I first learned about “mismatch theory” in an article from Harvard Business Review in January 2022 about courageous leadership. Mismatch theory is the concept that traits that were at one time advantageous to us become less useful as time moves on. The things that made us successful in evolutionary terms don’t necessarily benefit us in the modern world.
In the roughly 200,000 years of human existence, life was most often nasty, brutish and short. For 99% of human history, the average lifespan was about 30 years—and for 99% of that time, our brains and bodies were focused solely on survival. There wasn't much time for the modern luxuries of leisure, technology and building businesses. The very traits that helped us survive over hundreds of thousands of years don't necessarily give us advantages in modern society.
Evolution happens in the workplace, too. Behaviors that were formerly acceptable in construction companies not long ago are out of bounds now. When I was a young man, yelling at people who made mistakes was par for the course; if screaming ever produced positive results, it certainly doesn’t now.
But when you think of a successful construction leader, what adjectives immediately come to mind? Tough, courageous, rugged—that Superman or Superwoman kind of individual. That's still what leaps out at you as the stereotypical construction leader. But in the HBR article, the author says that we need to rethink courage and talks about three new definitions of courage:
1. Courageous leaders are open and humble.
Any leader must be competent—that's a given. But it's also true to say that no leader can know everything no matter how competent. That leadership style where one straps on his armor and becomes somehow invulnerable to doubt or ignorance just doesn't fly anymore.
Modern leaders acknowledge when they're afraid or uncertain, and they especially acknowledge when they screw up—because we all screw up sometimes. Being courageous also means being vulnerable.
2. Courageous leaders consider new viewpoints.
Modern leaders listen to differing opinions (even conflict up to a point) as people passionately express their opinions on given subjects in the workplace. The leaders accept different viewpoints while working to aggregate them to come up with optimal solutions and decisions.
3. Courageous leaders provide psychological safety in the workplace.
The idea behind psychological safety is to help people feel secure in sharing thoughts and taking reasonable risks without the fear of unreasonable backlash. It allows people to learn, change and grow in the workplace as they try new things.
Wildly popular when they first came out, the Superman comic books became less popular over time as competition hit the newsstands. It dawned on Superman's creators that one of the reasons their character was losing popularity, despite his charisma, was he was invulnerable. He had no weaknesses. Ironically, this seemingly perfect being’s popularity declined because of his invulnerability!
The authors needed to arrest the downward slide, so they created kryptonite. Suddenly, Superman became vulnerable and, therefore, more identifiable and likable. The public could finally relate to him.
Modern leaders in construction continue to share characteristics of their forebearers: They’re still courageous, intelligent and visionary. But they’re often also much more humble, leading with principles and values as they seek to create psychological safety within their teams. As more time passes, they continue to shed old behaviors that once upon a time were commonplace and adapt to new behaviors to inspire and support their colleagues and employees—and, as such, their customers.