27 January 2006

Leadership and tradition

What is the importance of tradition for leadership?
Repeating a certain action, behavior or ritual with a long rest period could be a definition for tradition.
The advantage of tradition is, that it fits the way our brain works. Something that happens regularly, or returns occasionally or is being done at a regular basis, becomes strongly embedded in our memory and can be easily retrieved for use.
The disadvantage of such deep memory tracks is that they are difficult to replace with new behavior. The human brain will try to prevent the removal of such memory tracks.
So tradition is important for leadership, because it supports a long living leader by creating a subconscious right to leadership with the people he leads. The advantage of this is, that people know what they may expect of their leader, which gives them a feeling of safety.
This tradition effect of long lasting leadership is strengthened if the leader creates all kinds of recognition and remembrance moments into his leadership existense. An example is personally giving employees presents who did something special for the organization. Although lately the 25 year employee ship is a rare occasion, the five year working relation is more than special enough.
A tradition in that sense that has been created the last twenty years is the press conference and stockholder meeting where the CEO presents the financial situation of the organization.

For a future or new leader this need for tradition of humans means that one should keep the previous leader in high regard. The best one can do is to leave the existing traditions in place and replace them slowly with their own. An example of an organization that uses this tactic is the Catholic church. New church leaders do not change traditions, because the traditions are part of the rituals of the organization and her surrounding culture.

Traditions strengthen leadership, if the leader respects the traditions.

What could a leader do to support traditions?
The most important activity a leader can give to support a tradition is show his face. His partaking of the tradition confirms and strengthens the right of existence of the tradition. However the danger of supporting a tradition can be, that the leader is governed by the tradition. You could say, the tradition starts to live a life on its own. An example of this is Queens day in the Netherlands.
To prevent such a situation, you need to change the tradition slowly. Again Queens day is an example of how this is done.

How does tradition support leadership?
In most cases tradition only supports a leader or the leadership during the period of transition or take over. Take for example how the English royal family has organized its succession. Everybody knows the phrase “The king is dead. Long live the king.” After which a process is started to crown the new king. By doing this in a traditional fashion, the new king is confirmed as the new head of the royal family. But would this also work for a leader in an organization?
Most leadership successions often take place by means of an electronic message to all employees and a message to the biggest customers. If a company is of interest to the press the succession will be on the news. But that has nothing to do with tradition.
Tradition supports the new leader most of all in his direct contract with his new staff. His introduction, sometimes by the old leader, must make it clear to his staff who holds the power to take decisions. In some cases it is even a tradition to get rid of all other members of the executive board and replace them with friends. The staff often expects this behavior from the new leader.
This tradition of the introduction does not mean that a leader can be certain about his power. The tradition does not automatically support the leaders position. The leader will need to find those elements in the tradition, that support or weaken his position.

Are leadership and tradition partners or enemies?
Leadership and tradition are nor partners nor enemies. The leader needs traditions to support his position, but also has the freedom to create new traditions. Tradition however does not need the leader to survive, because human nature is inclined to keep traditions alive. However tradition is not set in stone and can be changed over time.
Tradition can be a leaders enemy, if he uses or treats it wrongly. Just as tradition can be a partner to a leader, if the leader recognizes the tradition for how important it is to his staff and employees.
However if a leader is not careful, he can become a prisoner of tradition.

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