Three paradigms of leadership

Authoritative leadership

For many, leadership is a lofty aspiration reserved for CEOs, bosses, elected officials, and people that speak eloquently and powerfully with a megaphone. Leaders are those that devise a vision, develop a plan of action for others to follow, and then courageously and boldly move first. Leaders are the loudest, most confident, most assertive among us. Leaders have authority and exert it to create an expectation that others will follow.

This paradigm is what we might call authoritative leadership. We often see it from those higher than us in an organizational hierarchy or from a coach on a sports team. In this sense, leaders are our bosses and their bosses or the politicians who create our laws and policies.

An illustration titled "Authoritative leadership" featuring a standard hierarchical organizational chart with "leader" at the top

Authoritative leadership is often vital and necessary. There are many contexts in which we need someone or some group of people to craft our organizational policies or strategies. For example, in a basketball game with 20 seconds left on the clock, someone needs to define what shared tactics the team will employ. There is no time for debate or consensus-building.

But this model of leadership also has some clear downsides. First and foremost, it often does very little to cultivate buy-in and support from those who are to follow. Because of this, their allegiance to the team or the effort might be paper-thin. While those being led will often do what they are told, many become resentful, cynical, or disengaged. They follow the leader out of a sense of obligation and necessity, but will quickly jump ship if the opportunity presents itself. And when leaders devise a game plan without consulting the wisdom of those they are to lead, they often miss out on important perspectives and possibilities that could have strengthened their plan.

Collaborative leadership

Authoritative leadership has been the dominant form of leadership for much of the past several hundred years, if not longer. But in the past several decades, this has begun to shift. People are becoming much less willing to blindly follow orders. They want to know the “why” behind a plan and they want to feel like they’ve had a say in the plans they carry out. And those in “leadership” roles realize that voluntary, active buy-in is critical to an engaged, fulfilled, and ultimately more productive team.

Out of this recognition, a new paradigm of what we might call collaborative leadership has emerged.

In collaborative leadership, there is often still a defined “leader” sitting at the top of a hierarchy who makes decisions and plans. But they are more focused on encouraging and facilitating action from others, rather than coercing it. If authoritative leadership creates an expectation to follow, collaborative leadership creates an invitation to follow. Collaborative leaders consult the broader team for ideas and input both to strengthen the plan of action and to foster group cohesion. If authoritative leadership asks the follower to simply do what they are told, collaborative leadership asks the follower to serve the greater good of the team by honoring the co-created plan.

An illustration titled "Collaborative leadership" with hands creating circular jigsaw puzzle with a piece labelled "leader" connecting all the pieces

Authoritative leadership creates coordinated action by exerting authority. Collaborative leadership creates coordinated action by fostering genuine investment and cohesion.

Generative leadership

At its most broad and basic, leadership is about creating a shared movement forward among a group of people. Authoritative leadership creates an expectation to follow. Collaborative leadership creates an invitation to follow. But they both are meant to get a group of individuals walking down the same path together.

What we might call generative leadership is an entirely different paradigm. Rather than an expectation or invitation to follow, it creates an invitation to lead. The shared movement forward is not everyone following the same path, but rather everyone following their own internal compass down their own paths.

A person standing out from a large crowd

Authoritative leadership functions through exerting authority down hierarchies. Collaborative leadership functions through fostering collaboration and buy-in down, up, and across hierarchies. But generative leadership doesn’t require any hierarchies at all. It functions simply by someone, anyone, being and revealing who they really are, especially when doing so somehow challenges social norms and expectations. In doing so, they inherently create and walk down their own authentic path. They lead themselves. But in doing so they also inherently inspire and enable others to do the same. They give others permission to be, reveal, and lead themselves. They lead others to leadership.

Some examples of generative leadership: coming out as gay or transgender, choosing not to engage in capitalist grind culture, questioning tactics that manipulate or take advantage of customers, sharing something you are scared or anxious about, sharing an unpopular opinion, and sharing a work of art on social media. In some cases, these are direct acts of defiance to business-as-usual, whether in the workplace or society more broadly. In others, they are simply about courageously revealing yourself more fully in spite of your fears and insecurities. What makes them generative is that they reveal and catalyze new ways of doing, thinking, and being while inspiring others to do the same. They are acts of courage that ripple out into the sea of the status quo.

Other paradigms of leadership are invested in the belief that only a special few can be leaders. Generative leadership is invested in the belief that everyone can be a leader.

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