We are in the midst of an epidemic of apathy and anemia in our workplaces. By many measures, workplace satisfaction, happiness and worker engagement are dropping. Workplace satisfaction in particular is at an all-time low since The Conference Board starting conducting its survey in 1987. The costs of this dissatisfaction and disengagement are huge in terms of productivity for employers and in terms of happiness for employees.

This was the situation aboard the USS Santa Fe when I was assigned there at the beginning of 1999. Performance was low, morale was low, and everyone was hanging around waiting to be told what to do. It wasn’t the fault of the crew; it was the natural extension of the leadership model. You may have had a job where you were transported into apathy and disengagement. Think about the characteristics of that job and the leadership in that workplace.

When companies encounter these problems, their response is to study leadership more, and to invest more in executive coaching and employee empowerment, only for the problem to stubbornly persist. This is because the problem isn’t that we are not applying enough leadership or good enough leadership, the problem is that we are applying the wrong leadership. The effect is the same as using a map of Chicago to navigate your way around Paris. You can study it more and more, it’s just not going to help. We need to think anew about what leadership is.

How did we get here?

For thousands of years, work was primarily physical. If your family was the official statisticians measuring the portion of workers doing primarily physical work and the portion of workers doing primarily intellectual work starting in ancient Greece, basically nothing would have happened for 80 generations. It would have been a boring job. The vast majority of workers were engaged in agriculture, a physical activity. With the industrial revolution, jobs started shifting from agricultural to industrial. However, this was still primarily physical labor – running a sewing machine, filling a furnace. Physical work has certain characteristics. For one thing, it lends itself to visible observation. I can see whether the hoe is going up and down or the bobbin is moving. As a result, physical labor lends itself to coercive control. Our current leadership model developed over the thousands of years when work was physical and is, in a sense, optimized for that kind of work. This is very important to understand because this centuries-old model serves to tell what is “normal” about leadership. It is the model we see in the classics of literature, in movies, and in the stories we tell about our civilization.

Suddenly, the fundamental nature of work is changing. We are living through a time when the primary component of work is becoming intellectual, not physical. The fact that I can actually measure these changes means that this is happening very rapidly on a human scale. All of a sudden, my statistician job, after 2,000 years, is exciting!

Even work that has been primarily physical is becoming more and more intellectual. A worker producing machine parts used to run a lathe where the interface was his hands; now, he is running a complex $100,000 3D CNC machine where the interface is through a computer.

If you apply a leadership model that was developed and optimized over thousands of years to manage work that was primarily physical to work that is primarily intellectual, it would be surprising if there were a perfect fit. There isn’t, and as a result of that, there are troubling contradictions that you have likely experienced. I experienced these contradictions in the following way.

First, the way I was being told to treat people wasn’t the way I wanted to be treated. Our leadership model was all about command and control, exuding confidence, creating visions, motivating workers, and setting clear expectations. When placed in a subordinate role, I often felt, well, I can do exactly that, but it won’t feel very satisfying and, oh, by the way, there’s a better way to do almost all the things we are trying to accomplish here. This bothered me.

Secondly, I didn’t understand why empowering people was necessary. I’m not saying that I didn’t understand the value of empowered people; I just didn’t understand why they weren’t naturally empowered. For many of us in positions where we were responsible for team outputs, we have lamented why portions of our team exhibited little energy, passion and ownership. If humans in midlife require empowerment, then either we were born unempowered or we were born empowered and were subsequently disempowered. It seems unlikely that the species that took over the earth could possibly be born unempowered. So, we must have been disempowered somewhere along the line. At what point were we disempowered? When, why and how did that happen? Wouldn’t it be better to simply not disempower ourselves in the first place?

Finally, I was deeply troubled by the monumentally bad performance of some teams from time to time. My experience was in the submarine force, where occasionally groundings and collisions will occur, but I read about companies imploding as well. When we look at organizations that have failed, we often see that bad decisions at the top caused the failure. In submarines, sometimes it was a specific decision the captain took that the crew did not correct, and sometimes it was a more general condition or culture that was developed on the boat. In any case, the performance of the team, of the organization, was very closely linked to the performance of the leader. This is the natural result of a leadership model which is personality centered.

