The Highly Evolved Leader

Strategic Security

​Illustration by Viktor Koen​​​

The Highly Evolved Leader

In certain contexts, the expression "old school" can have positive connotations. It may mean straightforward or traditional or reliable; solid. But in the executive world, if someone calls you an old-school manager, it may be cause for concern.

The idea of successful management has evolved in the last few decades, experts say. The role of a manager has transformed; expectations are different, and relationships with direct reports have changed. The needed competencies and skill sets have broadened.

"Management's evolved in a lot of ways, to be honest. I think a leadership role is different from a leadership role 25 years ago. Leaders then may not fit as leaders now, in today's world," says Steve Watson, a managing director for executive search firm Stanton Chase International.  "…It's difficult to recruit people who are willing to work for an old-school manager."

Given this, Security Management asked veteran leaders and management experts to sketch out some particulars regarding how the practice of management and its general conception have evolved.

In addition, we asked them how a current or aspiring manager could become a highly evolved leader—someone in tune with the needs and expectations of a contemporary workforce, who leads an engaged, productive, and fulfilled team, rather than a behind-the-curve manager who is grinding it out with decades-old practices. In other words, a leader who is in line with the times, and right for the current moment.

From Master to Servant-Leader

Many experts often mention that the manager's position in relation to his or her staff has changed. Watson, who has held senior management positions for more than 30 years, says he sees an evolution from a top-down approach in dealing with employees to more of a bottom-up supportive role.

A few decades ago, it was more common for a manager to assume a command-and-control position above the staff, with the attitude of, "you'll do it this way, and you'll do it my way," Watson says. 

That type of leadership style is considered much less acceptable today. Watson cited a recent executive search he led, in which a company was looking for a high-level manager who would report directly to the global CEO. However, the global CEO had the reputation of being "old school," in that he wanted to be intensively involved in a lot of the decisions that his manager would be making. Once word got out about the CEO's reputation, recruiting candidates to apply for the manager position became much more challenging.  

Along the same lines, Sam Curry, chief technology and security officer with Arbor Networks, says that he has seen management evolving toward a more egalitarian system. "There's a democratization that has happened. There's less of a sense that the manager is better than you," says Curry, a long-time security manager.

"In the old days, there was a fairly common belief that workers were inherently lazy," Curry continues. This often led to a we-need-to-keep-an-eye-on-them style of management, and, at many firms, a common attitude toward staff was, "Are they really working? Are they going home early?"

Now, management's evolution has left those who retain that belief system far behind. "Those who still take that attitude are dinosaurs," Curry says.

These dinosaurs are not completely extinct; a few still roam the earth. But their attitudes no longer prevail. Today, the dominant management style has evolved toward the servant-leader, with an attitude of: what can I do to help you do your job in the best way possible?

And that attitude change ties in with another way management has evolved: more and more, managers are expected to serve not as drill sergeants or commandos, but as coaches and mentors, with a focus on developing staff.

When conducting an executive search, Watson says that some of the most important executive interview questions he asks are aimed at ascertaining if the candidate has had success in building a high-performing team by nurturing talent and developing individual skill sets.

Along with the evolution of managers vis-à-vis their staff, there has also been a change in the manager's position in the world. "Around 20 to 25 years ago, you didn't see as much of a global mindset with managers," says Siobhan MacDermott, an advisory services principal in cybersecurity for EY. More and more companies and organizations have broadened their reach from regional or national to international, so managers are expected to be adept in understanding cultural differences and comparative business practices, she says.

Finally, there is the evolution that sometimes feels like a revolution—the evolution of technology. Nearly all agree it has had a significant impact on the evolution of management. MacDermott says there is an expectation nowadays that an executive will possess an "agility and always-on mentality," and stay connected 24 hours a day. "You have to be tech savvy and gadget enabled," she adds. 

Coaches Who Listen

It seems clear, then, that changes in the practice of management have been fundamental and far-reaching. Naturally, this raises a question: what makes a highly evolved manager, a successful servant manager who stays ahead of the curve, empowers staff, and keeps them engaged? Experts cite several attributes.

Clarity and attention are paramount. "I think communication skills are absolutely critical, and the ability to listen and make good judgments about what you heard is just as important, if not more so," says Chris Arnold, a coleader of Stanton Chase's financial services global practice.

Arnold, who has 25 years of high-level executive search experience, gives the example of a recent successful placement of a senior executive. At first, one of the candidates struck him as surprisingly quiet, but he soon realized this was due to the intensity of her listening skills. When she did speak, virtually everything she said seemed insightful.

In fact, that's one way that Arnold has noticed management evolving. Generally speaking, an increasing number of managers are exceptional communicators with adept listening skills, and they use these skills to facilitate collaboration and encourage consensus.

"An old-school manager wasn't like that. They weren't consensus builders," Arnold says. Therefore, highly evolved leaders are usually highly collaborative, he adds. And Watson agrees, saying "It's all about developing teams."

