May 2013

Thoughts on Leadership

By Ken Mitchell

“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.” —Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, defined leadership as raising someone’s productivity and stretching that person to become more than what he or she ever thought they could be. Back when this was written, (mid ‘50s), leadership was viewed as a type of autocracy as attested by the well-known mantra: "do this because I am the boss, that’s why.” Drucker's views on growing people was ahead of his time.

So what is leadership today?

More recent renditions of leadership emphasize the individual and the group as in influencing people so that they will strive willingly toward the achievement of group goals. Over the years, two distinct dimensions of leadership have been identified:

  1. Economic or productivity-based―concern for production.
  2. Employee condition and morale―concern for people.

These two dimensions, almost all contemporary management experts say, are not mutually exclusive. I believe this interpretation is correct as I will demonstrate shortly, but I note first that most leaders tilt toward one of these dimensions. For example, in professional sports, productivity—the scoreboard—is everything. That’s how coaches (as leaders) are judged. In other industries where results require years of work, especially in pharmaceutical research, the second dimension—concern for people—can be more prevalent.

These two dimensions can also be thought of as:

  1. Initiating structure (get it done).
  2. Consideration (human condition).

Regardless of the dimension in which the leader operates, there are four styles of leadership:

  1. The Benevolent Leader, who shows great concern for people and less concern for productivity.
  2. The Laissez-Faire Leader who shows less concern for people and less concern for productivity.
  3. The Autocratic Leader who is concerned with productivity and has very little concern for people.
  4. The Team Leader who is able to show concern for people and a concern for productivity.

So which style of leadership works best?

The Team Leader has proven to be the most effective in general. This type of leadership requires a balancing act of getting things done and having a genuine concern for people. This type of leader builds a working team of employees and involves his subordinates in the decision-making process. He believes that harmonious organization is the key vehicle for carrying out plans. His employees are highly committed and they share a vision of what productivity is now and going forward.

The Laissez-Faire Leader is basically uninvolved; his mantra is “leave them alone.” He sees his role as a passer of information. He is more inclined to let others make decisions and basically abdicates responsibility for his team or unit. While not as ruthless as the autocratic leader, he can be just as harmful due to his ambivalence and hands-off approach. Under this type of leadership, subordinates lack direction. Ultimately good people leave because they don't want to be part of a low productivity environment.

The Benevolent Leader is very people oriented. He encourages and organizes tasks around people. He can be very paternalistic and sometimes creates a low pressure, country-club-type of atmosphere. Because there is low productivity, people who are motivated by achievement and productivity ultimately leave.

The Autocratic Leader lacks flexibility, is controlling, sometimes destructively so, and highly demanding. For him, management is nothing else other than the use of carrots and sticks: hold out enough rewards, but beat the person to make him or her go faster. This leader is focused totally on productivity and doesn't care about the personal side of the management equation. His mantra is “my way or the highway,” which creates a great deal of stress and results in low productivity despite the despotic emphasis on efficiency. In an effort to fight back and reduce their stress levels, employees will tend to form unions or at least some type of opposition groups, however informal. Fortunately, we see much less of this style of management in modern companies, and although Steve Jobs was the very definition of an autocratic leader he also was, at times, benevolent and team leader.

So what kind of a leader would you be?

Learn to identify the style of your manager. If possible, seek an environment where you can be a team leader. Team leadership, which is the most common in recent years, has proven to be the most effective as well. While some leaders are born and others are made, it is wise to participate in leadership and management training to make sure that you and your team are as productive as you can be.

Ken Mitchell is president of Mitchell Actuarial Recruiting, one of the nation's top actuarial recruiting firms in the country. He can be reached at 1-800-MITCHEL or