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Thought Leadership


The From/To Analysis of the Shifting Leadership Paradigm

At the Maslow Centre for Executive Leadership, we are focused on organizational coaching and coach education. The Maslow Centre’s work is founded on 3 pillars: 

  1. ICF accredited coach certification programs
  2. Large-scale corporate coaching projects 
  3. Research on the changing leadership and culture paradigms that are occurring in today’s organizations 

We are experts in consulting and coaching for large-scale corporate transformational projects, and deliver International Coaching Federation (ICF) accredited training programs. We help organizations use coaching as a leadership strategy, working with them to build and sustain a culture of internal coaching. We believe in the importance of understanding human dynamics as they pertain to strategy, culture, leadership, performance, and transformation in organizations. We are also extremely interested in working with corporate cultures that have an interest and dedication to shifting the leadership paradigm in the 21st century. Ultimately, we are dedicated to researching and sharing our findings as they pertain to the major shift in leadership that is occurring at this very time.  

Our work is done to enhance potential and culture so that organizations can become more people focused and high performing. 

Our Research 

The focus of this article is on our third pillar— our research into the changing dynamics and needs of leaders and organizations in the 21st century. We are re-envisioning how Maslow’s work on the Hierarchy of Needs relates to organizational culture and employee experience. Maslow’s work is gaining notoriety in the organizational setting, as a result of some recent research demonstrating the effectiveness of Maslow’s theories. Scott Barry Kaufman, a renowned American humanistic psychologist and author, is just one example of many who is bringing Maslow’s work front of mind, focusing on self-actualization as it relates to personal and professional growth, life purpose, and holistic satisfaction.  

In our pursuit to add value to this conversation, our team is conducting literature reviews, qualitative research, and ethnographic research on  the shifting 21st century leadership paradigm. One of the ways we are summarizing our findings is through an ongoing from/to analysis. The from/to analysis is a great starting point for explaining the changing aspects of leadership and culture. 

Our analysis grows on a regular basis and will provide a solid introduction to some of the shifts we are consistently seeing in the work we are doing with leaders today. 

From Predictability to VUCA

In 1980, researchers coined the term VUCA as a definition for the 21st century environment. VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. This term was created to foreshadow the 21st century as significantly less predictable and controllable than the 20th century. Looking back at 2020, we perhaps have our best sense yet of what living in a VUCA environment actually means.  

In his book Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World, Robert Johansen suggests a new, more positive approach to counteract the original VUCA. It is a behavioural leadership model for what leaders need to demonstrate during this era. This is what he suggests as VUCA Prime:

  • Vision rises above volatility 
  • Understanding lessens uncertainty 
  • Clarity refutes complexity 
  • Agility overcomes ambiguity  

Maslow’s work around self-actualization demonstrates that self-actualizing people are more comfortable with uncertainty and are more spontaneous and more creative in the face of difficult situations, therefore more adaptable to the VUCA environment. In our research, we have found that helping leaders better understand Maslow’s work and coaching them for self-actualization significantly builds resilience and leads to higher performance.

From Control to Trust 

The effort to move away from the command-and-control paradigm is certainly not new. Douglas McGregor wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in 1960. Clearly inspired by Maslow’s work (Maslow On Management, Revised Edition 1998), McGregor defined Theory X and Y in his work. Theory X describes an authoritative leader who does not trust their people. They see employees as not being responsible and accountable for their work, believe people are generally resistant to change, and have a tendency towards not working. Therefore, people require a controlling, performance-pushing leader. Theory Y explains a leader that is collaborative and trusting of people. This leader sees people as meaning seekers, taking responsibility and accountability for their work, willing and wanting to contribute.   Theory Y suggests that leaders should focus on empowering, trusting and focusing on their growth. 

Theory X assumes that the typical worker has little ambition, avoids responsibility, and is individual goal oriented. In general, leaders that possess a Theory X style believe their employees are less intelligent, less motivated, and work solely for a sustainable income. Leaders with Theory Y qualities assume employees are intrinsically motivated and intend to better themselves without requiring a direct reward in return. These leaders view their employees as one of the most valuable assets to the company’s success, driving the internal workings of the corporation. (Hattangadi). 

The fundamental assumption behind this trust-based approach is a belief in humankind to be good and do good. This is enhanced by creating the right environment. There is an increasing body of neuroscientific evidence on organizational culture that shows the benefits of building trust into the fabric of organizations. Our findings are completely in line with this notion; self-actualizing organizations, and those that are working hard to be, are built on a foundation of trust. It is no wonder the Great Place to Work Institute of Canada’s research points directly at trust as the fuel for great workplace culture and high-performance organizations.

From Directing to Enabling 

Leaders in an authoritarian, controlling paradigm see directing people towards goals as part of their role. These leaders push results. This idea of pushing for results, solutions and learning, versus. enabling and allowing the process to happen naturally, is a topic drawing significant attention in the coaching world. Moving away from directing and to enabling and empowering is the very basis of coaching. 

