Learning From History, Part II

 Basic Business Cents

In Part I of our series, we discussed the behavior cycles that repeat every four generations[1] and how knowledge of that can be used to guide our management techniques. Judging by the year our personnel were born, we can determine whether they are from the Prophet, Nomad, Hero, or Silent generations and from that certain personality traits and behaviors that they can be expected to exhibit.

Kurt Lewin identified three major leadership styles; authoritarian, participative, and delegative.

Authoritarian leaders provide clear expectations to group members on what should be done, when it should be completed, and how it should be accomplished. Frederick Winslow Taylor was the foremost expert on this leadership style. His time and motion studies were a small part of his teachings but became attached to his name. These authoritarian leaders make decisions without input from group members. It worked well with the Silent generation following WWII as exemplified by the book and movie, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Overuse of an authoritarian style can be construed as bossy and controlling. Worst-case examples of this style can be seen when leaders utilize bullying techniques such as yelling, abusive power, or demeaning group members.

Participative leaders accept input from one or more group members when making decisions and solving problems, but the leader retains the final say when choices are made. Group members tend to be encouraged and motivated by this style of leadership. It often leads to more effective and accurate decisions, since not leader can be an expert in all areas. Input from group members with specialized knowledge and expertise creates a more complete basis for decision-making. This leadership style resonates with the Artist and Prophet generations.

Delegative leaders allow group members to make decisions. This style is best used in situations where the leader needs to rely on qualified employees. The leader cannot be an expert in all situations, which is why it is important to delegate certain tasks out to knowledgeable and trustworthy employees. These employees match the characteristics of the Hero generation. The complexity of technology today almost demands use of this style but occasions can require utilization of all three styles depending on the situations, for example:

  • Use an authoritative style if a group member lacks knowledge about a certain procedure.
  • Use a participative style with group members who understand the objectives and their role in the task.
  • Use a delegative style if the group member knows more than the leader about the task.

Group leaders need to adapt and change based upon the objectives, needs of group members, and situational factors. Needs can be real or perceived and both need to be understood by the effective leader. Perceived needs are largely shaped by the current generation-Hero, Silent, Prophet, or Nomad-of the majority of the workers. It is up to us to know which type of group we are facing and what will work best with their personalities.

We can indeed learn from history to help us manage our organization and its personnel.

[1] The Fourth Turning, An American Prophecy, William Strauss and Neil Howe, 1977, Broadway Books, New York