Leadership: an evolutionary journey


Have we learned anything new about the relationships between leader behavior, morale, workmanship and turnover over the past few decades? Are we touting the same mantras over and over just because, well, that’s the way it is, or have we started to behave any differently? The short answer is “I hope so”, but the longer answer is more interesting. Thus, a history lesson.

In an article I wrote a few years ago titled Leadership, Morale and Employee Turnover, I said manager behavior is the most important factor for employee morale. That’s a principle that I have repeated over and over ever since. A manager’s job is to propagate positive cultures where employees are free to share their frustrations and be part of the process to solve problems. Most importantly from my angle, employees (all levels) need to be generally happy to be productive. Managers who act ‘boss-like’ (dictating, ordering people about and focusing on the negative) and happy cultures don’t mix.

Pre-Morale: The Leadership Dark Ages

But, it wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, managers were expected to act boss-like; totalitarianism was all the rage. What changed? How did we move from authoritarian rule to our current day, more compassionate approach to leadership? The transformation was a relatively quick evolution of about a century.

The industrial revolution kicked into gear in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Before then, smaller shops produced society’s goods and services. Along came the Fords, Carnegies, and Rockefellers. They rode the first waves of new production methods and caught the world unprepared. The quest: produce things.

More and more employees were hired as cogs in the industrial machine. Leaders, if you can call them that, weren’t expected to be friendly. They demanded loyalty and, often, back-breaking work. That kind of boss-like behavior was a by-product of the times: a couple of world wars and several minor scrimmages, union movements, anarchy, socialist developments, technology improvements, and a growing population. Society was in a time of massive flux. Employee conditions didn’t have a prayer of getting any better. Sweat shops, depressing assembly lines, and Dickensian cultures proliferated. Workers endured.

Morale and its relationship to productivity wasn’t even touched in early 20th century management literature. Instead, early theories wrapped around compensation as the main motivator: pay employees well and they’ll return the favor with lifelong dedication (conformity and servitude). And, to a point, even today, compensation is an important factor in how employees look at their jobs but it’s nowhere near the top of the morale pyramid.

The Change Begins: WWII

Fast forward to post-WWII. The U.S. sprouted as the land of bountiful. Millions of servicemen hit the streets looking for work. Factories previously producing arms quickly changed to pumping out washing machines, refrigerators, and cars. These newly blessed factory bosses were more than happy to hire the fresh-from-the-battlefield loyalty-fused workforce. Ex-military, mostly males, understood dictatorial leadership styles. It’s what they survived on in the military.

Slowly, this flux of employees began to see they were no longer fighting for God and country but for human consumption. Intangible fight-for-the-human-good motivating factors disappeared and reality sunk in. Instead of defending freedom, the new workforce worked day in, day out in often routine, boring jobs. So, naturally, it took increasingly more effort on the part of business leaders to motive these transformed workers.

Morale Revisited

Morale, which was barely discussed in the early days, shot to front and center. (Definitions of morale are too diverse to discuss here, but assume it means feelings of general well-being, security, and freedom.) Bosses had to change their (sometimes evil) ways or risk losing the business. Movies, new-fangled TV and radio programs, and literature were heavy on the emotion of humankind’s struggle.

Some contributors, like Steinbeck (one of my favorites), hit readers square between the eyes of the inhumanity of human relationships (that light hearted ditty Grapes of Wrath (1939) comes to mind). Increasingly more prevalent, the benefits of good behavior, like in the 1946 Jimmie Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, edged to our mental forefront. Over time, employees shouted, “Hey, I’m getting screwed.”

Root of all (Business) Evil: Behavior

It wasn’t until the 1990s that management/leadership theorists headed a totally new theoretical direction (another result of social evolution). Under these new ways of explaining human relationships, employees were no longer to blame for poor workmanship and productivity. Bosses could no longer blame employees for being lazy, indifferent, or unproductive. Instead, and this is a pretty powerful statement, all evil in the workplace boiled down to one primary factor: leader behavior.

Leader behavior is essentially my entire theoretical platform (gee, I hope I’m right). Every move you (leaders) make, every decision, every glance, every word is scrutinized, dissected, torn apart, and reconstituted in the break room. Boss behavior at all levels determines corporate brand and reputation. Official corporate brand isn’t as important for company reputation as the human behavior kind. In short, behavior needs to propagate cultures that are friendly, supportive, collaborative, and fun.

Reputation and Brand

Reputation extends way beyond corporate walls. Your ability to attract new employees is partly the result of how the organization is perceived to the outside world. Once employees are hired, bosses can never let up on positive socialization. Behavior must be consistently outward focused, aimed toward others before self. Selfish behavior damages productivity. Inconsistent behavior, from good to bad and back, is possibly the worst condition of all. The carrot/stick metaphor is simply not good for business. Workers are more likely to forget the carrot and remember in perpetuity the stick.

Thanks for skipping down memory lane with me. A few thoughts in closing. Be nice, inspire, care for individuals and the group, prevent problems, be emotionally sensitive, walk the floor (be visible), highlight employee strengths, enjoy laughter, think freedom, and create cultures where employees (our cohorts) learn, experiment, and grow.

“For getting to know people’s names. For being fun to be with. For sending somebody a note to tell them that they were doing a good job. For bothering to learn about people’s interests and having a conversation with them about their interests. It is the human touches combined with all the formal systems that builds confidence, because ultimately, confidence comes from the belief that you personally are supported and cared about.” Rosabeth Kanter.

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About The Author

Duane Dike
Duane Dike

Duane Dike is the manager of creative production for a large entertainment company in Southern California. He has a doctorate in management and organizational leadership and an MBA in management. He is a popular guest speaker for education and management groups on subjects related to innovation, leadership and thinking.