What’s the point of leadership? When asked that question, my clients responded:
“Leadership means integrity. A leader who does what he says he will do is a leader who can be trusted, and will be followed.”
“Setting an example is the true purpose of leadership. Anyone can talk in flowery language; effective leaders roll up their shirtsleeves and show the way.”
“A leader’s main job is to be a visionary. Leaders see where the train is going, and communicate that to their people.”
It’s hard to argue with the common sense in these responses, yet each is an unscientific opinion, neither proven nor unproven.
Parents—likely the most important leaders in our species—and leaders of businesses, institutions and civic organizations seldom think about the evolutionary purpose of leadership: how and why groups began to be led.
In the last three decades, scientists like Lynn Fairbanks, who studies leadership among vervet monkeys, Joyce Poole, who has observed elephant matriarchs, and David Mech, who has tracked wolf packs in the wild, have learned a lot about why groups need leaders.
During the same time period, innovative family researchers headed by Murray Bowen and Michael Kerr have examined multigenerational patterns of parenting in thousands of families, focused on identifying the functions of a family leader.
As with all credible science, important questions guided the research process: Why do groups need leaders? What happens to a group when a leader is removed? How does the functioning of a parent or president influence future generations?
Purposes of leadership
When viewed as a whole, the research has produced an exciting development: growing clarity about the purposes of leadership. Three clear functions of leadership have emerged:
Leaders regulate group anxiety. Group members appear to function with less stress when they know someone is in charge. The presence of a leader tends to moderate anxiety, permitting group energy to focus on important tasks. As a result, members concentrate more sharply, and get more done in the presence of a clearly defined leader.
“Clearly defined” implies two dimensions. First, members of a group must know who the leader is. When an employee reports to several bosses, or when a child doesn’t know who’s in charge of the family, leadership becomes fuzzy. The research suggests that unclear leadership ratchets up group anxiety.
A second dimension of “clearly defined” centers around the leader’s self-awareness and self-regulation. What do I stand for and believe in? What do I want and what don’t I want? What will I do, or not do, when a decision has to be made, or when a crisis erupts? A leader who is blame-oriented, unsure about self, or allergic to taking a stand stimulates confusion and twitchiness in group members. The research speculates that such anxiety reduces group productivity.
Importantly, the research highlights that an anxious, worried leader has little capacity to regulate the anxiety of others. It’s not uncommon for a nervous leader to be the biggest impediment to a focused and productive culture. Each leader is responsible to figure out and engage personal routines that contribute to his or her calmness.
Leaders promote maturity and responsibility in all members. Leadership in natural systems reveals that: A mother eagle readies her eaglets to fly at a precise point in time, after persistent training and testing. Young wolves are well-prepared over many years for cooperative hunting. Chimpanzee toddlers are taught to forage for food and groom their peers.
Evolutionary biologists tell us that the purpose of parenting is to promote autonomy, competence and confidence. In families, beginning with the snipping of the umbilical cord, growth necessitates separateness. When parents or business leaders hold on too tight, or refuse to let go, they feed pathology in children and employees.
Research strongly suggests that one clear way to produce lazy, helpless, dependent offspring is to over-function in their space.
Evidence points to an important pattern: Leaders strengthen followers and refuse to coddle them. They expect the young to become responsible contributors to the group. Leaders look for opportunities to promote incremental progress by persistently “raising the bar.”
One primary maturity-promoting strategy is coaching. In the business and family settings, coaching includes questions, encouragement, challenge and accountability. Those who receive exquisite coaching are continually ushered into new and uncomfortable situations. They learn that discomfort is not a federal case and that maturity often springs from adversity.
Science seems to support the idea that good leaders insist on the growth of group members.
Leaders serve the best interests of the group. The anthropologist Christopher Boehm found that “chimpanzee leaders who become too proud or bossy, fail to redistribute foods and goods, or to close their deals with outsiders, quickly lose respect and support.”
The process of “dethronement” has been well-documented among researchers of several species. It suggests that whenever leaders act out of pure self-interest at the expense of the group, the group ceases to recognize them as leaders and often colludes to remove them.
Calm, clear-thinking leaders operate with a systems-wide lens that considers the best interests of the entire group, not simply the satisfaction of a few. The question, “Is this in the best interests of the system?” becomes an anchoring barometer for every key decision.
“Why am I here?”
It’s perilous to lose sight of the purposes of leadership. Caught up in emotional intensity, sucked into day-to-day projects and tasks, the bigger purpose—why I’m here—easily fades into the background.
As a parent, loving your children is an ingredient, not a purpose. If you are a business leader, making money is an outcome, not a purpose.
The best research we have suggests that families and businesses would function a lot better if their leaders functioned with purpose: regulating anxiety, promoting responsibility and serving the best long-term interests of the group.
John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected]
7/4/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]