Tim Gurner is right… and totally wrong!
I’ve coached CEOs and other executives in companies in dozens of countries around the world. Tim Gurner is right. Employers are in control. They’re the boss. They pay the salaries. They hire and fire. But for a boss to get what they really want, he couldn’t be more wrong. Insanely wrong.
While I was teaching in Budapest, Hungary, I met a fascinating and brilliant Psychologist and business thought leader. He shared a model with me that sums up what I believe to be the essence of leadership, on a micro level, and on a macro, global level.
He posited that there are 5 levels of leadership: The lowest level, Level 1, is no or virtually no leadership. He called this “The Chaos Level”. I think it’s clear how this one goes.
To tame the chaos, Level 2 is “Totalitarianism”. This is strict, unrelenting dominance over others, with only one person determining what happens, and doesn’t happen… with significant punishment happening if one disobeys. On the macro level, these are the Autocratics, the Dictators like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and the style of leadership that many critics say Donald Trump aspired/aspires to.
In the business world, Level 2 is the same, on a micro level. A Level 2 boss is, like the above, a “Strongman” – all-powerful, unwavering in his or her exercise of authority, poised as infallible.
Many citizens around the world feel comfortable with this kind of macho leadership. Strong men can make people feel safe, taken care of, and protected. It is the “Alpha Male” model that is often used to describe how apes and other animals dominate and protect their territory.
But what we know about the Alpha Male model, especially in politics, is that the leaders must create division to create the sympathetic nervous system, “fight or flight” fear that creates the vulnerability that allows them to get into power, and stay in power. An “Us vs. Them” mindset is a critical precondition for Level 2 leadership to happen.
So, yes, Tim Gurner is right. In a Level 2 business or world, employees should feel grateful for being hired.
But a Level 2 business has devastating costs. That attitude, that “Totalitarian” mindset will almost always lead to fear, resentment, tragically low levels of loyalty, significantly less productivity and significantly higher rates of attrition. While some will buy the messaging, feel grateful and be happy to be at the company, the underlying “vibe” is so demotivating that it will ensure that almost no one feels empowered, long term, to be their best.
So what are the alternatives?
Level 3 is a model where the “Majority” controls. 50% plus 1 rules the day. On a macro level, we call it “Democracy”. On a corporate level, we see leaders who take feedback from fellow executives, the Board and other employees and try hard to find consensus.
At this level, Tim Gurner’s philosophy doesn’t work at all. At this level, Employees can still be hired and fired but their very existence is seen as a contribution to a healthy, productive whole… and that their presence and voice are valued.
But Level 3 is not where the best CEOs and leaders stop. They strive for what my friend called “Level 4 Leadership”, which we call “Win-Win Leadership”. This, in my opinion, is what truly great leaders do. Instead of the easy, “Ape-like” leadership of Level 2 or the seemingly generous or fair leadership of Level 3, these true leaders DEEPLY honour the needs and participation of EVERYONE, not just a majority… and work hard to create rules and protocols and a culture where every single employee, and the company, wins.
The journey to greatness
I do an exercise on “Win-Win Decision Making” in my workshops and, believe me, it’s not always easy. But greatness, as an athlete or businessperson, or anything, never is. But at the end of the exercise, everyone buys into a solution that DID NOT EXIST at the beginning of the effort. A new, next-level, creative (often genius) solution was birthed through the process because the focus of the leadership was not Level 2, nor the seemingly magnanimous Level 3, but the rarified air of really, really caring about and empowering EVERYONE.
This, of course, is the very opposite of the perspective of Mr. Gurner but in this world NO ONE is treated like they exist miles below in a corporate hierarchy, begging for acknowledgement or a job. And, to Mr. Gurner’s point, employees who ARE acknowledged at a Level 3, and especially at a Level 4, work harder, are more productive and feel so much a part of the whole they would rarely, if ever, be lazy or give less of an effort that the employer wants and is entitled to.
But because most corporate cultures are somewhere between a Level 2 Dictatorship and Level 3 “Democracy”, we don’t even think about Level 4 “Win-Win” leadership.
Productivity, employee satisfaction and retention are where the real magic happens… and, while hard, where Level 5, effortless flow and “Synergy” are given a chance to happen, it will lift everyone to rare and beautiful heights.
So, thank you Tim Gurner, for teeing up the conversation!
Richard Greene is considered one of the leading communication coaches in the world. An attorney by trade from USC Law School, Richard left the practice of law to share his communication breakthroughs with presidents, prime ministers, political candidates, CEOs and CFOs of Fortune 500 companies, attorneys, judges, actors, and marketing professionals among others in 53 countries. His BBC Maestro course on Public Speaking and Communication is available now.