Fuelling the future with leadership lessons from the past

During a recent PhD workshop, we discussed the premise, ‘there is no new theory, just new empirical contribution’. In other words, the initial theory provides the starting point, but the way we explore, interpret, and add to it is constantly evolving. This is how we learn.

This discussion prompted me to consider this premise further. Can we learn from the past to create a better future and could this apply to leadership?

I believe the answer is, ‘yes’. History can serve as a powerful teacher if we are courageous and intentional enough to allow it to.

Historical Leadership

I was drawn in by a 1939 research paper* that looked at the impact of different leadership styles on patterns of aggressive behaviour in particular social climates. The experiments involved groups of 10-year-old boys carrying out social activities in small teams, each with an adult leader. While the teams stayed the same, the leaders changed over the course of the experiments. Each different leader exhibited one of three, by now well-researched leadership styles; autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire.  

Learning from the past

Perhaps as you read these definitions, you can identify some of these leadership traits within yourself or your organisation. Some leadership behaviours seen in our workplaces today do not enable us to thrive and grow, and so we are not yet profiting from learning from the past.

But what if we asked ourselves this question: How can historical research help us to think differently about the leaders we want to be and those we want to be led by in the future?

I drew three key insights from the 1939 research paper that I believe can help us thrive and grow in our ever-changing workplaces in the present and the future. 

  1. Ego–led leadership results in self-preservation instead of ‘team first’ behaviours.

Led by an autocratic leader, the groups of boys in the study behaved aggressively towards each other with the aim of protecting themselves instead of working for the benefit of the team.

Today, sometimes due to lack of time or high pressure, decisions are cascaded without explanation of how and why the decision connects to the bigger picture, or the opportunity to understand the part we can play. This can lead to a culture where we become focused on self-preservation instead of ‘team first’ behaviours. We carry out instructions without challenge even when we think there could be a better way and we may look for who to blame when things don’t go to plan. We don’t consider the alternative of collectively learning from the situation and finding a better way forward together. 
Tomorrow, what would be different if you had the courage to challenge or simply call out behaviours that appeared to be coming from a place of ego instead of a place of collective thriving? 

2. An empowering style of leadership gives space to inspire and innovate.


In the experiment, a continually directive style of leadership provided little space for discussion or individual contribution. This led to increased tension, which needed an outlet, often showing up as frustration or aggression.

Today, we’re more familiar with the need for situational leadership, which requires us to be flexible in our approach depending on the needs of the situation. For example, when you have no experience of the task in hand you welcome clear direction, the chance to check in at frequent intervals and the confidence to be able to ask for help. Whereas, if you’ve carried out the task many times before, being told how to do it often doesn’t motivate and inspire! But if you’re given the space to get on with it and the freedom to innovate you may discover previously unrealised efficiencies or new performance highs. 
Tomorrow, who will you support in a different way to give them the confidence to start or the space to inspire or innovate? 

3. Healthy cultural habits create an environment where people can thrive and grow.

The authors of the 1939 study talked about ‘the distinguished path’. This means recognised cultural habits that create an environment where people can thrive and grow. These cultural habits were not necessarily always those exhibited by the leader, they were the habits of the group that became the accepted cultural norm. However, the leader’s response to the habits impacted which ones became culturally acceptable and which did not. 

Today, we are experiencing significant change in our cultural habits. The global pandemic created shifts in our working habits at a pace and depth that none of us have experienced before. Instead of looking back and returning to old ways of working, we now have an opportunity to build cultural habits that could make work a place of joy, a place for individuals and organisations to thrive and grow. 

Tomorrow, notice which ‘distinguished paths’ are serving you and your organisation well, and which aren’t. How can you take a courageous first step to build new cultural habits that will help create a better tomorrow in your workplace environment? 

“Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be.  Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, to live better in the future”

William Wordsworth 

The past holds important lessons that can help us create a better future. But to benefit from the past we need to have courage to learn from it.

Leadership is no exception. The way we lead today has evolved from leadership styles of the past, but we don’t want to carry on along the same path and just end up somewhere. We can learn from what has shaped us more intentionally. This takes courage, but the result is a better future and workplaces that enable individuals and organisations to thrive and grow in an ever-changing world.

Work should be a place of joy; a place to thrive and grow.

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*(link) to research paper

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