Historic Leadership & How We Can Do Better

Who do you think of when I say "great leader?" For a lot of people, you probably get images of presidents and conquerors. Napoleon. Washington. Churchill. Alexander the Great. While these people don't really have all that in common apart from being world leaders in their own time and place, it tells us something about how we think about leadership.

There's something in us that still views leaders as people who are in charge of countries and armies. Big stuff.

Too often we're still stuck in an archaic, historical view of leadership. While that view served a purpose, it's not really suited for today's leaders, in the real world, in our daily lives and businesses.

There's a big difference between the historic view of leadership and the modern view of leadership: and that matters when it comes down to how we lead.


The Historic View of Leadership

Rewards & Discipline

Historically, leaders were seen as a guiding force. They set the rules for performance and rewarded or punished behavior accordingly. Think about old models of fatherhood or business leadership. If you did well, you got something (a toy, a promotion), or if you did poorly, you were disciplined (grounded, fired). 

The function of a leader was like that of an overseer who ensured everyone performed as they were supposed to: no stepping out of line. It can reap results, but it typically doesn’t get much more than that.

Leading the Charge

Historic leadership styles are, in a word, Napoleonic. They focus on being the sole tactical mind and decision-maker for the group. Everyone beneath them is there to follow orders, nothing more. While they may have a few close advisors that they listen to, for the most part, their word is the end-all, be-all. They are there to give their wisdom and lead the charge. 

High, Mighty, & Distant

Historically, when we think about leaders, they take on an almost superhuman quality. Presidents, kings, and conquerors are all unapproachable. This mindset can create ego and an inability for a leader to connect with their team. 

Leading comes with a ton of challenges—challenges that people outside of the leadership role don’t always totally understand. The historic leadership style, however, is more about being in a position of power and being above than carrying the true weight of leadership.

Redefining Modern Leadership

Nurturing Talent

Modern leaders focus on nurturing the talent in front of them. Instead of focusing on a system of reward and discipline, they’re concerned with bringing out the very best in their team. That means recognizing and valuing the potential before them. If mistakes are made, they see it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and create better outcomes. 

Inspiring a Vision

The difference between handing down orders and inspiring action towards a common goal can be crucial in the long-term success of our businesses. When our vision is strong and we’re sharing that vision with the team, it serves as a rallying cry. Being a boss isn’t about handing out busywork or menial tasks. Instead, everyone around us feels like they’re playing a part in something bigger. Something meaningful. 

We live in an age where most of the working class (millennials and the generation behind them) care about whether or not their jobs have an impact in the world. Now more than ever, it’s important for leaders to inspire a vision. 

Support & Motivation

New leadership demands that we’re actually involved and engaged with our teams. While there are still the professional lines between boss and employee in place, it doesn’t prevent us from being supportive and “on the ground” as a true part of the team. We’re there, actively taking part. We listen to others’ contributions, make ourselves empathic and emotionally open, and make a conscious effort to encourage the team.

How are True Leaders Made?

So if we know where modern leadership trends are headed, how do we grow into true leaders? After all, not all of us are in those positions yet. It’s not as easy as just stepping into the role of leadership and suddenly being great at it. 

Take & Make Opportunities

One of the best ways to grow into a great leader is to simply take chances. When opportunities to lead present themselves to you, take them. Volunteer to head up projects. Look for areas that need leadership and create spaces to lead. Test out your project management skills.

In your personal life, volunteer more. Any and all practice you can gain in leadership helps cultivate the skills you need to grow as a leader. Don’t skip out on opportunity. And if there doesn’t seem to be opportunity? Make some for yourself. Experience is always the greatest teacher.