Learning from History to Design Your Style of Leadership

Sarah - سارا
15 min readApr 18, 2023

Effective leadership is vital for organizational success, but what constitutes good leadership and what works for different organizations varies. In addition to individual characteristics, the style of leadership can also be shaped by external factors such as the type of industry, organizational culture, size and structure, and the specific challenges and goals that the organization is facing. As an illustration, later in the article, we will examine how leadership style in the military differs between peacetime and wartime scenarios.

Historical analysis of past leaders can offer valuable lessons for identifying successful leadership styles. In my article, Leadership vs Management, we explored various styles of leadership and management.

In this article, we’ll go over some historical facts to help you decide what type of leadership works for you and your organization. Understanding the principles of effective leadership is crucial for inspiring and motivating teams to achieve their goals, regardless of whether you’re a CEO, manager, or team leader.

Different situations call for different leadership styles, and different leaders may have their own unique styles that work best for them and their teams. However, there are certain commonalities that good leaders share, and one of those is the ability to inspire and empower their teams. Additionally, Conway’s law and cognitive biases play a crucial role in shaping organizational and leadership styles, which we’ll examine in this article to help leaders create sustainable and successful organizations.

Review of Leadership Styles and Historical Examples

Visionary Leadership

Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.
— Winston Churchill

In the previous article, we talked about the visionary leadership style. A visionary leader is someone who has a clear and compelling vision of the future and is able to articulate it in a way that inspires and motivates others to work towards that vision. They are often creative and innovative and are able to think outside the box to come up with new and innovative ideas.

Winston Churchill was a charismatic and visionary leader who is widely regarded as one of the greatest political leaders of the 20th century. He was a powerful leader who guided his country through some of its most challenging times. He was a masterful communicator who used his words to inspire and motivate his followers, and he was known for his unwavering resolve and determination in the face of adversity. Churchill’s leadership style emphasized the importance of clear vision and bold action, as well as the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. By studying his leadership style, readers can learn the importance of having a clear purpose and direction, communicating effectively with their team, and having the resilience to overcome obstacles and adapt to change. Churchill’s leadership provides a compelling example of the importance of strong, decisive leadership in times of crisis, and his legacy continues to inspire leaders around the world today.

Transformational Leadership

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
— Martin Luther King Jr.

In this style, the leader is able to transform the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of their followers in order to achieve a common goal. They inspire and motivate their followers to go beyond their self-interest and work towards a higher purpose, often through the use of charismatic leadership and personal influence.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a charismatic and transformational leader who is widely recognized as one of the most influential figures in American history. MLK was a masterful leader who utilized his principles of nonviolent resistance and courageous advocacy for justice to inspire his followers and effect change. His leadership style is a prime example of the principles that underlie effective leadership, such as authenticity, courage, and adaptability.

Servant Leadership

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
— Mahatma Gandhi

Another interesting leadership style is servant leadership. In this approach, the leader focuses on serving their team members, rather than being served by them. Servant leaders prioritize the needs of their team and work to support them, helping them to achieve their goals and develop their skills.

An example of a servant leader is Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was an Indian political and spiritual leader who played a key role in India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule. His leadership style was grounded in his belief in the power of service to others. He believed that leaders should put the needs of their followers first and that their primary role was to serve and empower those they led.

Gandhi’s leadership style was characterized by humility, compassion, and a deep commitment to justice and equality. He was known for his ability to inspire and motivate people to work towards a shared goal, often through the use of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. His approach to leadership has inspired countless others and the principles of servant leadership that he embodied continue to be studied and applied in organizations around the world today.

Now that we’ve discussed various leadership styles, it’s important to understand the context in which these styles were used. To better comprehend this, it is necessary to examine the evolution of organizational structures over time and the impact it has had on leadership practices. Therefore, a historical perspective on organizations is crucial in analyzing how leadership has developed and evolved over time.

History of Organizations

Homo sapiens emerged around 300,000–200,000 years ago and developed language approximately 50,000–30,000 years ago. Theories about why Homo sapiens succeeded where other human species did not include: violence, disease, competitive exclusion, inbreeding, and climate change. The theory most relevant to the article is the advantage of brainpower, which allowed Homo sapiens to surpass other species with their complex brain functions such as creativity, communication, and imagination, as well as their ability to believe in myths and fiction and pass along stories.