I can give you an example of the power of this model in its ability to propagate errors uncorrected. As the captain of the USS Santa Fe, I remember giving my first order to the officer of the deck during a drill we were running on the propulsion plant: “Ahead two-thirds on the EPM.” That’s a specific speed setting on how fast I wanted us to be going. He ordered it, but the helmsman, the youngest kid in the control room, just squirmed in his chair. When I asked what the problem was, he said, “Sir, we don’t have a two-thirds setting on this EPM.” Of course, what astounded me was that the officer of the deck, a department head, had ordered it. When I asked him, he told me afterward that he didn’t think it was right, yet, he didn’t question my order. Don’t blame him, though, because the traditional model says, obey orders. Well, that was the first and last order I ever gave on that ship.

We need to change the way we treat each other, especially at work. We need a new model of leadership. The fundamental problem is the concept that people lead people. You may be reacting to this statement with an “of course, what else could you want?” Well, here’s the problem. If people lead other people, then that means there are large numbers of people who simply follow other people. It is this casting of a significant portion of an organization’s human capital as followers that is so limiting; for once, we are told to be followers, we act as followers and that’s the problem. We recognize this; we say, “Why are you just following along? Where is your energy, passion and ownership?” Now starts the long road of empowerment to undo the disempowerment that happens when we put you in a follower status. Followers don’t need to think that hard; they don’t need to know that much about their jobs, and this leader-follower structure is not a model for employee happiness. In this new world of intellectual work, people lead themselves.

Think about it, what would it take for you to give your all, assuming your supervisor cannot see how hard you are working?

Our revolution embraces the notion that “I lead myself.” I am responsible for my intellectual energy and passion. At the same time, it rejects the notion that leaders lead people. What do leaders do then? Well, they create the structures where people lead themselves. This is difficult and takes significant thought, creativity and boldness.

In our work, we have developed a model that requires strength in all three of the following areas in order to make this shift:

  • Control. People need control over how they work and what they work on.

  • Competence. People need time to zealously study their craft and become masters.

  • Connectedness. People need to have a connection to something beyond themselves. For some, it’s the greater team; for others, it’s a raison d’être transcending the specifics of their condition.

Once we have set up a workplace with these attributes, we can achieve things that command-and-control leadership organizations will never do. Not only can we be supremely effective, but that effectiveness will live on and on. It will endure past the tenure of any particular leader. This will create a resilient organization that adapts to changes in the environment. Additionally, we will naturally create leaders throughout the organization. It will happen because of the way we run the organization, not because we have some kind of leadership development process. Everyone will be used to interpreting situations, considering the goals of the group and making decisions to best accomplish them.

On board the Santa Fe, we changed the culture when we had officers stop asking permission and start saying, “I intend to.” Another thing we did was stop giving briefs. Now in the military, we love briefs. You’ve seen it in the movies. This is where we gather around the map and the general sweeps his arm back and forth describing in clear terms what everyone will do. What could be wrong with that? Well, the problem is that it is passive for everyone except the briefer. Everyone else just shows up and gets briefed. What did these attendees do the 12 hours prior to the brief? It didn’t matter. What we did was eliminate briefs and perform certifications instead. In a certification, the officer in charge asks questions. He needs to know what everyone will do because he is administering a test. But every member has thought about his or her job, what he or she needs to do, what he or she can do, and what ideas that person has for making it better. They’ve spent the previous hours on this. Imagine the powerful difference multiplied hundreds of times over many days and in many places in an organization! It was breath-taking!

Now, why is it so hard? It is hard because this will strike most of us as odd, unnatural and going against what we’ve been taught about leadership, not to mention the images we see in most movies and books. It requires an egoless leader and putting process above personality.

This article appeared in the June edition of Life Cycle Engineering’s IMPACT newsletter. For more information on LCE, visit www.LCE.com.