Other common attributes of evolved leaders are their exceptional abilities as coaches and talent developers. This begins with the right attitude toward the staff; from the first day he or she takes over as manager, a highly evolved leader starts from a place of respect, not of suspicion. "We have to work on the assumption that employees want to be productive and do great things," Curry says.

Moreover, coaching works both ways. In some security departments, at least one staffer is older and more experienced than the manager. A highly evolved leader is not threatened by this, and does not assume that the older staffer is gunning for their job. Instead, the leader draws on this valuable experience and makes use of it whenever possible, for the benefit of the entire department.   

"The best managers are okay with being coached by their employees. It's not about being better or worse," Curry says. He tells the story of an employee he managed who was significantly older, who had both an impressive résumé and a desire to contribute in any way possible. Curry used him as a critical resource, consulting him on decisions and encouraging him to share expertise. "There's nothing this guy hasn't seen,"

Curry says. "He became the coach to everybody."

A Flexible Mindset

Experts also say that highly evolved leaders are sensitive to the structural changes in the workplace, so their attributes often include a sense of flexibility, operational agility, and a broad perspective. These are qualities that are often possessed by managers with an open, agile mind and a tendency to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

In the last few decades, Watson has observed a general trend of organizational flattening, with fewer management layers and levels of bureaucracy than there were previously. "Managers today tend to run their businesses more than they did 25 years ago," he says. This means more autonomy and operational authority for managers, which the best ones thrive on, he adds.

Accompanying this trend toward more nimble organizations has been a movement toward a more fluid hiring space. "You see more people jumping ship," Watson says. Highly evolved leaders are cognizant of this, and they make efforts to keep staff engaged and fulfilled with their jobs. "I do think there's a movement to really focus on human capital and on retaining good employees," Watson says.

These retention and engagement efforts often include maintaining a sense of comfortable flexibility within the workplace. That involves allowing employees to be creative, to try new things, and to have a safe place to fail and learn from experience. "I think that's a good attribute—people are not criticized for failing," Watson says.

Moreover, successful managers realize that employees need a certain amount of room and space to exercise their own creativity and judgment. Highly evolved leaders are not micromanagers. "Nobody likes to be micromanaged—many wouldn't even interview at a company if the culture is one of micromanaging people," Watson says.

Another change at many organizations is that the workforce, the customer base, and the supply chain are all becoming more diverse, varied, and international. In these environments, the highly-evolved leader's comfort with other cultures and perspectives serves the organization well. 

MacDermott provides the example of a manager who is leading a conference call with colleagues from Germany and Brazil. The German executive may expect everyone to dial in exactly at the appointed time; for the Latin American, calling in 10 minutes late may be perfectly acceptable. "Working around these issues requires a bit more flexibility on the part of a global leader," she says.

However, flexibility and open-mindedness do not mean that the manager has a passive or "anything goes" attitude. The natural leader types, sometimes called "alphas," can still be highly evolved leaders and highly successful managers. "I don't think there's less of a demand for an alpha male or female," Arnold says.

But he refines this view by arguing that a certain type of alpha executive seems to succeed the most. They are often energetic, personable, high-

action types, but they channel much of their energy into the collaborative work of building consensus and developing teams.

They also don't intimidate, and they seem to radiate positivity. "People want to work with those who are positive, and have that positive energy," he says.

The Horizontal Hierarchy

Evolution never stops. So today's successful leaders must continue to evolve, or risk falling behind tomorrow. How should leaders change? Many experts advise them to follow current trend lines, and to anticipate where they will extend in the future.

Take, for example, technology. Despite the technology revolution, the management ranks at some U.S. firms still retain some of the "technologically underdeveloped," Arnold says: "A lot of people still don't know how to use it."

But the IT revolution will continue to advance, so it will become harder and harder for those with severely limited strategic tech skills to enter the management ranks and stay there.

Similarly, Watson sees the trend away from always-intervening micromanagers continuing. In the future, micromanagers are likely to be anathema.

Finally, experts say that the trend away from command-and-control managers and toward servant-leaders will continue. Smaller IT companies are often the most cutting edge when it comes to management practices, and, at some of these, the constant collaboration between managers and workers has meant a de-emphasis of hierarchy.

"Sometimes, the delineation between a manager and a line employee doesn't really exist that much," MacDermott says, adding that more tech-based security companies or departments that act like nimble start-ups may follow suit in the future.

Steve Denning, who writes about management innovation, called this trend a move toward "horizontal hierarchy" in a recent essay in Forbes magazine. It is likely to become more common in the future, he writes, with more managers serving as "enablers of self-managing teams and networks rather than controllers of individuals." 

As a result, the concept of hierarchy will also evolve, so that more and more will be competence-based and rely, Denning says, "more on peer accountability than on authority-based accountability."

But while hierarchies will evolve, they will not be completely obsolete. "Someone has to sign checks," Denning writes.