Born or Made?

Posted by jlubans on August 21, 2013

Caption: Mr. Burns, the quintessential Theory X Leader.

What kind of leader/follower are you? Do you give it much thought? I am planning a weeklong leadership retreat during the summer a year from now. As I develop the agenda, I do want to include time for each participant to deliberate about how she leads and how she follows. In my career as a librarian few of my administrative colleagues talked about their leadership or followership. We’d lead somehow or other, including not leading. Taking the time in a retreat to consider why you – the participant - leads the way you do might be an excellent next step toward becoming the leader or follower you want to be.
I’d also like to include a segment where each participant explains who they are as a leader and then gets feedback from the group about how the group perceives that person's leadership.
We’ll need to review the types of leadership styles. I have two reasons for doing this. First is to give everyone a shared vocabulary so when someone calls himself a Theory X leader, people will have a general idea of what he means. Or, if someone says she’s a transformational leader or a situational leader, we’ll all know pretty much what she is talking about. My second reason is that in many fields, including librarianship, we focus on our jobs and do not have the time or the interest to think about leadership style or to mull over the type of leader we may want to be. It’s important for personal growth to know what style may suit us best.
A basic working assumptions in every text about a new theory is that we can become the type of leader we want to be or are told to be, like Homer perusing Covey. I have questions about this assumption. Are we born to be a leader/follower (it’s in our DNA) or do we have a choice?
When teaching library management in the USA I give students a one page, ten question, self-test on theory X and theory Y*. (Quick review: Theory X holds that without the active intervention by management, people will be passive – even resistant – to organizational needs. Staff must therefore be persuaded, rewarded, punished, controlled – their activities must be directed. This is management’s task. We often sum it up by saying that management consists of getting things done through other people.
On the other side, advocates of Theory Y believe the motivation, the potential for development, the capacity for assuming responsibility, the readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people. Management does not (indeed cannot) put them there. It is a responsibility of management to make it possible for people to recognize and develop these human characteristics for themselves.
In brief, theory X managers supervise closely, while theory Y managers are more hands-off.)
Each student takes this test twice, once for how he supervises (or would supervise) and once again for how the student wants to be supervised. After scoring the two tests, the students arrange themselves around the room by their scores. There’s usually a wide distribution from extreme X to extreme Y but more often then not the Xs have it.
Then, I ask the students to rearrange themselves by the score for how they want to be supervised. There’s usually a total shift to the theory Y side of the room. Those with a strong theory X inclination in supervising others find themselves wondering, “Why am I the boss that I would not want?”
So, are leaders made or born? I think it important to consider why we behave the way we do on the job. If most of us prefer a democratic style, how do we wind up pushing Theory X? Do we acquire it, learn it? Are we imbued and inculcated with it? Or is it that our organizations are built around Theory X? What do work place accoutrements and appurtenances like the payroll, budget, time clock, performance appraisal, the hierarchy’s organizational chart, and the required review and sign off by upper management on paperwork suggest about the underlying dominant culture?
At semester’s end I have the students re-take the X and Y test. Is there a shift in student leadership ideas? Over the semester, the students will have participated in team building activities, group projects, and reading and discussing about organizational theories. When the students line up according to score, almost the entire class shifts toward the Y end of the spectrum. If there are Xs left, it is often demanded by the type of job, e.g. training and supervising entry level workers.
I mention this to suggest that it is possible to unlearn one way of leading in favor of a way that is intuitively more comfortable and, in many cases, more productive.

* The Human Side
of Enterprise (the Annotated Edition) by Douglas McGregor and Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006. The revised edition of the "enduring management classic" from the 1950s, with introductions by Warren Bennis and Edgar Schein, in which Douglas McGregor introduced management style Theories X and Y.
For the reader of footnotes, it might be of interest to know that I am cited by name in this book on page 102.
You can google the reference by clicking on this link.

Copyright John Lubans 2013
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