The leadership theories that have guided business for many years are not agile enough to cope with the rapid and complex changes taking place in the world today. What’s more, they contribute to leaders feeling insecure and dissatisfied, and to work environments lacking in engagement, trust and emotional intelligence.
Our research suggests a better way forward lies with a new blend of leadership styles that not only enables businesses to thrive in the face of complexity, but also provides a foundation for reduced stress and greater mental health.
The framework described in our research paper “Ego, Eco and Intuitive leadership... a new logic for disruptive times” was developed based on findings from interviews with senior business leaders and teams across different organisations and industries. These interviews illustrated how traditional leadership theories can lead to dissonance, not only in how people and businesses perform, but in psychological well-being.
One CEO we spoke with described a growing sense of dissatisfaction despite his success and doing everything right, according to conventional leadership thinking. Over time, he said, that dissatisfaction became unbearable.
“From my previous work experience I was educated to strive to be at the top in a highly competitive work environment, I was told that you have to be in control, measuring everything and taking strong top-down action, so these were the leadership characteristics I strived for and I became a control freak,” he said. “For almost 45 years, I had not understood why I had been functioning like this.”
His breakthrough came in what we call a “crucible moment”: a realisation, while working with a coach, that his unhappiness stemmed from his competing desires for control and acceptance. From there, he learned to let things go and put a greater focus on intuition and trust.
Interviews like these led us to realise that “yesterday’s logic” and the traditional top-down leadership style not only no longer apply to today’s business environment, but are detrimental to people’s psychological well-being. Instead, organisations and people alike are better served by a combination of leadership styles: ego, which is guided by “one’s sense of unique identity”; eco, which uses ecosystem thinking to support self-organisation and self-management; and intuitive, based on instinct, nonconscious thought and “eureka” moments.
Such a leadership blend is more supportive of trust, psychological well-being and mental health. And this is more critical than ever, as rates of depression and anxiety are rising globally.
The World Economic Forum has estimated the economic costs of poor mental health will reach $16.3 trillion between 2011 and 2030.
“The impact of poor mental health on the workforce is significant and tangible,” reports the WEF. It notes that a recent survey in the UK found that “49% do not feel there is an appropriate culture in their workplace to enable people to open up about their mental wellbeing”.
With the business environment facing a “worrying increase in poor mental health and work-related stress”, the CIPD says more effort is needed to enable healthy workplaces. This requires focusing greater attention on how work is organised, as well as on “the degree of control and autonomy that people have over their work, and the organisational culture”.
As our research found, traditional leadership styles can leave people feeling less rather than more in control. One of the participants we interviewed said leading his organisation felt like “riding an elephant”: despite his efforts to direct the elephant in a specific direction, the elephant went where it wanted to go. We believe the ego/eco/intuitive framework will better equip leaders to “ride the elephant”.
The ego style of leadership, for instance, provides such benefits as clear accountability and control, while the eco style empowers people in an organisation to work with others in more flexible ways that build mutual respect, trust and understanding. Meanwhile, the intuitive style gives leaders the freedom to let go of their need for control, allowing them to trust their instincts and insights to do what they feel is right.
A blend of ego, eco and intuitive leadership styles can also help to prevent workplace tension that arises when leaders and organisations have different values. Our research found numerous cases where motivation and engagement were negatively affected by misalignments between leadership styles and organisational culture. For example, leaders with an eco style felt alienated when working in an organisation with a largely ego-led culture.
Without the right blend of leadership styles, leaders can also become “stuck” in a single style, which limits their ability to perform according to their full potential.
One of the organisations we studied, the European insurance group Bâloise, had decided a few years earlier to find ways to transform its leadership styles and organisational culture to better navigate the fast-changing business environment. Those changes did more than help the company achieve strong growth and rising dividends for shareholders, but also put a fresh focus on peoples’ well-being. The guiding message for this transformation was “Happy employees=happy customers=happy business” (that is, a business with sustainable growth).
While every organisation has its unique needs and culture, they can all benefit from a more flexible blend of leadership styles that enables them to better adapt to change and to thrive even in times of chaos. What’s more, such an approach also provides people with greater engagement, motivation and a sense of well-being that benefits their overall mental health.