Leadership Paradigms: Why Some Soar While Most Struggle – Part 1: Introduction and Behaviorist Approach
••5 min read
By Max Shkud and Ben Haggard – originally published on Linked In
The original article has been divided into three parts for publishing by Enlivening Edge Magazine. Part 1 covers the introduction and the Behaviourist approach to leadership. The full original article can be found here.
In their pursuit to make their organizations more innovative, engaged, and agile in the digital age, some business leaders try to instill the “right” mindsets, behaviors, and organizational practices. Others prioritize creating cultures of learning and inclusion where people can thrive.
But there is a third way that has quietly evolved in some iconic Fortune 500s that represents a real breakthrough. It has been proven to generate the kind of sustained innovation, engagement, and agility that most ambitious leaders dream of. This third way is the main focus of this essay.
A senior business leader recently lamented that these days every large company is undergoing some sort of transformation. Regardless of whether these efforts are genuine or gimmick, most organizations have embraced rapid change as the new normal. And while specific change agendas differ from company to company, we observe that most focus their efforts on three interdependent arenas:
Why these three? Because leaders understand that in a rapidly evolving market, there can be no business growth (and eventually no business) without relentless customer-focused innovation.
Similarly, there can be no true innovation unless employees are purposefully engaged and contributing their deepest creativity and passion toward customer success. And without operational agility, none of the creative innovations matter because they won’t reach customers quickly enough.
Achieving this golden trifecta of core capabilities is a complex leadership challenge, especially for large legacy companies with thousands of employees in highly competitive industries. Most leaders choose the path of thinking by analogy, as Elon Musk would put it, mining industry research and copying best practices from other successful leaders and companies. “If it worked for Google, it should work for us,” they reason.
More often than not, this results in a hodge-podge of me-too, flavor-of-the-month initiatives that generate a lot of disruption and busy work but little meaningful and lasting change.
Companies that are widely admired for their innovation and agility—for example Amazon, Apple, Google, Netflix, and Tesla—avoid adopting best practices or copying each other. However, they do have one thing in common: each has its own distinct leadership culture and way of working.
For this reason, whenever someone tries to copy what these companies do, they don’t achieve the same result. Because it’s not what they do that makes the difference, it’s who they are.
The conclusion we draw from this is simple: Genuinely innovative leaders chart their own paths, ones that are tailored specifically to their businesses, industries, and situations. To do this, a person must generate their own thinking. More important, they must generate the right level and quality of thinking.
In this essay, we advance a framework that can help you do this kind of thinking. It consists of three leadership paradigms, each of which offers a different approach and produces radically different results.
The first two paradigms will likely sound familiar; the third, which has quietly evolved in some iconic Fortune 500 businesses over the past 50 years, represents a real breakthrough. It has been proven to generate a level of thinking that results in the sustained innovation, engagement, and agility that most ambitious leaders dream of.
By changing the ways they think, these companies have ignited double- and triple-digit growth, disrupted entire industries, and generated extraordinary outcomes for every stakeholder they touch. This third paradigm is the main focus of this essay.
Three Paradigms of Leadership: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There
A paradigm is an underlying structure that determines how people view the world. It generally manifests as a cognitive framework containing basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that guide reasoning and action.
A paradigm claims, “This is reality; this is how the world works.” Paradigms provide comfort and coherence, but they also create profound unconscious barriers to thinking about anything that lies outside or beyond their organizing principles.
In what follows, we will look at the behaviorist, humanist, and developmental paradigms, which are prominent in business today. Each is undergirded by a set of beliefs about people, motivation, performance, and change. Each reveals itself in different behaviors and practices and consequently has a distinctly different effect on a business’s capacity for innovation, engagement, and agility.
By understanding and assessing your thinking and approach through the lens of these paradigms, you can set the stage to become a more discerning, exacting, and effective leader.
The behaviorist paradigm was shaped during the culmination of the industrial era, and has its philosophical roots in Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management and John Watson and B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorism.
A core, underlying belief in this paradigm is that a high-performing organization is like a smoothly running machine.
The role of leadership is to ensure that the right conditions are present for people to perform within this machine as productively and efficiently as possible.
Employees are seen in functional terms, as sets of skills and behaviors to be hired, managed, and upgraded over time. Standardization and homogenization are pursued in the name of consistency, causing companies to codify performance excellence into standardized competency models that specify ideal behaviors and skills for each profession and career level.
These competency models apply to all employees, ignoring their unique characters and aspirations. They also tend to reflect company leadership’s image of what constitutes excellence.
Thus, excellent performance looks the same for all employees, and all are expected to mimic the behaviors of top leadership. It is noteworthy that most talent management practices are still based on this thinking.
From the perspective of the behaviorist paradigm, high worker performance depends on the presence of four conditions:
They must know what is expected of them.
They must be held accountable.
They must be trained on how to perform their job well.
They must be incentivized to work hard.
In a behaviorist paradigm company, it is the responsibility of leadership to create these conditions for employees. This is accomplished with cascading KPIs and OKRs, technical and behavioral skills training, regular status checks coupled with adjusting feedback, performance reviews, and elaborate reward and recognition systems that incentivize expected behaviors and results.
The overarching conviction is that high performance is achieved through the external management of employees’ motivation and behaviors by leaders and experts with superior knowledge and skills.
This way of thinking is alive and well in corporate America. Its appeal is pragmatism, efficiency, and concreteness. Behaviorist-minded leaders find it easier and more sensible to focus on functional tasks, measurable behaviors, and concrete deliverables than intangibles like purpose, meaning, and potential.
But clear-cut though they may be, behaviorist ways of thinking and working tend to make employees feel like generic and replaceable cogs in an organizational machine. This is a dehumanizing, soul-depleting experience for all involved, which might explain why, according to Gallup, two-thirds of American workers are disengaged. The behaviorist paradigm undermines creativity, resourcefulness, and good will, resulting in a tragic waste of human potential.