Illustration: Script and Seal

In high school, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr., was already a basketball phenomenon. Urged to shoot the ball whenever he got it, he led his team to victory after victory. But one night, as he left the gym following another high-scoring game, he was struck by the disappointed looks on the faces of his teammates’ parents. They had come to see their own kids play, not to watch Magic light up the court. On the spot, the story goes, he made a decision to use his talents to help everyone around him become a better player. With that one choice, the future NBA Hall of Famer had become a great leader, not just a great athlete.

Liz Wiseman, president of The Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development company, and author of such books as Rookie Smarts and Multipliers, loves telling that story because it illustrates the “multiplier effect” she says is essential in today’s leaders, who face a business landscape where traditional, rigid hierarchies are giving way to far more collaborative, open cultures. “I think it captures the kind of leadership we need right now: leaders who use their native intelligence…in a way that invites everyone else to play big. I love that.”

Just how do executives and managers make the people around them better, in our post-post-industrial economy? How can they foster productive, happy, inspired workforces? And with a generation that’s increasingly blurring lines between professional and personal life—and, according to numerous polls, demanding a greater sense of meaning and purpose in their work—what’s different about leadership today from the way it was twenty, ten, even just five years ago?

In Wiseman’s view, the new cohort of more effective leaders is made up of “multipliers” who tap into the collective intelligence and creativity of those around them. “If you’re in a leadership position, you can get by on what you know and telling [others] what to do and prescribing, but you can’t get very far on that,” she says. That’s especially true given the breathtaking degree of complexity and change most companies face today. “There’s just too much for any one manager to know. They’ve got to lead like a multiplier. They’ve got to learn to ask the questions, to focus the challenges, to rattle their organization, to identify solutions.”

Conversely, managers who don’t multiply the talent and potential of their employees and partners become “diminishers”; they sap rather than tap the intelligence and energy of those around them. That’s the source of a lot of workplace angst and pain, according to Wiseman—often more so than fear of technology or authority, because employees above all want to contribute. “It’s the pain that comes from being chronically underutilized,” Wiseman says.

Diminishers tend to be micro-managers, or leaders who build fiefdoms and hoard resources, siphoning power into their own silos at the expense of everyone else. That’s a particularly bad strategy when most modern organizations are trying to become more, not less, integrated. Not to mention that it’s just downright demotivating to work for them, ultimately creating a repellant for great talent. “I’ve had people corner me to tell me that not only is working for these kinds of diminishing leaders draining for their intelligence and frustrating emotionally,” Wiseman says. “They describe it as physically painful.”

That kind of command-and-control leadership, which tries to get more out of people simply by demanding more, is at odds with what the vast majority of today’s employees say they want out of work. According to a survey by Right Management, only 10% of American employees defined career success as high performance and productivity. What was most important to them was work/life balance: 45% of respondents ranked it first. Perhaps unsurprisingly, two of the biggest motivations for employees wanting to change jobs were—wait for it—work/life balance and work culture (the other two were higher compensation and wanting more challenging assignments).

Enter Stew Friedman. Years ago, Friedman, founding director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Leadership Program and its Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, realized that the drastically different demands of the 21st century workplace warranted a new model of leadership. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach (which usually comes in the form of directives to “put in more hours” or “I need you to come in on Saturday”), Friedman began to define leadership largely as a matter of finding out what people cared about, in business and in life, and helping them achieve it. He calls this idea “Total Leadership”, which is also the title of one of his bestselling books.

To many executives heading up large enterprises, the idea of supporting each employee’s professional and personal goals may sound unreasonable, inappropriate, or simply “soft”. In practice, though, Friedman has shown that it’s anything but.

In 2000, he rolled out a prototype of his model at a Fortune 50 company. After spending four months training a cadre of high-potential managers from across the globe, the results were unambiguous: $5.8 million in costs saved, $0.7 million in new revenue earned, and $0.5 million in productivity gained. Since then, Friedman has worked extensively with organizations around the world, including at Target; delivered the program virtually to thousands of employees at a Fortune 15 healthcare company; and at some of the unlikeliest of places, including the top three American multinational financial services and investment firms and a worldwide IT leader.

