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The Optimal Leadership Style for a Sustainable Business

Let’s do an exercise in empathy:

Recall a job that you didn’t like. One in which you felt like a cog in the machine, where you were nothing more to your managers than an employee number or a shift being filled on the schedule.

Even if you felt like you were seen as an individual, maybe your boss was micromanaging your work. You never felt like they trusted you to do your job correctly.

How did it feel? Pretty awful.

Why do people do that? Something seems to happen when people enter positions of power at work that suddenly makes them treat everyone as sub-human.

So, what was it about those managers that made them so bad? The problem is that their entire approach comes from the wrong philosophy.

There’s a saying about leadership that you want to manage tasks and lead people. The way to begin leading your employees is first to understand different types of leadership, and the way that control and empowerment are used in them.

In Richard Daft’s 2018 edition of The Leadership Experience, he discusses four styles of leadership. Those styles range from control being centered in the leader, to control being centered in the follower. They are Authoritarian, Participative, Stewardship, and Servant leadership.


Image by skeeze from Pixabay

To understand Authoritarian leadership, imagine the military hierarchy. Orders are given to subordinates and are expected to be obeyed. The chain of command is followed and deviating from that is frowned upon, even when a leader’s actions are questionable.

All the power is in the hands of the leader, and the focus of the subordinate is to make the leader happy. In a work environment this will mean that project planning and strategy come from the top, with little input from the employees who will be doing the work.

In this environment, it is difficult for employees to speak up. They’re not empowered to approach managers with problems or ideas. Management isn’t concerned with enriching the job for employees and instead focus on production and measurable results.

The problem with this is that work environments aren’t the military.

This style of management became common after World War II when military personnel re-entered the workforce. You’ll see baby boomers especially being very comfortable with this ideology.

However, the younger members of the workforce don’t want to be managed in this way. And, it isn’t as beneficial for the company as other methods.

This is because, by discouraging employee participation, companies are missing out on utilizing employees as the asset that they are. They’re ignoring opportunities for innovation.

Participative Management

As the name implies, this method increases employee participation. Over the last few decades we’ve seen this style emerge, especially in the increased use of teams.

However, participation isn’t the same as empowerment, and this style still concentrates the power at the top. Employees may be expected to make suggestions and be team players, but the projects, strategies, and rewards are still coming from management.

It is paternalistic even though the balance of control has shifted to being slightly more equal between the leader and the team members.

There is nothing inherently wrong with participative management. Many kinds of businesses intentionally foster a team culture while still keeping decision making and the ability to solve problems in the hands of management. And there are good reasons for that.

If the teams are composed of entry-level positions, for example, it may not be wise to give too much autonomy and power to the employees. However, if the team is made up of professionals who were hired because of their skills, then the company is still not seeing employees as the assets that they are.


Steward leadership is a big jump in philosophy away from Authoritarian and Participative leadership. This is the first style in which the manager actually gets to be a leader.

A huge part of this kind of leadership is empowerment.

This means stepping back and giving your employees control over their work to make decisions. Those can be the way they’re going to approach a project, or the authority to solve problems without having to seek approval from you.

Your employees are closer to the work they’re doing than you are. They were hired because they have knowledge and skills. Giving them the reins to do their work in a way that is most effective for them will result in higher levels of productivity and better work culture.

This allows your people to grow and, by empowering them, all employees become a leader for the company.

Stewardship is a leadership style that gives you more freedom. With more control in the hands of your employees, you are free to focus on work other than micromanaging your teams.

Daft states that “Stewardship leaders guide the organization without dominating it and facilitate followers without controlling them.”

So, what does that actually look like in an organization?

A New York Times article describes the value of stewardship as a leadership method that allows the company to remain agile and able to adapt in our quickly changing world. The mindset of this kind of leader is that the organization will last longer than that person will be in that role. What impacts a leader has, then, is always geared towards the long-term strategy and interests of the company.

Viewing yourself as a steward of your company changes your paradigm. You become someone who is no longer merely focused on meeting departmental goals, you’re looking out for the happiness and well-being of the individuals who make up the company.

The article goes on to expand the modern role of a steward leader beyond the company to encompass global leadership.

In looking at the global impacts of a company’s mission and values, the steward leader helps to guide their organization towards sustainable operations.

Servant Leadership

Image by Sarah Richter from Pixabay

This concept was first written about in the 1977 book Servant Leadership, by Robert Greenleaf. Later, James C. Hunter wrote an allegorical book called The Servant, which was published in 1998 and illustrates servant leadership principles through storytelling.

In a 180 degree shift from authoritarian leadership and stepping beyond stewardship, servant leaders operate in such a way that most of the power rests in the hands of the employee.

This philosophy is all about using your position as a leader to help your employees develop and grow. Your focus is on removing obstacles for your team, and giving them what they need to do their best work (as opposed to ‘wants’).

Don’t let the name distract you from the leadership power that this philosophy has to offer. While this kind of leader wants to serve internal and external stakeholders before themselves, it is not about being subservient.

Instead, it is about looking outward instead of worrying about position and politics. It is about using empathy, compassion, and actively listening to those around you.

So, how do you do this?

