JGL Strategy

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Leaders, Leadership Typology, and The Status Quo

This June there has been plenty of dialogue about the leadership in the city where I live: Cleveland, Ohio. This dialogue is necessary and reflection on this dialogue is vital.

A theme in these discussions of city and regional leadership is the old guard versus the new guard. In articles, at public forums, and on social media many seem to be drawing a distinction based on age and years of tenure: that new, younger leaders might advance the regional economy in ways that eluded current, more tenured, older leaders. They may be right. I’m not writing to weigh in on that position.

I’m writing because I think we need to take a deeper, more nuanced look at leadership. Age and years of tenure – whichever way you view them – are a poor proxy for leadership capacity. It is much more important in my opinion to consider how individuals conceive of the role of a leader.

There are many leadership typologies. Two clusters I view as relevant are: 1) those who think the role of a leader is to preserve the status quo, and; 2) those who think the role of the leader is to build a better future for society, and will work toward that end even if it requires a break from tradition, from the status quo. This distinction is particularly important to the current discussions in Cleveland because – as almost everyone has pointed out – the status quo is not working.

Some – perhaps those who think the dilemma is as simple as the old guard and the new guard – may look at these differing views of leadership and claim that many of the established leaders in the Greater Cleveland area fall into the first category. Some may even conclude that in general the younger emerging leaders in the region fall into the second category. Again, those conclusions may be empirically warranted.

However, I urge us all – wherever we are – to continue exploring the nuance of leadership typology; to not just collapse the discussion back to the crude categories of old guard and new guard. Why? Because there is danger in sidestepping the question of what leadership actually means. This danger can have very real consequences. Looking at my own experience with leaders of all ages and persuasions I feel that there are some current, established leaders in Greater Cleveland who understand that leadership should be about building a stronger future for all and who have demonstrated the galvanizing vision for systems change that get us a step closer to that future. These leaders should not be put out to pasture simply because they have a few grey hairs or have been in leadership positions for some time.

Even more dangerous than disregarding the old guard en masse is wholesale endorsement of any and all younger emerging leaders. As someone who has championed in various forms the voices of younger leaders in Cleveland I don’t say this lightly. The unfortunate fact is there is no shortage of younger emerging leaders chomping at the bit to be the next generation of status quo defenders. Luckily there are just as many young emerging leaders who embrace the view of leadership that seeks to improve the status quo. Cleveland will not be well served by status quo defenders who are young in the same way that Cleveland will not be well served by status quo defenders who are old. How someone views their role as leader is more important than their age or years of tenure.

This tension shines some light on what’s so tricky about the status quo, or any dominant paradigm for that matter: it is very good at resisting change. The status quo has inherent incentives to resist change. Change, even when necessary, is difficult.

I agree we need some fresh leadership.

I agree we absolutely need better leadership.

We need leaders with the awareness and humility to know when the status quo represents a downward trajectory, when mindful change is necessary for the future vitality of the region.

We need leaders with the genuine desire, curiosity, and vision for creating a better future for all.

We need leaders with the collaborative leadership capacity, the risk tolerance, and the ability to challenge institutional assumptions required to execute on that vision.

Those are the leaders we need, regardless of their age and years of tenure.

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