Hafthor

What’s Friedman’s secret sauce? What he calls the “Four-Way Win.” The notion is relatively straightforward: Create successes across the four areas that matter most—work (our jobs), community (our, say, running club, or the non-profit we volunteer for), family (whether nuclear or extended), and personal life (what we do to look out for ourselves). And, in keeping with contemporary trends such as iterative prototyping, testing and learning, and failing forward, he encourages leaders and employees alike to engage in what he calls “experiments”. The goal, overall, is to improve performance demonstrably in all four areas—and, ultimately, to see how success in each domain is connected to success in the others.

An experiment might start with a previously neglected area—say, health. In that case, you, the employee, might decide to begin an exercise or nutrition program. It might not work right away, of course, but that’s why Friedman calls them experiments. You iterate, test, fail (perhaps), test again, optimize. The key, though, is to pursue some thing that will create a “win” in all four areas—including but not limited to work. Getting in better shape, for example, might appear to benefit you only in a personal way, but it may well also increase your energy overall, improving performance at work. It may increase life expectancy. You could also recruit your child or sibling as a workout partner or coach, benefiting your family. You might join a local club or participate in a benefit run, enriching your community, too. The more you see how small changes can have positive ripple effects across the board, says Friedman, the more motivated and successful you become.

That’s what the data show as well: When employees start to focus in on what matters to them, all sorts of benefits are conferred, both for them and for the company as a whole. “You’re more attuned to how to invest your attention in the things that really matter and you’re less distracted and pulled fractiously in different directions,” Friedman says. “It’s really no wonder you would perform better as a result of allocating your attention in more intelligent ways.”

It usually starts at the top, though. If senior executives are subconsciously sending signals to put in more hours at all costs, to squeeze more out of less when nothing’s left, then the negative effects can radiate out to the entire enterprise.

In an article authored by Friedman on Harvard Business Review’s website, a vice president at Target, responsible for a multi-billion-dollar P&L, says that the results of his experiment “have been astounding. I’m more productive… Our company is also benefiting because of the effects on my team… I was showing my team that there was a way that you could prioritize well-being… This is leading them to think about some of the same things for themselves. I’m helping my team to be more engaged… I’m developing better team leaders around me.”

Indeed, many of today’s largest, and most admired, companies are jumping on the work/life bandwagon, perhaps without having planned to at the outset. The New York Times reported on a study undertaken by researchers at Google to find out what made for the best managers. What they discovered, to their surprise, was that “technical expertise—the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep—ranked dead last… What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.” All of which sounds remarkably like both Wiseman’s and Friedman’s advice to companies.

Skepticism is, of course, natural, even given case studies by Target and Google. There can be something a bit ethereal about it all. “You know, I have oatmeal in the morning—and I have a bowl of skepticism,” Friedman jokes. “It’s what I’ve gotten used to. It’s my diet.” But with a new generation entering the workforce claiming an even more intense focus on values like purpose, passion, and fulfillment, as opposed to their parents’ and grandparents’ relatively greater interest in stability, salary, and loyalty, such skepticism could come with a cost.

Based on all the data available, in fact, it would seem that the companies that don’t take a new approach to leadership could actually be the ones to suffer most. Because there’s another trend that senior executives need to keep in mind about their younger colleagues: They vote with their feet. And if they don’t feel heard, challenged, valued—well, suffice it to say HR might be having a lot of exit interviews soon (if they’re not already).

Fortunately, though, the opposite is also true: if companies start investing in what employees care about, if they give them a seat at the table and listen to them, they may just become talent magnets.

To quote two executives who should know what they’re talking about, Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, and VP of Product, Jonathan Rosenberg: “We learned that the only way for businesses to consistently succeed today is to attract smart creative employees and create an environment where they can THRIVE at scale.” The emphasis is all theirs.