The field of Leadership Development has focused much on the thoughts and actions of leaders and much less on the mental models of the people being led. This focus needs to shift to enable leaders to play a more realistic and relevant role in organisations today.
We place much on the shoulders of our leaders. Despite repeatedly acknowledging the pace of change and complexity we live with, we continue to expect those in leadership positions to have the answers, to model the way, to define the future. Unconsciously for most, we have the concepts of power and omnipotence and superhuman capability bound up in our understanding of what leadership means. This mental model is hard to change but is where, as leadership developers, we need to concentrate more of our efforts if we are to offer support to leaders struggling to lead.
The mental model of leaders being all-knowing and all-powerful is rooted in our psyche from an early age. The rot started the moment we discovered that Mummy and Daddy would kiss it better. Born small into a world of big people, we quickly learn to do what the big people want us to do in order to feel loved and wanted, indeed, in order to survive. As we grow, we continue to play by the big people’s rules – we want to carry on being loved but we also want the latest mobile phone, then help with a mortgage and ultimately to not be written out of the will! Simply put, we do what the big people want us to do to get our needs met – whatever they may be. The American psychologist, Carl Rogers, called the requirements of these big people ‘Conditions of Worth’ – the conditions I insist you meet if, at best, you want my love, approval, patronage etc. and at least, you want to be allowed to stick around.
To compound the issue, we go to school and meet yet more big people whom we need to please; we learn fast that great things don’t happen to the kids who don’t want to conform. We see that the kids who offer the answer the teacher wants get a smoother ride. The teacher’s answer is always the one that wins the day.
By the time we are adults, we have two fundamental beliefs ingrained. The big people, (the leaders), have punishment and reward in their gift and are more powerful than me. Secondly, if I want to become a big person, (a leader), I must know the answer.
There are other reasons why our mental model of leaders is that they are all-knowing and powerful – not least because human history, by and large, has been shaped down the years by those with the most money, the most desire for power and social status or, bluntly, the biggest army. These people offer those without money and status etc. a straightforward deal: ‘Do as I say and you’ll thrive. Don’t do as I say and you’ll die.’ Our ancestors caught on really quickly how to play this game. Those who didn’t are long gone from the gene pool.
A commonly held view I come across from more junior folk in organisations is that those who are paid more money, have a bigger office, enjoy a grander job title ‘damn well ought to know… be able to sort it…. be able to cope’. As human beings, we want easy lives. Living with the knowledge that we are responsible makes life harder. Having someone else in charge, to blame, to carry the can – essentially someone we hold as more accountable and more powerful than ourselves makes our lot easier to bear. In various ways, we choose to relinquish our power to people and entities outside of ourselves; we cannot then be held fully responsible. Thus by giving away our power to someone – even something – bigger than ourselves, we develop a sense of security. False it may be, but it offers an easier ride.
Helping teams to see their leader in a different light so that the leader can be freed up to play a leadership role more fit for the 21st Century is the challenge of Leadership Developers. By paying as much attention to the mental models of followers as we do the mental models of leaders, we can make a step change in the field.