Tiamat — source

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts

And with his merciless club he smashed her skull

He cut through the channels of her blood

And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places

Myths and religion demonstrate the creative mind of our species. We have a unique capacity to believe in the supernatural, something unseen in any other species on Earth. Our creativity allows us to believe in extraordinary things such as a powerful God who is kind enough to tolerate all the world’s suffering but ready to administer harsh punishment for our sins in an eternal afterlife, as some stories go. We love to gossip and tell stories and our beliefs have created communities around them. Religion helped form tribes, worship gods, and work together to make the gods happy and satisfied. Some religions promised an afterlife, Heaven and Hell, and emphasized doing good deeds to enter the Good Place while praying to avoid the Bad Place and its minions.

Socialization

Humans are inherently social creatures, and our ability to form strong and weak ties with others and work together in groups has been critical to the evolution of our species. While some individuals may prefer to spend some of their time alone, being part of a group has historically provided advantages such as increased chances of survival, better defense against threats, and the ability to share resources and support one another in times of need. As relationships form, team dynamics come into play, and decision-making becomes a collaborative process.

What about those who do want to stay alone? If one has to only answer to themselves and can do whatever they want, we don’t say they’re in a team or an organization.

What happens when we add a second person? Now we have a team because we have relationships. The moment we add a second person, we have a relationship that can evolve, which means team dynamics start to form. It’s a small team, but it is a team. A decision made by one person has to be communicated and understood by the second. As relationships evolve, so do team dynamics. While a decision made by one person may only require a single one-on-one meeting, as the team grows, the number of possible relationships increases at an exponential rate. With 8 people, 28. With 20, it’s 190! In general, it’s (n*(n-1)/2) possible direct relationships among n people. This raises the question: what team size is the right size?

If you cannot feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large.
— Jeff Bezos

Dunbar’s number

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggests the ideal group size for social context is around 150 people due to our brain’s ability to maintain stable relationships with groups. This number is not a universal rule and can vary depending on the context. Beyond this number, restrictions, laws, and norms are necessary. However, despite this limitation, organizations and leadership are essential for achieving large outcomes. Let’s explore how organizations formed and where we stand now.

Organization Structure

The effectiveness of a leadership style is dependent on the situation and the leader’s strengths and weaknesses. To succeed, it is crucial to create a supportive environment for everyone involved.

Throughout the progression of our civilization, we have gone from small tribes to megacities, and our advanced scientific knowledge has allowed us to manipulate our DNA. The ability to form larger groups and organizations has been a significant factor in our shift from a focus on survival to a deeper understanding of the world.

Reinventing Organizations provides an insightful perspective on the evolution of organizational structures. According to the book, organizations have evolved through several stages. By exploring these stages, we can gain a better understanding of the development of organizational structures and the various factors that have influenced their evolution.

Note: Please refer to the footnote to learn why the author chose these specific colors for the various stages of evolution.

Reactive Infrared — 100,000 to 50,000 BC

Reactive Infrared, i.e. Simple human (The Crood)
Reactive Infrared, i.e. Simple humans (The Croods)

In the Infrared (Paleolithic) era, human societies were small foraging groups with a collective goal of survival. Males hunted, while females cared for children, and the groups had a simple separation of responsibilities, without a distinct leader. Think of it as a small family of dozens with no ego and no chief. These humans did not perceive themselves as separate from nature; instead, they saw themselves as part of it.

Magic-Magenta — 15,000 years ago

Magic-Magenta, i.e. Tribe (Year one)
Magic-Magenta, i.e. Tribe (Year one)

During the Magic-Magenta (Tribal) era of human evolution, organizations, as we know them today, didn’t exist. However, larger groups formed tribes where elders held a special status due to their experience and knowledge. The elders were walking libraries, preserving and passing on knowledge through oral tradition since there was no form of writing. The rise of magic belief was due to a limited understanding of cause and effect in this stage of consciousness, despite curiosity.

