By Stephen Newman
Submitted by Ericsson
In this blog, I wish to offer some perspectives on leadership in large organizations concerned with the phenomenon of quiet quitting. Old wine in new bottles or not, quiet quitting is an outgrowth of a new set of prevailing orthodoxies about the meaning and demands of work. It refers to a lack of motivation on the part of workers to do more than the bare minimum, and it challenges the ethos of giving one’s full attention to the business of the organization, rather focusing on one’s own needs and preferences. It is always hard to put words to what is going on around us in real time, but important changes are taking place in what people expect from work that need to be given appropriate thought so that we can see them more clearly.
Let’s go back in time so we can move forward to where we are now. Were we to talk about leadership twenty-five years ago, we would surely have brought up Jack Welch, the legendary head of General Electric, or GE. We would have noted his decisiveness and strategic clarity and admired his grand ambition. We might have lauded his fixation on shareholder value. What we would not have talked about, or perhaps even known about, was how fiercely intimidating he was with others, and how he bet the farm on an entirely new and, ultimately unsuccessful, business model to become a nonbank bank to finance his customers’ purchases of GE’s industrial products, as well as many wide-ranging projects outside the realm of GE’s usual businesses.
Jack Welch is not considered a great leader today. He botched the choice of the person who was to succeed him, he was ultimately responsible for the destruction of considerable shareholder value, and he managed to massively pollute the Hudson River in New York State in the process. Jack Welch exemplified an era where the prevailing ethos was one of fear-driven performance and macho competitiveness.
Today we talk about quiet quitting in the spirit of thinking about what makes work fulfilling and we are coming to believe that work should meet three fundamental criteria to pass through a threshold of satisfaction. It should take place in an organization that has a purpose one can align with. It should provide an opportunity to make an impact in achieving that purpose. And it should provide a working culture and style of leadership that one can comfortably abide with.
Not everyone has the good fortune to experience working under these three conditions, but they are, nevertheless, animating factors for large numbers of people. And one of the byproducts of these aspirations is the increasing number of people eschewing strong commitments to jobs that are uninspiring, overly taxing, and ultimately meaningless. They feel that there are other things to do right now that are more important on a personal level than marking time at work and selling one’s soul for someone else’s benefit.
In thinking about leading in the age of quiet quitting, especially in the context of Ericsson, an organization of mostly knowledge workers that has always aspired to meet the three conditions mentioned above, it can be useful to think back on what leadership meant in the past and then see how those ideas fit with today’s realities.
Before moving further into the past, however, I should state where my perspectives on leadership come from. I was Program Director for Executive Development at Ericsson for fifteen years from 1997 to 2012 and thus able to observe what leaders did in their roles and discuss with them the challenges they faced. I came to believe that there were seven capabilities that leaders must possess and practice. They make up, at a high level, the leader’s toolbox. It is a personal view, much influenced by the leaders I met at Ericsson, and I will lay them out after a brief detour to think about, arguably, the most famous leader of them all, Napoleon Bonaparte.
We first started talking about leadership with Napoleon over two hundred years ago because people were fascinated by how successful he was. What was it that allowed this man of diminutive stature to win consistently on the battlefield, so often against what seemed to be overwhelming odds? Those studying Napoleon came up with certain characteristics. He was courageous. He was incredibly clever and strategic, devising attacks that no one else envisioned, and he led with utter self-confidence. He was also charismatic. People wanted to be on his team. Going into battle with him meant that good rewards would surely follow. It was worth it to follow this man. As to purpose, if toppling the old order of Europe and bringing down its kings and queens was your thing, then you could well believe you were part of something worthy and important. When you read about Napoleon, a ‘great man’ if ever there was one, you were led to believe that had he not existed, then nothing that he accomplished would have gotten done by anyone else. The leader as exceptional genius entered our imagination.
Setting Direction, the first of the seven capabilities, is a mild way of stating what Napoleon was able to do brilliantly. What has changed is the fact that the leader does not do that setting alone, anymore, and direction refers to more than tactics on the battlefield. Setting direction today involves embodying an organization’s culture and values, articulating its vision and purpose, imagining its future, showing how it adds value to the communities in which it operates, and doing all of that with an authenticity that directly connects with people. People no longer wish to work for organizations whose direction is not communicated in those terms.
To be able to set direction, a second capability comes into play one of. The leader, by the very nature of her role, thinks about the future constantly since the organization that she is leading today merely exists as a precursor to what the organization should think like and look like tomorrow. No one else has that remit, no one else is charged to see far ahead with all its explicit and implicit ramifications.
What has changed, surely, is that the future comes sooner now. It comes whether we plan for it or not, and it comes from everywhere, not just from the familiar drivers of change. And, considering today’s speed of change, when it does come, it can dissolve again quickly into something else entirely.