Timothy Gallwey’s book, The Inner Game of Tennis, is seen as one of the biggest breakthroughs in sports coaching literature from the 1980s. In this book, Gallwey explains that all participation in sport consists of two kinds of games: the outer game and the inner game. The outer game is technical. For example, how to hold the racket, the right way of swinging, the rules, and so on. The inner game is what is happening inside the player. Gallwey mentions two selves in the inner game. Self 1 is the judge/critic and self 2 is the doer. The doer signifies our body’s natural ability to learn through observing and allowing. He talks about fostering natural learning, how babies learn in all species, and how we can enable this natural learning by silencing our inner judge. How Gallwey implemented this philosophy as a sports coach, and the number of athletes and coaches quoting his work, is significant even to this day. As coaching is gaining prominence in leadership and organizations, leaders are also seeking ways to enable the best in their people and the ways they work together and support each other. 

From Shareholders to Stakeholders

In August of 2019, 200 CEOs from the largest and most influential companies in the US came together at the Business Roundtable and announced a new statement of purpose for corporations. At that meeting, they changed the term “shareholder value” to “stakeholder value” and specifically called out the importance of things like investing in people, compensating fairly, providing important benefits, supporting learning and development needs, and helping people obtain new skills for a rapidly changing world.

During that event Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Chairman of Business Roundtable, was quoted saying, “Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term. These modernized principles reflect the business community’s unwavering commitment to continue to push for an economy that serves all Americans.”

Needless to say the rest of the world was also listening, as evidenced in the ways organizations have responded to their people over the past year in the height of a global pandemic. In an article by Forbes entitled 50 Ways Companies Are Giving Back During the Coronavirus Pandemic, numerous examples point to shareholder value: Amazon gave everyone a raise, Starbucks expanded their mental health benefits, Delta’s CEO gave up his salary for the year to reduce layoffs, and Apple offered unlimited paid sick leave for any employee experiencing COVID symptoms. These are just a few examples of the ways some of the most notable organizations stepped up to support people and their needs during a rapidly changing and uncertain time. 

From Profit Only to Triple Bottom Line 

The limited view of a business’ purpose being “shareholder value” has been challenged for many years, even in capitalist literature. The term “triple bottom line” was coined in 1994 by John Elkington, the founder of a British consultancy called SustainAbility. (The Economist, 2009). 

The triple bottom line movement explains that a corporation needs to consider its impact on people (clients, employees, and other employees in their supply chain), the planet (environmental awareness), and profits, and needs to seek a balance among all three of these areas. This view encourages an organization to invest in its people, not just for technical knowledge development, but also for soft skills and personal growth.

In our work with organizations, we have seen the importance of this shift in sole priority time and time again; self-actualizing organizations are moving away from just seeking economic value and are adding an increased focus to supporting social and ecological value as well.  

From Organization as a Machine to Organization as a Living Organism 

The dominant leadership paradigm of the 20th century was businesses that operated like well-oiled machines. These organizations could simply change or replace a part (or person) that didn’t work. In other words, people were seen as machine pieces, easy to replace.

In the 21st century, the paradigm has shifted to that of a living organism; we are like cells working together, focusing on collaboration, moving forward from the past, working to support each other and the business, and focusing on interdependence as a rule.

When we work with leaders, we focus on building their psychological mindedness and helping them with understanding human dynamics, human needs, and culture dynamics. Some of the best reference points for organizations focusing on interdependence come from Peter Senge and Chris Argylis, both pioneers of the Learning Organization Model. Learning organizations are known for having a shared vision, for employing systems-thinking mentality, promoting team learning, and striving for mastery—all aspects of a living, interconnected organism and all pointing toward self-actualization. 

In an article by sociologist Leyla Acaroglu on systems thinking, she pinpoints the 6 fundamental concepts needed to develop and advance a systems mindset. Unlike the old mentality of “replace it if it doesn’t work,” this shift in mindset is based off interconnectedness, synthesis, emergence, feedback, causality, and systems mapping. In other words, and specifically in the wise words of Scientist Donella Meadows, “A system is a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system’s objective.” This is the new way. This is the better way. This is the ideal 21st century corporate culture based off of everything we know about collaboration and human dynamics. If it operates as a system, it can set any organization up for tremendous success. 

From Hierarchical to Relational Work 

In the 21st century we have seen a significant shift. Leaders are expected to understand people; be able to connect, empower, build relationships with all stakeholders; and break down barriers. What’s more,they are expected to do all of this with authenticity and grace. 

In John Maxwell’s book, Leadershift: 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace, he talks about how management used to be all about titles, stability, and positional authority. He then articulates how today’s leadership is different—it’s about influence, adaptability, and moral authority. Managers are given responsibility; leaders earn respect. 

