Leadership theories for EAs

Every year a plethora of books, articles and principles adding to leadership paradigms are shared across all mediums. Amidst these trends there’s a concept that’s become popular in recent years: ‘everyone is a leader.’ This is closer to truth than you may imagine, writes Mark Carter.

Leadership is a curious word. Even though it’s existed in action since the earliest civilisations, the expression itself is new, termed only in the last couple of centuries.

For 94,000 of 100,000 years of humanity, tribes were effectively acephalous, meaning they operated without any specific head. There was no singular nominated leader. You would be given permission to lead by peers amongst your tribe, and they may be willing to follow essentially based on merit, competencies and skills.

It’s only in the last three to six thousand years of human history that chieftains and formal leaders were placed at the tribal or group head, these titles then being passed on through hereditary birth right. Or, perhaps, gained through strategic alliances, marriage and partnerships of convenience designed to expand a dynasties influence, wealth or power. Or, something we know also happens in business, through political or strategic manoeuvres at times.

There are some clues in the evolution of theories that EAs can learn from then keep tapping into, to be seen amidst your own organisation as a natural leader that others are willing to follow.

The traits of great leaders

Many of the earliest leadership concepts centered on a focus that someone was destined to be a leader at certain historical times. This principle is still discussed as having relevance. Think, in the United States, of the variety of Native American Indian leaders, like Geronimo (who powerfully resisted the subjugation of his people) through to Franklin D Roosevelt, the only president elected four times. A personal favourite, representing strong female leaders, is Joan of Arc who was entrusted to lead French armies against the English at the tender age of sixteen.

In business we too see such legends are created. This is often through founder stories or employees who, in a business sense, have created legacies or left an indelible mark through initiatives and ideas.

A major evolution in leadership theories from that of destiny alone is ‘trait theory’, perhaps best surmised through ideas shared in Napoleon Hill’s 1937 book Think and Grow Rich. Apparently, the project was 20-years of researching leaders, from politics and business to science and sport, to identify common key ingredients to success.

The book, which remains a best seller in the personal development genre, lists nine qualities of leadership – clues as to how you, within your role, may be perceived of higher value across the peer groups and departments you serve:

  1. Unwavering courage
  2. Self-control
  3. A keen sense of justice
  4. Definiteness of decision
  5. A pleasing personality
  6. Sympathy and understanding
  7. Mastery of detail
  8. A willingness to assume full responsibility
  9. Co-operation

I’m sure you’ll agree that, despite dating back to almost 100 years ago, the list is still very relevant – and probably sounds very familiar as common dispositions of an EA.

There is one to perhaps take special note of – number 4. Have you heard of the expression: ‘crossing the Rubicon’? Essentially a metaphor, it relates to the moment Julius Caesar crossed his army over the Rubicon River. It was an irreversible, calculated decision, sparking civil war that ultimately led to his own destiny.

Great leaders make decisions assuredly and swiftly, as circumstances require, based on solid, holistic information at hand – plus their intuition. They change their minds steadily and slowly – if at all. On the other hand, someone who constantly flip-flops their opinions and decisions might be perceived lacking confidence or certainty. And this creates confusion amongst the followers in the tribe.

From traits to behaviours

Beyond trait theory came behaviour theory, and there are two key aspects worth your consideration here.

Let’s look to the Blake Moulton Managerial Grid where leaders were mapped against natural behaviour relating to two primary axes:

  • Priority on tasks or ‘production’
  • Priority with regards to ‘people’

Leaders with a strong production focus (and far less on people) may have a natural leadership behaviour style that would be considered dictatorial. Conversely, leaders high on people and less so on production may be considered more accommodating in their approach.

Later theories add to this that behaviour theory is a good starting point to recognise those leaders who have an ability to adapt behaviour-based situations – they may prove more versatile and worthy of being followed in the long run.

Another observation from behaviour theory proves highly relevant for our current times – leaders who could ‘walk the floor in turmoil’ are ones people are more inclined to listen to and follow. Look at Boris’s parties, or state leaders playing politics for the case of popularity and polling a little closer to home. At times, they’ve not walked the same path as the citizens they serve.

This – decisions and rules made during a global pandemic often not being respected or followed by those calling the shots – has been a complaint against leaders over the past few years, especially political ones.

Emotional intelligence

There are many other leadership theories and a common skill to hone or work on them is that of emotional intelligence.

The power of applying EQ really does positively impact the perception of you as a leader, and give you the skills required to powerfully lead:

  • Self-awareness: Know thyself
  • Self-regulation: Think before you leap or act
  • Social awareness: The consideration of others
  • Social regulation: Adapt when dealing with your outer world
  • Drive: A propensity for positive momentum forward, including resilience.

There’s a clue in the word itself…

There are several actions you may take from this piece but let’s close by saying this: The clue is in the title and the action.

In the same vein of Audrey Hepburn-style pick-me-ups (I’m thinking ‘Nothing’s impossible – the word itself says “I’m possible”’) remind yourself that everyone truly is a leader. And you’re perhaps in a small group – maybe even the only role in the world – whose title is intrinsically linked to the action. Whether it’s taking a lead, being a leader or demonstrating strong leadership, ‘ea’ lives within the words!

You don’t need an official title to be a leader. First be confident within your own skin. Then, simply show the fruit in the basket, so to speak, as you systematically and regularly resolve problems for virtually every little pocket of your own business tribe.