Impulsive Red — 10,000 BC

Impulsive Red — i.e. Mafia

As group sizes exceeded Dunbar’s number about 10,000 years ago, leaders emerged who ruled through force, leading to the development of hierarchies and individual egos. Tribes then gained experience with organized agriculture, laying the groundwork for civilizations. Examples of this dynamic persist today in wars, gangs, and organized crime. This impulsive, “red” mentality can be metaphorically likened to a wolf pack, with an overpowering chief who rules by fear and submission, without hierarchy or job titles. This strategy may be well-suited for chaotic environments but struggles with complexity, planning, trust, and scalability.

Conformist Amber — 4,000 BC

Around 4000 B.C., humans began farming and building civilizations, which led to the creation of writing systems. Today, many developed countries still operate under this paradigm with institutions like government agencies, schools, religions, and peacetime military. Examples of this are the military during peacetime or religious institutions. These groups have roles instead of absolute power, and interpersonal relationships, and follow a system of justice. They have strengths in understanding cause and effect, quick decision-making, medium to long-term planning, understanding others’ feelings, stability, and scalability. However, they struggle with complexity.

Achievement Orange

Achievement Orange, i.e. corporations

Humanity has evolved beyond a simplistic view of right and wrong since the Industrial Revolution, allowing us to handle greater complexity. As a result, organizations have become mechanistic, and achievement-oriented companies like Walmart and Coca-Cola prioritize innovation, accountability, and meritocracy. Their management approach is focused on prediction and control, setting achievement quantitative targets for employees, and rewarding those who meet or exceed them. These companies have standard departments for research and development, marketing, and product management to drive innovation and growth.

Achievement-oriented organizations are like machines, with bosses and managers leading them. Their principles/strategies are to achieve more by better understanding the world’s workings and making decisions that yield the highest outcome. Their strengths are innovation, accountability, and meritocracy, but they struggle with ego and trust. These companies reward their employees with promotions and material incentives.

Pluralistic Green

Pluralistic Green, i.e. Southwest Airlines

Green organizations are new additions to the corporate world, that prioritize empowerment and values-driven culture. Examples of Green Organizations are academia, non-profits, social work, and community activism. Servant leadership and soft-skill training are emphasized, and 360-degree reviews allow employees to provide feedback to each other for improvement. Southwest Airlines and Ben & Jerry’s are early adopters of this approach. While green organizations claim to be open-minded and tolerant, they can become intolerant of those who do not fit their culture or values. Metaphorically, they operate like a family, with a modest behavior manager/leader and a stakeholder model. Their strength lies in promoting social justice, freedom, democracy, and trust, while their struggle is with abuse of power, intolerance, and practical alternatives.

Evolutionary Teal

Evolutionary Teal, i.e. Morning Star Tomatoes

The adoption of a both-and perspective has sparked a paradigm shift, giving rise to teal organizations. These organizations are distinguished by their emphasis on enduring goals that serve their evolutionary trajectory, elevated emotional intelligence, as well as fostering trust and empowerment. Unlike other organizations, teal organizations focus on long-term planning and believe in creating smarter groups to achieve their goals. Morning Star Tomatoes is an example of a teal organization that operates like a living organism, emphasizing wholeness and self-management. Their strength lies in their adaptability, trust, and employee satisfaction, with unknown struggles and a reward of a life well-lived.

Today’s Organizations

After gaining an understanding of the significance and evolution of organizations, it is crucial to examine strategies for selecting or building an organization that best suits our needs. However, before delving into those strategies, it’s imperative to highlight two critical principles: Conway’s Law and Cognitive biases.

Conway’s Law is a crucial consideration in organizational leadership. It states that the structure of a software system will reflect the communication structure of the organization that developed it. This implies that the organization’s structure and communication patterns will shape the final product. Thus, leadership style and communication with team members have a significant impact on the end product.

Cognitive biases also play a significant role in leadership styles. Leaders who can recognize and attempt to mitigate their biases can inspire and empower their teams more effectively. Additionally, leaders who acknowledge common biases that their team members may hold can create an inclusive environment where everyone’s ideas and contributions are valued.

