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Liberation leadership: Giving staff freedom

Jim Lawless

Liberation leadership: cutting the management strings

Jim Lawless, motivational speaker and author of Taming Tigers: Do Things You Never Thought You Could, says that modern leaders need to trust and respect employees not control them

Each year I have a hundred or so conversations with senior leaders before I deliver keynote addresses to their people.

For the past few years, there have been a very small number of themes dominating major corporate events:

“We need to help employees see that they can be autonomous and not wait for instructions. We need to help employees to be “intrapreneurs" and passionate. We need to help them believe that they can each make a difference to our business. We need them to have more personal accountability.”

Why do so many leaders around the world share the same priorities about their people at this moment in history? To answer the question, we need to take a brief tour back through the economic ages.

The four economic ages

In the first economic age we were hunter-gatherers. We went out and hunted meat and gathered fruit and vegetables.

This was hard and dangerous work, so we invented the second economic age: the agricultural age. We fenced off land and we raised animals for meat and grew vegetables.

This was safer but had its disadvantages – feudal lords and conveyancing lawyers, for example.

Then came the industrial age, the third economic age. People were educated and then managed in order to perform predictably as a moving part in a manufacturing machine.

The goal of leadership in the New Economy is to liberate talent. Energy, communication and trust are the bywords.

Poverty was not far away and the welfare state didn’t exist at first. It was safer to ‘know your place’ if you wanted to keep the job that fed your family, so passion and opinion were risky. “The management” was seen as exploitative and as the enemy.

Now we have entered the fourth economic age: The New Economy. For the first time, many more people are able to find meaning and purpose in their work. Hierarchies are being broken down.

Innovation and vital contribution can come from anybody and meritocracy is imperative. The habits of thinking that were suited to the industrial age are often a hindrance today.

The New Economy represents an opportunity for unparalleled social change. But adapting is proving tough – to the cost of many businesses and individuals.

Employees, educated to survive in the industrial age, are slow to truly hear the message of liberation and accept the responsibilities that accompany it.

Leaders also often demonstrate a duality. They, too, were educated for an industrial age model. They are slow, in reality, to trust and to let go. Yet this shift in leadership is imperative to commercial success in the fourth economic age.

Characteristics of the New Economy

What is different in the New Economy and how has this change come about? The causes of change have been a general movement up the hierarchy of human needs and the free flow of information.

1) A shift up the pyramid of human motivation

There has been a shift up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on the part of both customer and employee. Even in current “difficult” financial times, workers and consumers in most developed economies have wealth and health that their grandparents would never have dreamed of.

So they are looking for more than a financial deal now – seeking to live by their values, seeking belonging and purpose, both as customer and as employee.

2) Brand integrity and transparency

Consumers are demanding integrity and transparency from companies that they consider doing business with. Thus a brand is no longer something that can be carefully presented on TV.

The brand is on trial every time the consumer interacts with people from that company. Consumers now have a research tool – the internet. They can broadcast their findings through a megaphone – the internet.

Employees create that brand experience not leaders, and they create it daily at the point of contact with the consumer. They need to be liberated to deliver that experience from the heart – not be shackled to the agreed script.

3) Pace and scale of activity

There is no time now for advice and approval from the top. Agility is vital.

Similarly, as organisations grow, their size requires that leaders either produce a massive structure of hierarchy to take decisions for the staff or empower the staff to make their own decisions – having provided a solid direction and powerful culture to influence how those decisions are made.

Liberation leadership in the New Economy

The goal of leadership in the New Economy is to liberate talent. Energy, communication and trust are the bywords.

Personal accountability and respect for personal boundaries become vital and the placing of responsibility for action and decision-making upon the correct person becomes critical.

The fun of the dysfunctional “parent-child” games of the industrial age is over.

Responsibility for creating an appropriate purpose for each team and each team member rests with the team or individual, within a framework set by the leader and to achieve a purpose that is truly shared by all.

Trust and respect must slowly replace control – a process that needs to be navigated with great skill and subtlety.

Vision and values must now be created at a local level, have deep meaning for and inspire their creators, and become their personal behavioural map.

Taming Tigers by Jim Lawless is out now from Virgin Books, £11.99

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