top automobiles of their time, and fewer than a third finished 500 miles. Route 66 was roughly 2,500 miles. Breakdown wasn’t so much of a possibility as a probability. If you did break down, you had a toolbox on board to try to resolve the problems yourself, because, in this world, there weren’t cell phones, and the service stations weren’t close together. You’d also expect to have food and a tent in case you needed to camp out along the route. (Source https://www.historic66.com/.)

It is difficult for us to conceive of a time when traveling was so hazardous and error-prone. Today, we punch in an address in our GPS receiver and wait for turn-by-turn directions to our location. Just a generation ago, we taught map skills to children because it was important to understand how to route ourselves. We expect that cellular signals will reach mobile phones so that, even in the rare case of a problem with our car, we can call someone to help us with a repair, a meal, a room, or directions.

We feel safer in many different directions. We believe that problems happen much less frequently, with lower severity, and we believe that we’re able to recover more rapidly. Few of us keep stable food in our cars today, much less camping equipment or tools in case we need to plan on camping out or repairing the car ourselves.

Food Costs

The truth is that we were able to take risks like traveling the “mother road” of Route 66, because our discretionary income was increasing. Sure, the 1930s were marred by the Great Depression, but there were other factors that were moving towards greater affluence. Consider that, in 1900, the average American family spent approximately 40% of their income on food. By 1950, that number was down to 30%. Today, our cost for food is less than 15% of our income (on average). (Source: https://www.bls.gov/opub/100-years-of-u-s-consumer-spending.pdf.) In the space of 100 years, we freed up 25% of our income.

Reducing the cost of food means that fewer people were at risk of starvation. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still families struggling today to keep enough food available, but the number of families for which this is a problem is substantially lower than it was a century ago. The problem of food safety (enough food) is still an important social issue, but the prevalence of families for whom this is a consistent struggle is decreasing.

House Sizes

Many families took their new-found discretionary income and poured it into their houses. In 1950, the average home size was less than 1,000 feet. By 1973, the size ballooned to about 1,500 square feet. (Source: https://www.daveramsey.com/blog/housing-trends.) From 1973 to 2015, the average size of homes ballooned another 1,000 feet, while the number of people living in each home went down. The net effect was a near doubling of space per person in the space of about 40 years. (Source: http://www.aei.org/publication/new-us-homes-today-are-1000-square-feet-larger-than-in-1973-and-living-space-per-person-has-nearly-doubled/.)

The perceived financial safety transferred to Americans making larger investments in their houses. In 1950, the average house price was $7,354. The average home price today is $236,400. Even adjusted for inflation, the cost of a 1950s home would only be $44,600. That’s nearly a 5-fold increase in the last 70 years. We’re feeling safer about our financial futures and we’re turning homes into castles – almost literally.

Mortality

It may be frustrating to not get to our destination, but it’s more challenging to realize that we’re not going to live to see our grandchildren. In the 1800s, the average life expectancy was 35 years. Today, the life expectancy is around 70 years. In the last 200 years, we’ve doubled the life expectancy of humans across the planet. (Source: https://slides.ourworldindata.org/global-health/#/title-slide.) Measured differently, in 1900, about 2,500 people of every 100,000 would perish each year. Today, that number is approximately 750 people – roughly one-quarter. (Source: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data-visualization/mortality-trends/index.htm.) Our fear of death is real – but it is waning because we know that the average lifespan keeps climbing.

Instead of a persistent fear of death and injury, we’ve quelled our hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.

Hyperactive Fear

The landmark study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) taught us that a tumultuous childhood has long-range impacts. (See a wealth of resources about the ACE study at https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/index.html.) The primary stress response system is the HPA, and activating it too much causes a predisposition of continued activation. That is, once you create a high degree of fear in a child (or an adult), you’re likely to see them be sensitive to fear in the future. They’ll respond with fear more readily than someone who hasn’t been similarly primed. (See How Children Succeed for more on the impact of the ACE study on children.) It turns out that the clock winds back even into the womb, as David Barker discovered in his research around the fetal origins of adult disease (FOAD). Some adult diseases can be predicted based on the stressors to the mother during pregnancy. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more on ACE, HPA, and FOAD.)

In short, the impacts of stress on children – even before they’re born – have long-term consequences for their ability to control themselves and their long-term health. Walter Mischel and his colleagues showed that the ability to delay gratification has substantial long-term impacts for a child’s life through their “marshmallow test.” (See The Marshmallow Test.) When we reduce the fear that children feel and the stresses placed on them in utero, we can place them in a position of being more able to regulate their own emotions and quiet their fears and desires. As the societal stressors are reduced one by one, we’re literally changing the wiring of our brains and making them more thoughtful and less fear-based.

Psychological Safety

Amy Edmonson is responsible for crystalizing the term “psychological safety” as a representation of how safe members of a team feel about the team itself. In some teams, there is a real belief that they can be themselves – their whole selves – and in other teams there exists a perception that you must only do what is expected of you, and you shouldn’t share your all.

Bodies and Minds

It used to be that people hired the bodies, and the minds were just along for the ride. However, with today’s more taxing requirements for creativity and innovation, it could be said that we hire the minds, and it’s just the body that transports the mind to work – even if that’s just across the hall to the home office.

It’s hard to understand that, before the extreme automation that we’ve developed today, we really did need people performing backbreaking work. It was necessary for people to do many of the jobs that today are handled by robots or other kinds of automation. Today, not everyone even sweeps their floors any longer. A robotic vacuum does scheduled cleanings, makes a map of the places it’s cleaned, and notifies you when it needs its bin emptied or if it’s gotten stuck. It’s no surprise then that the physical aspects of work are no longer key. Today when we lead, we need to do more than just command other people’s bodies where to be. We must inspire them to think in ways that are useful.

Put Out the Fire

Minds Aren’t Easy to Manage

We all love to believe we’re in rational control of our faculties. It’s a convenient lie to believe that we can command ourselves to do things. However, few New Year’s Resolutions are kept: dieters, on average, gain back 107% of the weight they’ve lost. Clearly, our conscious decisions don’t always work.

Drive shares how a small amount of stress – time pressure – can change the degree to which people can be creative about their solutions. Getting the best work out of the people you work with is something that takes a Multiplier, but that guidance isn’t particularly clear about how you lead every day by getting the most out of others.

Making of Managers and Not Leaders

Until the last two decades or so, it was enough to lead by directing, or managing, people. However, this is no longer the case. Today, we must find ways to inspire the hearts and minds of people. This is substantially more challenging than just bossing them around. However, that’s how leadership has evolved.

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