The Impact of Conway’s Law and Cognitive Biases on Organizational Culture

Manu Cornet — Bonker’s World
Manu Cornet — Bonker’s World

Organizational culture is a crucial aspect of any company, but the way we approach it can sometimes hinder its growth. In traditional organizations, culture is often set and teams are formed to fit those criteria, creating a rigid structure that limits adaptability and innovation. However, in Green and Teal organizations, there is a priority on openness, acceptance, democracy, trust, and adaptation, creating a more fluid and evolving culture anchored by the previously listed values.

Conway’s Law suggests that an organization will design systems with a structure that reflects the organization’s communication structure, leading to potential misalignments between teams if not managed carefully. In addition, cognitive biases such as confirmation bias and groupthink can lead to a lack of diversity in thought and ideas, limiting a company’s potential for innovation.

When considering the type of organization and culture we want, we need to examine leadership styles that prioritize transparency, communication, and conflict resolution. A good leader should set a long-term vision, ensure employees understand and are empowered to achieve goals and create a safe and respectful environment for healthy debate and discussion.

Additionally, it’s important to define diversity and inclusion within the context of the organization and encourage different perspectives to identify creative solutions to problems. Conflict resolution requires a leader to be skilled at negotiation and communication, finding common ground to benefit everyone involved.

In the context of a mid-size IT consultancy with a team of engineers and designers, an effective leader balances technical expertise, project management skills, and interpersonal abilities. The ideal reporting structure may vary based on the client or team’s specific needs, goals, and culture, but a flat organizational structure where all team members report directly to the team lead can facilitate open communication and collaboration.

Conway’s Law and cognitive biases can impact organizational culture and limit a company’s potential for growth and innovation. By prioritizing open communication, diversity of thought, and conflict resolution skills in leadership, companies can create a more fluid and adaptable culture that allows for continuous improvement and success.

In a previous version of this article, I outlined the criteria for my ideal team, and I’m fortunate to say that I’ve found it at Equal Experts. Here are the key factors that make this team so special:

  • A strong and inspirational leader who can bring people together to work towards a shared vision. I’m lucky to have found that in our co-founders Thomas de Cad’oro Granier and Ryan Sikorsky, as well as our Managing Director in North America, Katie Coleman.
  • A manager or a leader who is approachable and helpful for navigating typical company policies, discussing goals and growth, and requesting time off. At Equal Experts North America, I’ve found this in Katie, with whom I feel comfortable discussing almost anything.
  • A team of technically skilled individuals who are happy to share their knowledge and help others grow. Equal Experts has a network of over 3,000 individuals globally. I can reach out to almost anyone for help on any topic without being judged or criticized for not knowing something.
  • A group of curious, open-minded people who are eager to learn and grow. I’m grateful for the opportunity to mentor and support not just those in our local network, but also the fantastic clients we work with.

Historical figures such as Nelson Mandela, MLKand Mahatma Gandhi have exemplified leadership styles that inspired changes and progress. Their examples show that leadership styles can significantly shape an organization’s culture and success. While there are various leadership styles with their respective strengths and weaknesses, the most effective one depends on the organization’s structure, goals, and culture. Therefore, it is crucial to learn from historical lessons and adapt them to our current context. Developing a strong leadership style requires time, effort, and the willingness to learn from mistakes. However, organizations that prioritize the development of effective leadership styles can create a culture of success that drives sustainable growth and innovation.

What kind of team are you looking to be a part of? What kind of leader are you working to be?

Footnote:

The author of Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux, used colors to represent the different stages of organizational evolution as a way of making complex ideas more accessible and easy to understand. According to Laloux, the colors were chosen based on the qualities and characteristics associated with each stage of evolution, as well as their relevance to the natural world.

For example, the Reactive Infrared stage is associated with survival and primal instincts, which Laloux likened to the heat and energy of the infrared spectrum. The Magic-Magenta stage, which is characterized by superstition and spirituality, was represented by the color magenta, which Laloux believed captured the mystical and otherworldly nature of this stage.

Similarly, the colors of Impulsive Red, Conformist Amber, Achievement Orange, Pluralistic Green, and Evolutionary Teal were chosen based on the unique qualities and characteristics of each stage, and their relevance to the natural world. Overall, the use of colors in this way helps readers to easily identify and understand the different stages of organizational evolution and the characteristics associated with each one.

Inspirations

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