If Managing Change was always a key leadership capability, it is doubly so when change is constant. Understanding how things might pan out, grasping how employees are going to be affected by a change, by that future that is coming, inexorably, and taking the organization on as smooth a ride as possible from here to there, is an essential task for which the leader is ultimately responsible. The skills of visioning, timing, listening, communicating and risk management involved in managing change are vital and daunting.
Another quality of leadership that is in ascendence is Forming and Managing Teams. Like many Americans, my favorite leader is Abraham Lincoln. He was as an outsider, a man of limited experience at a time of crisis, and he was able to defeat much more experienced men than he to be elected President of the United States. Those who lost out could easily have weakened him and thwarted his plans. Then, when in office, he formed a team of rivals. He put all those who had opposed him into his cabinet and asked for their council, treating them with the respect he thought they deserved. At the end of day, they managed to save the union with each one's talents yoked to those of the others. Talk about leading with purpose!
Today, with operations spread out over the globe, and many people working from home with little visibility, forming good teams is vital. And understanding that it is the diversity of thought within those teams that makes them powerful is fundamental. Leaders who can build teams that work with enthusiasm and commitment by recognizing the talents of each individual member are essential in knowledge industries for those who work anonymously, unseen, uncared for, and unrecognized, will be the ones who quietly quit.
Connected to forming teams is Developing People so they can perform well in whichever teams they find themselves. Good leaders sense what others are capable of. They give support and show trust. They encourage and stretch, coach and give feedback. There is a new generation of workers craving feedback, open for challenges to learn and shine. Good leaders respond to those desires.
Learning is essential for survival, and it goes for leaders as well. Today, we add to the list of everything else leaders need to learn the imperative of learning about the people around them. The more curious leaders are, the more people will come to them in a spirit of openness. The leader’s attention to, and interest in, what people have to say is a powerful motivator for working happily.
Leaders who learn ask questions. Why are customers buying from us? Why are they not buying from us? What were our assumptions about what would happen when we made that decision three months ago? What, in fact, did happen and how come it did? How can we get more out of the diversity manifested in our team? What is going on with students that we did not see three years ago? And what is quiet quitting and to what extent is it happening here? Curiosity goes a long way toward building a culture of frankness. The engagement involved in learning as a team pushes back against those who feel themselves left out.
Finally, the leader is the one Making Decisions and taking responsibility for the decisions she makes. Any leader who cannot own up to her decisions when things go badly will not succeed. Making decisions, once the capabilities above have been activated, is what the leadership role ultimately comes down to. Good decisions derive from setting a good direction, focusing on the future, deftly managing change, building great teams, developing people, and keeping the flame of curiosity burning bright through learning every day. Lincoln, alone, made the hard choices, and he knew well that he and the entire nation would have to live by them.
Quiet Quitting raises the stakes of learning and listening and quickens the need to think about the future, especially with regards to developing a culture of working with purpose since purpose is a stronger motivator than quarterly results or getting a promotion or meeting deadlines. And it is imperative upon any leader today to think hard about how to develop people, how to give them the tools and perspectives they need to succeed on their own terms and in a way that does not corrupt their values or curb their enthusiasm.
What we expect from leaders will always adjust with the times, even if the capabilities they need to possess are constant. In the age of quiet quitting, we expect leaders be in touch with the currents of change that puts purpose at the apex of what people seek from employment. Those who work for large organizations have choices. They do not wish to spend their lives doing things that have no meaning, not to speak of polluting the beautiful Hudson River.
However, leadership is not just a toolbox in the sense that you can pass that box along to someone else and expect the same results. People use to teach leadership as a Jack Welch toolbox, just do like he did, and things will be fine. Do like Jack! Go be Napoleon! Act wisely like Lincoln!
We don’t believe that you can copy/paste from great leaders’ toolboxes anymore. The person doing the doing is what makes the difference. If the leader has no sense of purpose, no humanity that others can relate to, no feeling for how the world is changing and where it is heading, no humility to admit that there are things she does not know, and, above all, no authenticity in how she goes about doing things, then no realignment in the mix of the seven capabilities will satisfy those who are seeking a more meaningful connection with the work they are asked to do. Only Napoleon can be Napoleon.
Quiet Quitting may be real, but it will not be the term we remember for the age we are entering. What might be remembered is that this was an Age of Purpose, or an Age of Authenticity, or even an Age of Humility. In any case, it is an age of change and change is always a good time to think about how we go about leading others.
This blog is part of a series on quiet quitting
The meaning of quiet quitting by Heraldo Sales-Cavalcante
Why Gen X is quiet quitting in tech by Pascal Potvin
Why do people quiet quit? Let's look at the theory by Roman Zhohov
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