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If We’re All Talented People, Why Do We Still Need a Leader?

If We’re All Talented People, Why Do We Still Need a Leader?
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A 2015 study by Gallup revealed that a shocking 1 in 2 people who quit their jobs left because of poor management.[1] Fewer than 1/3 of American workers report feeling engaged at work, and poor leadership is partly to blame. If leaders are so bad for our work environment, why do we still have them?

Unexpectedly, leadership is in our biology.

As much as many of us hate to admit it, we are naturally predisposed to seek the guidance of leaders. The dynamic between leaders and followers can be found across countless species– from horses to bees to wolves. Leaders compel groups to act in order to keep them safe or help them fulfill a biological need to eat, drink, or reproduce.[2]

Primates have evolved to form complex social hierarchies. Like chimps and macaques, we humans have created social structures to guarantee that our basic needs are met and ensure the well-being of the group.[3]

In the animal kingdom, some creatures reach leadership status through circumstances.

These are called circumstantial leaders. For example, if a stallion is killed, leadership of the herd reverts to the next dominant horse in line. Equines work to understand who is “high horse” every day so that they can ensure that their leader is the strongest and the most likely to assure their survival.

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While it has gotten easier for us to get what we need, we still organize ourselves into hierarchies in response to circumstances. Some leaders come to their positions organically. For example, a worker with specialized training may find themselves in charge of a professional development workshop simply because they possess knowledge that their coworkers need.

Some species actively assert their leadership abilities to convince others to follow them.

These are called prospective leaders.Ants and bees send members of their group in search of food sources. These scouts return to their group after finding food, and they convince others to follow them through “dances” or distinct flight patterns.

Human leaders also assert their desire to take on leadership roles. They may volunteer to take on more responsibility or apply for jobs that enable them to take on leadership roles. They make their intent to lead explicit to the rest of the group. If they make their case convincingly enough, others will follow them.

We are wired to have things in order.

This information about animal social hierarchies is all well and good, but it doesn’t seem to explain why you need to listen to your boss today. As it turns out, leaders in the work place are a continuation of our natural inclination to organize.

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From early hominids, to hunter-gathers, to the current members of the Information Age, leaders rise to create order.[4]

Organization of groups and new technology helped people transition from livings as nomads to agrarians to agriculturalists. The Neolithic Revolution, which marked an increased reliance on agriculture,[5] spurred human settlements to grow and organize in new ways.

This organization was necessary to maintain control and safeguard the settlements’ survival. Settlement development continued for thousands of years and resulted in some of today’s most impressive archaeological remains. The pyramids at Giza were not constructed by a bunch of individuals depositing 15-ton blocks at their leisure, after all. Real cooperation and skill went into building these elaborate tombs, and it was all done at the behest of their leaders, the pharaohs.

The massive Bronze Age palaces of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos exemplify regional centers in Greece. We see similar evidence for social hierarchy in the Mississippian United States in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Although these communities conceptualized their worlds differently and existed on opposite ends of the globe, the result of their leadership structure was the same; they could ensure the survival of their people through amassing resources, which could be redistributed in the event of a crisis. These settlement structures also enabled groups to trade items within their network to enrich the lives of their people and further reinforce the status of certain members of these groups.

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Games such as Sid Meier’s Civilization help modern audiences understand the way that leadership styles adapted to address socio-political and environmental issues throughout human history.[6]

Our definition of leadership has changed though.

In general, past leadership styles relied on centralized control and the presence of an exalted leader. (Think of all the god-kings that pepper our history books.) Today, leadership tends to be more diffuse, collaborative, and group-oriented.[7] Our interest in democracies is one example of this distribution of power across multiple entities.

In addition to unifying us to ensure the survival of the species, our leaders work to help our companies and businesses survive. Leadership is constantly evolving to address the changing social and political climate. At this point, there seems to be a disconnect between what we need from our leaders and what they offer us today, which could explain why we question our need for them. Recent scholarship considers finding solid leadership talent to be one of the top concerns facing businesses today.[8]

Modern leaders do best when they avoid autocracy.

Democratic leaders seek input from team members. The combined intellectual and creative input leads to a more energetic and optimistic work environment. Leaders who seek to develop the skills of their subordinates foster a growth mindset in the workplace.

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Group leaders may have a great deal of skill, but the most gifted leaders recognize that they must give their team members opportunities to shine in order to support their objectives. Distributing some power enables employees to become more confident, competent, and invested. When everyone is committed to the outcome, the combined talents of the group exceed the capabilities of the leader acting alone.

The tendency toward collaboration is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

One of the biggest struggles that companies face today is the readiness gap. [9] A recent study found that only 25% of Fortune 500 companies felt they had leaders adequately prepared to fill leadership roles. When we consider this gap, it is easy to understand why our bosses may occasionally do cringe-worthy things. Developing leadership skills takes time, and right now our demand outstrips the supply.

Even with a talented workforce, we still need leaders to shape our direction and lead us toward an overarching vision. In spite of a perceived lack of experience, the best leaders work to grow their skills. Rather than take on an adversarial relationship with our superiors, there may be room for negotiation and input that can lead to profound outcomes for all of us.

A world without leaders could be chaotic.

Despite the fact that sometimes our bosses miss the mark, when they do their jobs well, their employees have more freedom to excel in their roles. Managers have administrative responsibilities for which we are unaware. When they take on these burdens, they allow us to focus and make our day run more smoothly. Our leaders resolve conflicts and help us unify around a collective vision.

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Even on our leaders’ worst days, their presence is preferable to a world in which they don’t exist. While we could survive without leaders, competition over resources would likely lead to violence and destabilization, and it would stall our ability to innovate as a society. Imagine a workplace in which there is no one to resolve conflicts and no one to have the final say.

It takes visionaries to motivate groups of people to unite around a common goal. Public works, advances in modern technology, and our continuous drive toward making the world a better place could not happen without leadership and collaboration.

Reference

More by this author

Angelina Phebus

Writer, Yoga Instructor (RYT 200)

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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