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The Rising Expectations for Leaders
Back in the 1970s the average work week appeared to be shrinking, and the biggest worry many people had was what to do with their leisure time. I remember a lead story in Newsweek magazine that predicted Americans would be working 30 hours a week by the year 2000! Unfortunately, it appears that these predictions did not pan out. Most people I know are working at least 40 hours a week, and if you are in management, 50-70 hours a week seems more the norm. Instead of worrying about what to do with their leisure time, many managers are striving to achieve some semblance of work-life balance (and often losing the battle). Despite the improvements in productivity due to the introduction of computers, cell phones, the Internet, and other technology in the workplace, there is no doubt that managers are working harder than ever before. Not only is the pace of work more frenetic than it has ever been, leaders now have to maintain this pace for 9-14 hours a day, 5-6 days a week.

Yes, leaders are working harder than ever before, but their staffs are not very likely to cut them any slack. Just as the pace and length of the work week has increased for managers, the expectations of workers has also increased. Because work plays a central role in most peoples’ lives, workers no longer want to just show up and be told what to do. Instead, most people want to do things that are personally meaningful and positively impact customers, vendors, suppliers, etc. Workers now expect leaders to set the direction for the work unit; solve problems; clear obstacles to success; acquire necessary resources; hire, coach, develop, and motivate employees; find interesting work for employees to do; provide authority for making decisions; grant autonomy; build teams; and monitor work unit performance. These rising worker expectations, when combined with the increased workload of leaders, make it very difficult for people in positions of authority to be perceived as competent. A recent survey by the consulting firm Towers Perrin provides support for this notion, as their study indicated only 20 percent of the employees in the United States are fully engaged at work—the remainder is either moderately or completely disengaged.

To better understand why so many leaders are seen as incompetent, it might be helpful to examine how the expectations for leaders have changed over the past 60 years. By dividing the past 60 years into three distinct time periods, it may be easier to see how changes in society, technology, specialization, and globalization have all affected what it takes for leaders to be effective.


1945-1965: The Command and Control Years
Because much of the competition was literally bombed out of existence and the United States had developed a huge manufacturing capacity to support the war effort, there was a huge demand for American goods. As a result, most employees in the United States were working in assembly lines in manufacturing plants. Because the work was relatively simple, the best assemblers or craftsmen were picked to become first-line supervisors. Individuals were promoted to ever increasing positions of authority not because of their leadership skills, but rather due to their superior technical expertise. Oftentimes plant managers not only knew every position in their plants, they also knew how to perform these jobs better than most of the workers on the assembly lines. During this time period leaders knew both what to do and how to get it done. The most effective leaders were those who made the best decisions because of their superior technical knowledge. This style can still alive and well today, and can be effective when supervisors know all the technical aspects of the work being performed by their employees. This style loses its effectiveness (and turns off employees) once leaders can no longer perform the work of their employees, but leaders who get comfortable with this style are often reluctant to give it up.


1965-1985: The Empowerment Years
This time period is marked with significant societal turmoil and change. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the energy crisis, Watergate, and other major events left many people questioning the authority of government and industry leaders. The introduction of cars and electronic goods from Japan and personal computers into the workplace made people much more aware of globalization and technology. In general work got more complex, and workers needed advanced degrees or training in order to operate equipment, solve problems, or get things done. Because of these changes, workers knew more about the specifics of their job than their leaders and were no longer were willing to just do what was asked. They wanted a voice, and during this time period leaders knew what to do, but needed to rely on employees to determine how to do the work. The best leaders created a vision and then empowered their employees to get it done. This style can be very effective today, especially when the goals of the work group are clear and the leader is not sure about how to go about achieving these goals. This style loses its effectiveness when there is uncertainty about what the work group should be doing in the first place.


1985-2006: The Ambiguity Years
There have been dramatic changes in globalization, technology, knowledge specialization, information, services, the customization of products and services, just-in-time deliveries, multinational corporations, and competition over the past 20 years. Twenty years ago a moderately sized manufacturing firm located in rural Minnesota may have received all of its raw materials from domestic suppliers, did all manufacturing and assembling in house, and sold only to North American customers. Now this same firm might receive raw materials from South America, have a customer call center in India, have all the parts manufactured in China, and sell to customers around the world. Because of all these changes, many leaders no longer know what to do, much less how to get things done. The best leaders in these situations know how to cope with ambiguity—they work closely with their employees to gather relevant information and jointly make decisions about what and how to do things. These leaders are also constantly seeking feedback about their efforts and rapidly shift direction or processes when needed. This style is less effective when the goals are clear or when the leader knows how to get things done.

In conclusion, these changes in globalization, information, technology, knowledge specialization, and perceptions of authority have resulted in work being much more complex and workers having much higher expectations of their leaders now than in the past. Simply put, the skills needed by leaders 50 years ago are only a small subset of what leaders now need to be able to do in order to be effective. Although there are many leadership positions where the Command and Control, Empowerment, or Ambiguity styles are the most appropriate for getting work done through others, the most effective leaders may be those who can read situations and then exhibit the Command and Control, Empowerment, and Ambiguity styles as needed.

Gordy Curphy, Ph.D.
President, Curphy Consulting Corporation
1978 Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy
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