Investing in Employees

Too often, employees are thought of as an expense for a company rather than an asset - labor is just a variable cost to be controlled in the budget.

Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has been quoted on several occasions about the way he thinks about employees. One of them, notably, was to say:

“Train people well enough so that they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

Invest in your employees, help them grow and develop, and make your business one in which they can’t imagine leaving.

Be the Best Friend of Their Career

What are the dreams and aspirations of your employees? Who are they and what do they care about most?

Do you know? If not, you need to find out.

As a servant leader, you get to be the best friend of their career. Part of your responsibility as the leader is to see in them the potential that they can’t see within themselves, and draw that out.

Set them up for success in everything that they do. This means knowing the strengths of your people, and assigning them tasks that allow them to tap into those and improve them.

Shouldn’t they focus on their weaknesses too?


Wait, what?

The longer answer is also no, because it’s a waste of time. And the same goes for you.

Now, if your people need to work on soft skills because they simply don’t know how to communicate professionally, maybe that’s something you can help them with. However, it might be simpler and far more effective to instead find opportunities in which they can do what they’re good at, and have someone else handle the communication.

Think about your own strengths and weaknesses.

My own story about this goes back a couple of years to a conversation I had with a wonderful mentor:

I am very introverted, and can be quite shy in public. Often what this means for me is that I tend to feel embarrassed after speaking up in meetings and large social events. At the same time, I tend to not be able to help myself from speaking up when I have a question or something to say, which just adds to my social anxiety.

I have long felt that if only I were not an introvert, and had a more sparkling and outgoing personality, that I would be more successful. In this fantasy world, I would be more of a risk-taker and be generally more confident in everything I do.

After only six months or so of working with my mentor, who was the director of my department, she told my team that she was leaving the company for another opportunity. I was crestfallen.

I had a final one-on-one meeting with her and was determined to gain as much of her insight and wisdom in that hour as I possibly could. So, we sat down in my office and I asked her the question that I most wanted her help with.

“How can I change and become better? What should I do to become more extroverted and bold?”

Because she was both of these things, and I very much wanted to be like her.

She thought for a long moment, and then laid out for me the value that I have as I am.

The team we had, which she built, was comprised of five people with very different personality types. If you’re familiar with the DiSC temperament index, know that not one of us was the same. One of the guys (who we will call Jim) was extremely extroverted. Everyone liked him, and he was the kind of guy who knew just about everyone in the company and whose position required him to bounce around talking with people all day long.

It was perfect for him and he loved it.

So, when I asked my mentor how I could change, her response was to ask me if it would be valuable to have a whole team made up of people like Jim. My initial response was, yes of course it would because that’s the ideal way to be.

But would it really? Nope.

Jim was awesome and amiable. He was also not organized and hated processes. Big picture thinking was his jam, but practical steps to make it happen required other people. People like me.


With me on the team, it was balanced. You have people like Jim who are awesome at building relationships quickly, and you need those people for making projects happen by getting others on board. But, you also need the process-people who will create the structure of how you get there, and will design things in an organized fashion so that others can continue the work.

It was one of those moments which in retrospect is obvious, but at the time had a huge impact on me. I realized that while I wanted to be aware of my weaknesses, it would serve me better to develop my strengths. The things that I do easily and well - which others don’t.

Help your people shine.

Active listening

How did she even know that about me? Because she utilized active listening.

One of the great tools a leader has is active listening. And, one of the best situations to use it is in one-on-one meetings. Now, maybe you don’t have time to spend an hour a week with every direct report, but it’s a great idea to find some time every month to sit down with your people and connect with them as individuals.

In these conversations have them talk about anything they want. Learn about their families, their hobbies, and their dreams. What are they trying to accomplish personally and professionally? And then think about what you can do to support them.

How can you help them achieve those things?

Active listening is a real skill. One in which you aren’t waiting for your turn to speak during the conversation. So, put your phone on silent, and really pay attention to them. Even if they are just the administrative assistant - they’re important to the functioning of the organization and they matter. Plus, a smart servant leader is always looking for ways to help their people develop and advance.

Be the best friend of their career.

How Does This Relate to Sustainable Business?

The three pillars of sustainable business are social, environmental, and economic impacts. Another way to think about it is that the business has a triple-bottom-line of people, planet, profit as opposed to the standard of thinking only about profit. Success then means progressing in all of these areas.

The leader of a business that is pursuing sustainability must care about people. And, from a traditional business perspective, it makes sense to do so as well.

Having the pulse of what people want from your business allows you to meet their needs better than the competition, and to be successful. Caring about the way you do that will lead you to operate more responsibly.

You will want to make a safer product; a more affordable product; one that helps make people’s lives better somehow. The expectation you can have is that consumers will appreciate that, and respond by increasing your profit margin.

A leader who incorporates ideals of stewardship and servant leadership is looking out for the best interests of the company for the long-term. That includes making sure that you’re being responsible and efficient with natural resources, so you can have what you need in the future too.

It also includes taking care of your people and creating an environment in which they are able to innovate, make mistakes, and be passionate about their team and your company.

“As we look into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”

~Bill Gates

1 Comment

Tiana Howell
Tiana Howell
May 28, 2020

What an amazing article!! I really enjoyed reading this. 🙂

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