Here's How The World's Model For Leadership Needs To Change

The tallest brick-frame building in the world is 16 stories high. It’s the Monadnock Building in Chicago, built in the 1890s. When it was built, it was the largest office building in the world.

Brick can bear a lot more weight than wood. That’s why you’ll see brick buildings over 10 stories, and rarely see a wood building over five. At a certain height, wood just won’t hold up under its own weight.

But eventually, brick collapses on its own weight, too, which is why after Monadnock we started building skyscrapers with concrete frames. The tallest concrete-framed building is 98 stories high. It happens to be the Trump International Tower in Chicago.

However, the tallest building in the world today, the Burj Khalifa, is literally TWICE as tall as the Trump building. It can go that high because its frame is made out of steel.

(chart courtesy of Skyscraperpage)

The crude history of skyscraper architecture is that each time we’ve developed a building material that allows us to go higher, we’ve eventually reached a limit to how high we can go—until we developed a new material to build with. Taken too far, the old material eventually collapses on itself.

Behavioral scientists who study success—how humans achieve things and make progress—have uncovered an irony that parallels this principle in our own lives. Marshal Goldsmith put the idea simply in the title of his 2007 business book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Just as brick and concrete helped us to get to new heights with buildings—and eventually steel helped us break through even higher—certain human traits that help us succeed often eventually hold us back, or even cause us to implode, if we continue to take them further.

Baggy pants and skateboarding helped me to “succeed” in the high school popularity contest, but they’ll probably hold me back from getting that promotion at age 34.

Today, I think it’s time for humanity to switch to a new construction material when it comes to how we frame leadership.

Anciently, we picked leaders based on the “the big guy who fights good” model. Whoever was most likely to successfully face down the sabre tooth tiger or lead us to victory in battle against other tribes became the chief. Even after we became “civilized,” we instinctually still looked to bigger, taller, ultra-masculine people for leadership. (This instinct is still lodged in our subconscious, as evidenced by statistics that show that tall men tend to get paid more and attain higher offices in business and politics than shorter men, or women.)

But at a certain point, the toolkit of a fighter starts to create more problems than it solves. The modern world requires more strategy and persuasion than Ogg the Caveman can provide.

So eventually we upgraded our “big, tough guy” leadership bricks for a new paradigm, “the persuasive one who’s right about things and isn’t wrong” model. Just as we wanted olden-day leaders to provide security, in a world of industry and complex problems we found confidence in leaders who had answers. So we elect politicians who “win” the debate, we promote executives who come up with the “right” answers, and we all spin our weaknesses and failings in ways that make us look like we’re smart and confident.

Unfortunately, the usefulness of this model is waning in a world as hyperconnected and complicated as ours today.

The truth is, no one leader can have all the answers to all the challenges of a particular group. And if our progress depends on the intelligence level of the most powerful person in our tribe, we’re eventually going to be screwed.

And when taken too far, the “leader who’s right” model starts to collapse on itself, just like a brick building built too high. These leaders are incentivized to appear right at all costs, even if the price is, you know, doing the right thing.

So our CEOs and politicians spin every mistake into a win, and cast blame on circumstances or enemies or whoever in order to always appear perfect. And the model leads us to put ill-equipped people into leadership roles in the first place—we elevate people who lucked out with the “right” moves at some point or who play the PR game well, even if they’s bad team-builders and managers.

Thus we’re left, in many cases (politics especially, both corporate and national), with leaders who are more likely to dig their heels in rather than change their minds, attack the truth rather than adapt to it, and worry about their image over the needs of the people they lead. This means we all speak up less if we’re not sure we’re right—which means we’re not reaching our collective potential, no matter how smart and diverse the group of people we’re working with. Sometimes this behavior is more conscious than others; either way, we’ve created a system that encourages behavior that stifles progress.

It’s time to upgrade our leadership paradigm once more. What got us to today won’t get us to tomorrow.

So what does that upgrade look like? I call it “the wise conductor.”

The leader of tomorrow needs to be a master of unlocking the potential of others. They need to understand that their team needs to be smarter and see further than the leader by him- or herself—and so they’ll focus on putting the right people together, and including and listening to all sorts of people, even their opponents.

They’ll need to be “intellectually humble”—respectful and open to new and different points of view and ways of doing things, plus willing and able to change their minds when it’s hard. They’ll need to be brave enough to say, “I don’t know” and “I was wrong about that,” and clever enough to put the right people together to tackle challenges in new ways.

That leader will need to be able to persuade and paint a vision of a future that gives people security and confidence, yes, but they will also recognize that we’re not going to get there through the sheer force of their own abilities or personality.

So let’s start looking at leadership a little more like this now. Let’s stop rewarding people for appearing strong, or for having the right answers themselves. Let’s start rewarding people for speaking up, for pushing the group forward, and for unlocking the potential in those around them. Let’s start celebrating those who are humble enough to listen and change their minds. And let’s stop feeding the egos of leaders who refuse to admit they’re wrong.

Let’s switch materials before the building collapses, and elevate our world together.

Much love,

Shane