In June 1979, the United States hit an important milestone, when 18.7 percent of all US workers, nearly 20 million Americans, were employed in manufacturing, the highest percentage ever. A well-run shop floor is a thing of beauty, a dance of people and machinery requiring consistency, precision, and task-based attention, all in service to producing quality products of one type or another. Workers were trained and managed in specific, prescriptive ways; standards were set, compliance was mandated and measured. Individual workers reported to section leaders who reported to shop managers who reported to management in the corporate office in a hierarchy of command and control, a leadership structure designed to ensure compliance and consistency. Six Sigma was to be born a few years later. Consistency. Efficiency. Repeatability. This was the zeitgeist that informed professional leadership thinking for decades.
Fast forward to the present day. Over 80% of US workers are employed in one service sector or another, from healthcare and education to professional and business services to leisure and hospitality and beyond. Anyone reading this post is nearly guaranteed to be a “knowledge worker” in one field or another. The makeup of the labor force has changed as well, with much greater diversity and higher levels of educational achievement across the board. To summarize, we have a more diverse, more highly educated pool of workers laboring in fields where success is rarely defined by the production of widgets but instead by more amorphous ideals like customer experience and net-promoter score.
We are also in a time of post-covid social upheaval, a reconsideration of values and norms, not the least of which includes our collective relationship with work. Union membership is near an all-time low. Corporate pensions and gold watch retirements are relics of a bygone age. Workers curate LinkedIn profiles and invest in Zoom lights and podcast quality microphones. High schoolers aspire, unironically, to be influencers. Gig work is not just a last refuge, it is a lifestyle choice. Digital nomads abound. Command and control? Just see what gets posted to Glassdoor. Remember Jack Welch firing 10 percent of workers every year (there was actually a book called Topgrading in the 90’s which espoused just that as cutting-edge corporate strategy). Remember Hank Paulsen lauded for shouting and banging on board room tables? How quaint to think we once celebrated antisocial behavior as corporate heroism. But no more.
We seem to be moving rapidly away from traditions of hierarchy, and sprinting headlong into the brave new world of distributed networks of decision making and autonomy. Leaders providing instructions and accountability is fairly straightforward; leaders driving engagement and motivation among a highly educated, highly diverse, highly mobile workforce is a different thing entirely. This conversation is taking place everywhere across corporate America right now, with research yielding new discoveries and insights into how individuals learn, think, grow, and thrive, and how leaders can balance the interests of the individual with those of the company.
This is the first in a unique series of articles and conversations exploring the nature of leadership. We’ll explore how leadership shapes our societies, businesses, and personal lives. Throughout this series, we hope to enrich the dialogue on leadership development, paving the way for a new understanding of what it means to lead in today’s world.
Join us. We’ll try to make it interesting.