Traditional & Contemporary Leadership. Who’s right?

Written by Holtby Turner

The quest for the ‘ideal modern workplace’ has spurred an abundance of growth in new management styles that makes me wonder what’s best for the built environment – contemporary leaders or traditional leaders?

As companies explore what keeps people engaged, inspired and productive, so have the strategies which drive commercial growth needed to adjust, with traditional leadership styles favouring top-down management having been forced to change.

Around the world we are seeing more collaborative leadership and management styles, styles that encourage employees to be empowered and create positive change, so when did ‘traditional leadership’ become traditional and what exactly do we mean by it?

As real estate adapts to a culture of open innovation, we’re beginning to see contemporary leaders invest far more in team-building and power-sharing, as compared to the more hierarchical corporate ladder. In a shift away from the boardroom, internal crowd-sourcing is driving creativity and problem solving as a more democratic approach to corporate growth. This method has been proven quintessential in the creation of new business models, products and service lines, whilst simultaneously giving employees a real sense of ownership in their work.

Traditional Leadership & Its Ladder

Traditional leaders see power as belonging to and stemming from authority. Underpinned by hierarchy, it assesses power on longevity, first and foremost. Thus, the longer you stay, the higher you climb up the ladder. As you climb, so your power amasses and expands.

In order to keep climbing, you must keep your cards close to your heart. Disclosing knowledge and sharing precious information threatens your power.  So you release information on a need-to-know basis, and safeguard authority and control. Sharing is complex for traditional leaders, as is taking advice. Almost always, only those at the top of the tree help steer strategy and the decision-making process. If suggestions are gathered from a wider section of the organisation, it is often more a show than authentic cooperation. Traditional leaders sign off strategy in the boardroom, and deliver plans as a fait accompli to their teams.

In this model, employees perform tasks which are stringently tied to individual responsibilities and performance targets. It is an isolated way of working, one with information and resources given only when needed. What is important to note is that this rigid corporate hierarchy stifles creativity and stagnates innovation. By removing the necessary encouragement to be forward-thinking and proactive in solving problems, it also kills morale.

This also comes at a high price. When high-value employees feel undervalued and inspired, they leave – simple as that. This is a two-fold cost; not only is revenue lost short term as you search for a new hire, you will fail to attract the very best people to grow your business and thus miss out on future revenue. Once word is out that an organisation has both uninspiring leadership and a staid company culture, it spreads like a wildfire and can take years to undo.

Contemporary Leadership & Culture

Contemporary leadership brings something new to the table – a collaborative approach. Here leaders recognise that power is greatest when part of a collective. Collaborative contemporary leaders allow strategy to be shaped by the best ideas in the group, with problem solving being a team effort. Here, openly sharing information of resources and knowledge is vital in getting everyone on the same page. When peer to peer training and mentoring is available, the more creative and collaborative your organisation’s skills in problem solving will be.

A contemporary leader is open-minded and values the unique insights that diverse perspectives can bring. In a collaborative culture, the power of the group is championed rather than controlled. Solutions are often born in a team, and processed by peers, whilst facilitated by senior leaders, and whilst this management style and organisational structure requires trust, successful leaders empower their teams, wanting them to flourish.

There is no real hierarchy in an organisation defined by contemporary leadership. Structure exists, of course, but teams are encouraged to work collaboratively. Roles and responsibilities evolve and adapt as the organisation needs, because collaborative leadership is underpinned by trust. As team members get more responsibility for their work, leaders get involved in the process, helping them to tackle issues promptly. By digging to the origins of conflict, fire-fighting is needed less as issues rarely become this inflamed.

Contemporary leaders see employees as peers to be treated equally. Here, feedback is immediate, criticism collegiate and constructive, and rewards are regular. This collaborative style of leadership is generous: knowledge and experiences are shared for the greater good, and development personalised with a mentoring and coaching approach, focusing on empowerment and continuous improvement.

You may wonder if there’s a space for leadership that incorporates the best of both? Fair point, and it’s possible of course. However, you can’t be everything to everyone, because it inevitably results in meaning very little to very few. That’s not where any leader should be heading. We asked two of real estate’s leaders for their views on contemporary leadership, and how they’ve seen it change over their careers …

Harry Badham, UK Head of Development, Axa Real Estate

“Unlike twenty years ago, our large projects are never a one-man show. There is no single leader per say. What we have are individuals, each empowered with a shared vision and freedom to use their own experience, judgement and expertise. This is different in my experience when I began work, where the leaders were far more ‘command and control’. Then again, tasks were far more stable and routine back then, and leadership was more process management than vision (with exceptions, of course). I guess that difference begs the question, “what is a leader anyway?” It’s interesting. The media seem to love to portray an individual as solely responsible as leader, because it suits the story, the narrative fallacy, and indeed much of the oligarchical leadership types in the world of media itself. There’s confirmation bias with leadership everywhere”.

Rob Bould, Non Exec Director Coyote Software and former CEO GVA

“Unquestionably, the technological revolution over the last ten years with twenty-four hour employee accessibility has necessitated both change in working style and how leaders interact with their people. Whether this is good or bad will come down to the success of the enterprise, and only that. Having gained insight into the brave new world of PropTech over the last two years, I see the same underlying elements for success are required: visionary and passionate leadership; a strong brand, and excellent communication. All the workshops and team building in the world will not replace a culture inspired by a strong leader or leadership team.”

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