In moving away from hierarchy and towards a more relational, connected way of leading, leaders are able to prove they are competent, have character, and show consistent courage.  This is a significant shift and one that is changing culture rapidly in organizations where executive and senior leaders have been bold and authentic enough to consistently adopt these relational behaviours. 

From Principle-Based Ethics to Relational Ethics 

In the 20th century, the dominant leadership paradigm was focused on principle-based ethics. At the heart of principle-based ethics is one question: is it right or wrong? One might also look at this from the perspective of what shall be or what ought to be. 

Relational ethics come from a place of caring about the other person and is a different approach to the previous black and white thinking around what is right or wrong. The 21st century concept of relational ethics finds us stepping into the grey area: what is right for one may not be right for another. Context, intention, situation, and thought process matter. Relational ethics are about empathy.

The Maslow Centre is among the first to really tap into this distinction and uncover the importance of using empathy as a key informant of relational ethics. Some of our inspiration comes from philosopher Nel Noddings in her acclaimed book Caring, where she builds a philosophical argument for ethics based on natural caring. The idea here is that a rigid rule and principle focus on ethics is not always a human relational and empathetic approach. This is not to say that principle-based ethics should be disregarded, but rather that listening, empathizing, and walking in someone else’s proverbial shoes is all the role of a caring and attuned leader. We all have different experiences and situations; it is a wonderful skill to be able to see and support people as they are.  

From Promotion-Oriented Careers to Growth and Development-Oriented Coaching

In the 20th century, there was a focus on promotion as an indication of growth and development. Achieving the title, the responsibility, and the pay band were indications of success. 

In the 21st century, title, responsibility, and pay bands are still important, but they are not the only growth conversations happening. In fact, conversations around growth, development, and progression are holistic in nature, recognizing that our careers are journeys, not ladders. They who reign the highest are no longer the winner of the game. They who learn grow; develop;, gain mindfulness; and balance courage, influence, and respect takes the cake! This is also known as self-actualization. 

In our work with organizations, we constantly hear about employee expectations to experience growth through promotion. Sometimes, this leaves leaders perplexed about how to provide meaningful growth and development opportunities, if new titles and more money are not always available (or the answer). In moving to a mindset that is development-oriented, we often suggest creating a career journey map and working with employees to fill in the blanks and determine a path that will be meaningful. Harvard Business Review has an article on mapping out career ambitions; it suggests starting with a simple from/to statement that articulates where you are today and what your next (not ultimate) step or development is. It then suggests creating a personal experience map that shows which experiences you want to acquire in the next 2-5 years to get to where you want to go. 

Much like our careers, self-actualization is a journey. The best way leaders can support growth and development in their people is to talk about where they are headed and be instrumental in helping clear that path. 

From Human Resources to People and Culture

A recent report by IBM on HR 3.0 stated that more than two-thirds of executives say the global HR function is due, yet again, for another disruption.  Although not a new topic, the pandemic has undoubtedly brought a renewed urgency to this discussion. 

We know that the best companies in the world (based on profitability, growth, and innovation) are already reinventing HR. We also know that at the centre of this reinvention are organizations that humanize and engage people and cultivate resiliency and trust.

In the article Accelerating the Journey to HR 3.0 by the IBM Institute for Business Value in collaboration with Josh Bersin Academy, they state that in studying hundreds of global companies, HR departments fell into three main categories: traditional (1.0), business partnership (2.0), and now, accounting for only 10% of organizations, agile consulting (3.0). If most organizations are getting into and gaining comfort in the HR 2.0 world, there is still a long way to go before entering the realm of vast innovation, intelligent cognitive tools, and transparency and inclusion within organizations. 

The leaders we are working with absolutely want to be on the side of HR 3.0 described above. They want to live in the reality and excitement of being part of another HR revolution, one that recognizes people, technology, and innovation as the new role for HR and the new basis of organizational culture. The human resources function is shifting to one of laser focus on People & Culture and, in the not-so-distant future, organizations that can grasp this concept will not only stand out, but  also become destinations for the world’s best talent. 

Maslow and Beyond 

The common knowledge on Abraham Maslow’s work is very much limited to the Hierarchy of Needs and does not reflect the essence of his work and vision. We are on a quest of redefining self-actualizing leadership in the 21st century, inspired by Maslow’s work. Knowing the importance of organizations working towards becoming both people-focused and high performance, Maslow’s work has never been more relevant than in the current day and age. We know so much more now about people, human dynamics, organizational culture implications, and unlimited potential.  

Although self-actualization as a concept might sound self-involved, it could not be further from it. Self-actualization is a place where selfishness and unselfishness meet, where an individual’s needs are in alignment with the needs of others. Maslow was one of the first to use the word “synergy” to describe self-actualization. Diving deeper into our research, our continued from/to analysis, and into our own observations of self-actualizing leadership and organizations, we will continue to explore these topics in our future articles.