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Edward D. Hess


Seven ‘Old School’ Workplace Strengths That Are Now Weaknesses

Examining evolution in leadership

Published: Monday, November 23, 2020 - 12:02

The times they are a-changing... and so is the nature of our work. As our familiar world crumbles around us (thanks, Covid-19), and technology continues snapping up more of the tasks humans have always done, we’ll need a whole new set of skills. If we want to stay employed and viable, we must reinvent ourselves. Leaders. Employees. Everyone.

This isn’t like adding new rooms onto an old house; it’s more like tearing it down to the foundation and rebuilding. The new world we’re entering has flipped everything upside down. The skills, mindsets, and ways of being that were once prized and sought after have actually become liabilities.

In a nutshell, we must all be able to continuously learn, unlearn, and relearn by adapting to the reality of the world as it evolves. This isn’t easy, considering our inherent ego-driven need to defend what we think we know. It requires a whole new way of being and a whole new way of working—which, in turn, requires a whole new way of leading.

With these things in mind, let’s look at seven skills and attitudes that not long ago might have gotten you a corner office—but may now get you fired.

Command-and-control leadership

Expecting people to “follow orders or else” worked well in a traditional factory. In that setting, you expect people to be cogs—to do rather than to think, problem-solve, and connect. In the digital age, though, you’ll need to lead people whose jobs require innovation, creativity, and emotional engagement. You cannot coerce or command people to do these things. Instead, you must create the conditions that enable them.

Motivation by fear

In the old command-and-control days (think Industrial Revolution), fear worked. It’s an effective motivator when you need people to simply (mindlessly) comply. The problem is, if employees are afraid of negative consequences (anything from verbal abuse to being fired), they won’t take risks, suggest new ideas, report problems, or critique others’ thinking.

When people are motivated by fear, they won’t bring their best selves to work. They won’t be able to engage in hyper-learning. And a company that allows this style of leadership can’t become an “idea meritocracy,” where the best data-driven idea or judgment wins, regardless of rank, compensation, or power.

Being an all-knowing smarty-pants

Pre-internet, the more you knew, the more valuable you were. In school, the higher your grades and fewer your mistakes, the “smarter” you were. That is old-school “smart,” and it is actually a liability in an age that requires constant learning, unlearning, and relearning.

You’ll never be able to store in your head as much information as a computer, and you won’t have fast, perfect recall like a computer. Instead, you’ll now be valued for your ability to think differently from a computer when there is not a lot of knowledge nor a lot of data. You will have to excel at going into the unknown and figuring stuff out. Leaders and employees alike must be good at not knowing rather than knowing. That takes humility, which is the opposite of a big ego.

Hard-driving, Type-A work style

In less complex times, such Type A leaders thrived. Needed results were clear, and leaders could push themselves and others until the results were achieved. In a global economy rife with uncertainty and ambiguity (never has that been more the case than it is right now) nothing is clear. Rather than driving results, leaders must slow down and foster engagement. It’s the only way people can work together to find solutions. If this is to happen, leaders must exist in a state of inner peace—and help employees do the same.

Focus on quick decisions and efficiency

In the past, when the leader’s word was law, being able to make decisions quickly and enforce them was a strength. Not anymore. The best leaders are able to slow down, engage with others, and really listen with a nonjudgmental, open mind. They know that the kinds of high-level conversations that need to happen take time to unfold. Innovation and exploring the new is a process where the answers change as you learn.

Winner-takes-all mindset

Back when companies were military-style hierarchies, it made sense to compete for the boss’s favor. Leaders often encouraged such internal competition because it drove individuals to compete against each other. It was a survival-of-the-fittest environment, pitting people against each other and believing that would produce the best results. In the digital age, work will happen via collaboration in an “idea meritocracy” setting.

High-functioning teams will trump individualism. This means leaders must create environments that foster caring, trusting teams where employees are naturally motivated to work together and help each other.

All-business mentality

Back when employees functioned as human machines, emotions were unnecessary. In fact, they were liabilities. Employers expected people to leave their humanity (certainly their messy emotions) at the door. Today, the opposite is true. Positive emotions are at the heart of learning, connecting, collaborating, and creating. They’re the building blocks of caring, trusting relationships. Great leaders will have to “get” and value the power of emotions. And they’ll need to make a point of showing employees they see and value them as unique human beings.

In the digital age, our human uniqueness will be highly dependent on our emotional capabilities and how we manage our emotions. Work will not be “all business.” It will be all about people and enabling the highest levels of performance in concert with technology.

Becoming a hyper-learner isn’t easy, but it is doable. It’s all about unlearning skills and behaviors that no longer serve us. Actually, many of these are relics of the Industrial Revolution, so they haven’t served us for a long time. I think most will agree that creating workplaces where people can thrive, grow, and become their best selves is worth the effort.


About The Author

Edward D. Hess’s picture

Edward D. Hess

Edward D. Hess, is a consultant and a professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia. Hess is the author of multiple books including, The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes, Smart Growth: Building an Enduring Business by Managing the Risks of Growth, and Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt to the Speed of Change.


Old School

I can't comment on the whole piece, just a hole in the piece.

Suppose you are right, we all have to get comfortable with our and others emotions as we adjust to ever changing Tech.  But I don't believe Tech can constantlly change without Old School STEM knowledge and reason.  And I believe that leading by emotion will lead to mob rule which I abhor.

William H. Pound, PhD and Old School