By converting from a command-and-control disciplinarian to an inspirational head football coach, the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin led his team to an improbable Super Bowl victory earlier this year. Coughlin's success signals the value of embracing an inspirational approach to leadership in the 21st century.
Despite an impressive win-loss record in 12 years as a National Football League head coach, pundits attacked his inability to connect and unite players. They referred to him as an "autocratic tyrant" and a "distant, dictatorial figure." Criticism of Coughlin surged before the season, and he was nearly fired. So, he changed his leadership habits.
Rather than screaming even louder at his players, Coughlin sought to forge more meaningful connections with them. He instituted an 11-player "leadership council" he regularly huddled with to gauge the team's needs and concerns. He invested more time in sitting down with players to learn about their families and other aspects of their personal lives. Coughlin realized that wielding his position's power by trying to exercise control over his players was a losing proposition. Instead, he now wields power through his players.
"Nobody thought he could change," Giants owner John Mara told Sports Illustrated. "But the changes he made with communication—particularly forming the leadership council on the team—was a good signal to the players that he was not a dictatorial person."
It's worth noting that while Coughlin's goal, to win the Super Bowl, remained the same, the way he got players to buy into this goal transformed. Of the three ways of getting people to do things—coercion, motivation, and inspiration—Coughlin chose to emphasize the latter source of power, and it paid off.
He's not alone. When a financial analyst asked former Southwest Airlines (LUV) Chairman Herb Kelleher if the company's flat structure made him fear losing control of the organization, he replied: "If you create an environment where the people truly participate, you don't need control. They know what needs to be done and they do it. And the more that people will devote themselves to your cause on a voluntary basis, a willing basis, the fewer hierarchies and control mechanisms you need."
Bill Marriott, the 75-year-old CEO of Marriott International (MAR), has also dispensed with traditional hierarchies. He used to go from hotel to hotel with a pencil and paper taking notes for his staff. Now, he blogs. "I'm venturing into uncharted territory," he wrote in his first blog post in January 2007. "A year ago, I didn't even know what a blog was.… Now I know this is where the action is if you want to talk to your customers directly—and hear back from them."
Instead of issuing directives for his staff to execute or relying on his communications team, Marriott is establishing an authentic and direct relationship and two-way dialogue with them and anyone who might want to take a shower in one of his hotel rooms. Marriott understands the power of human connection.
Power: Connect vs. Command
Kelleher, Marriott, Coughlin, and other 21st century leaders inspire the conduct they desire by connecting with their stakeholders' internal belief systems. Coercion and motivation remain necessary and valuable leadership approaches, but they are no longer sufficient on their own because the world has changed.
Exerting power over others through discipline and rewards alone was highly effective when the sources of power—first land, and then capital—were finite. Not surprisingly, we developed leadership habits of thought and behavior—command-and-control, divide and conquer, top-down, one-way messaging, coercion and financial motivation—based on these finite sources of power.
Information, the new source of power and influence in our knowledge economy, is infinite. Since leaders cannot assume they can acquire more information than someone else, previous leadership habits have grown less effective.
Through nearly all of human history, perhaps 1% of the people at the top had all the land, money, and information. The other 99% were chronically information-deficient. In the late 20th century, power and wealth began to shift from those who traditionally hoarded information to those who shared it. The information explosion in the past two decades gave many more people access to knowledge that creates wealth.
• Information is king.
• Hyper-connectedness puts that information in the hands of the many;
• Hyper-connectedness leads to hyper-transparency, which reveals all, including how people and companies do things.
Because of these new realities, companies have to adapt. Business leaders must change the ways they think and their habits of leadership. The old hierarchical control over things and people is now gone for good. Rather, it's power through something—a power that connects, not one that commands.
Carrots and sticks are necessary and will always be; however, 21st century leaders also recognize the limits of these two sources of external stimuli. Coercion requires an ongoing investment in a bureaucracy of rules, processes, and enforcement. Coughlin learned this when one of his former players, a star running back who retired from the team to become a television analyst, criticized Coughlin's leadership style to millions of viewers of NBC's Today Show and Sunday Night Football.
Carrots are expensive, particularly in a down market where money does not flow as freely and dollar-based performance targets are more difficult to achieve. Financial incentives cannot be shared and rarely connect individuals to a higher sense of purpose. A recent survey of 250 senior corporate executives, conducted by U.S. executive search firm Impact Hiring Solutions, illustrates this point: 38% of executives would accept up to an 18% pay cut for a position with a company that offered a healthier, more inspiring organizational culture.
Leaders with a dollar-based vision also tend to communicate a message ("make the numbers" or "your bonus depends on this") that subordinates register in potentially dangerous ways ("by any means necessary" or "no questions asked"). Unlike coercion and motivation, the source of inspired conduct is intrinsic and internal. Inspired employees act on something they believe in; they are in the grip of ideas; they are compelled by a deeper purpose and propelled by values they hold fundamental. Unlike carrots, beliefs are largely free—and they can be shared. Because they can be shared, they spur collaboration and serve as the glue that keeps people aligned and energized. This is particularly important in the face of current economic times, where external stimuli (carrots and sticks) are not as readily available. In short, values are sustainable.
In a June 12, 2008, interview, when asked about the upcoming season and ensuring his winning "team first" attitude, Coughlin responded: "We are going to work at that because I think, knowing full well how we got there and the fact that we were able to win the Super Bowl by 'team first'…[it] is a theme that we have developed real hard and we will continue to do that." For Coughlin and other 21st century leaders, success looks inspirational.