Over the past century, the definition of leadership in the workplace has evolved. We started with authoritarian styles of leadership – in part because it was our history: emperors, kings and queens, religious leaders and other central, visible figures determined laws and morality for society broadly. So, bosses took that mentality (and arguably one of the only models they had) to their businesses.
The Origins of Inclusion
In the 1940s, Lester Coch and John French began studying operations at the Harwood Manufacturing Company, in what has become a cornerstone study in organizational psychology. The authors set out to understand why workers resisted changes imposed by management. What they found was that when workers had a voice, when they could participate in solving problems, when they could share with leadership the realities that they saw on the ground and the needs that they felt were not being met, they stopped resisting making changes to their work and they started to perform better. Their participation and inclusion gave them a greater sense of ownership and accountability. They felt seen, heard and treated like humans instead of cogs in a machine.
The rise of unions in the 20th century also helped workers gain power through collective bargaining against authoritarian leaders. Workers joined together to ensure their voices were heard, turning outside of their organizations for help when their leadership would not listen or decided not to protect them. Unions have been costly for organizations, when a participative style might have improved efficiencies and labor relations without the need for a third party.
From Inclusion to Empowerment
The study by Coch and French provided one of the early insights that has led to a movement for worker empowerment that continues to expand. Embracing a new style of leadership made perhaps most famous by Toyota (and, later, the book “The Toyota Way”), manufacturers at the end of the 20th century started letting workers fix problems on the production line, reducing losses from broken equipment, creating fewer imperfect outputs, and improving overall health and safety, among other gains.
Over time, we have learned that empowerment does improve performance. That is (at least in part) what is driving so many companies to move to more “agile” organizational structures, an idea based on the Agile software development model. That approach (when implemented well) creates small teams that have a common goal or a clearly defined output (e.g., the product), and that can use their complementary skillsets to take control over their work, collaborate as a team, and deliver – more, better and faster than before. At least that is the promise. The reality has been more mixed, given the challenges inherent in coordinating lots of small teams across large organizations that have a multitude of different functions and focuses.
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It’s also possible that there are other challenges with this style of leadership. Perhaps not all employees want to be empowered. Some just want a paycheck. If that’s the case, what’s a better style of leadership? How can leaders become stronger, with greater followership, driven by their followers’ needs and innate desires?
The answer may lie in redefining leadership to be more inclusive.
Inclusive Leadership: The Oprah Effect
Inclusive leadership, as I would define it, is about listening to and understanding the needs of the broadest group of people in order to create the broadest, most engaged group of followers. An easy example: Oprah. In her 2017 address to the graduates of Smith College, she attributed her success to “the power of service.”
While the Oprah show started as “trash TV,” as the host was focused on gaining popularity, it evolved as her audience started to expand. She attracted viewers with her honesty and transparency – about problems that other “real” people face too, including weight loss, relationship issues, abuse. That made her relatable – to a much broader audience. She expanded into self-improvement – from diet and exercise to reading and mental health. Over time, her drive to gain followership has made her one of the richest and most powerful women in the world. She defines inclusive leadership.
Examining Inclusive Leadership
Inclusive leadership may also help to address some of the issues that the social movements underway today, like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, have been calling for for years.
Originally posted on Forbes