The Changing Nature of Leadership: It's Not About Coercion Any More

Vic Napier

September 2009

The days of leadership being a proxy for bending others to a leaders will through threats and coercion is quickly disappearing. With it is going the transactional leadership – the quid pro quo of managing compliance with a carrot and stick. In an era in which value must be created and returned at rates higher than in the past there is little room for what Peter Senge calls “neck down compliance” (Senge 1990, p. 219). Instead sincere investment in the mission, vision and values will be required of employees.  

This is not the exclusive province of leadership; recruiting the right employees is essential. Jim Collins studied companies that had made dramatic improvements in stock equity, then held that equity for more than 15 years. He wondered what leadership properties were needed for such an unusual accomplishment, and wrote a book about it, Good to Great (Collins 2001). In a Harvard Business Review Collins talks about the value of starting with the right people: 

“We expected that good-to-great leaders would start with the vision and strategy. Instead they attended to people first, strategy second. They got the right people on the bus, moved the wrong people off, ushered the right people to the right seats - and then they figured out where to drive it.” (Collins 2005, p. 141). 

In psychological terms Collins is talking about the importance of finding people who share the values of the organization. This means people whose personality traits compliment existing organizational values. The idea of matching personality to culture is well supported by empirical investigation in the literature as well as in the companies that Collins studied (Fisher & Koch 2008; Periatt, Chakrabarty, & Lemay 2007; Robie, Brown, & Bly 2008). 

People are so valuable, both in the social sense, as well as the financial, that leadership can no longer depend on motivation through coercion. The luxury of using the threat of termination or suspension is no longer viable. These kinds of threats, (not to mention the acts themselves), are increasingly seen as signs of problems in recruitment and selection (Saunders & Lipiec 2009).  

Instead leaders will need to turn to the concepts of transformational leadership – that is, to help employee be all that they can be, to foster their growth as social beings in an organization that is essentially a social environment. That might sound a little too touchy-feely, but here is what Robert Greenleaf had to say about tending to the needs of employees: 

“ …the basis of such a change in philosophy is far from sentimental, for it is the wise supervisor who realized that the grist for his mill is contained in the possibilities in people and not in their limitations…enlightened supervisors will proceed to search in their people for qualities that, when welded  into a cooperative effort, will yield a super product” (Greenleaf 1977, p. 181). 

Vic Napier




Collins, J. (2005). Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve. (Cover story). Harvard Business Review, 83(7/8), 136-146. 

Collins, J. C. (2001). Good to great : why some companies make the leap--and others don't (1st ed.). New York, NY: HarperBusiness. 

Fisher, J. L., & Koch, J. V. (2008). Born, not made : the entrepreneurial personality. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers. 

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership : a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York: Paulist Press. 

Periatt, J. A., Chakrabarty, S., & Lemay, S. A. (2007). Using Personality Traits to Select Customer-Oriented Logistics Personnel. Transportation Journal, 46(1), 22. 

Robie, C., Brown, D. J., & Bly, P. R. (2008). Relationship Between Major Personality Traits and Managerial Performance: Moderating Effects of Derailing Traits. International Journal of Management, 25(1), 131. 

Saunders, S. & Lipiec, D. (2009). Strengthening your Workforce. Hamilton Training Advisory Board. Available at: 

 Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline : the art and practice of the learning organization (1st ed.). New York: Doubleday/Currenc

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