No More Heroes: Distributed Leadership
The model of the single powerful leader who operates through command and control is attractive in its simplicity. This model of leadership often gets reinforced in the media, as well as by demanding shareholders. In reality, it is impractical to expect the single leader to have all the answers, and history has shown that relying upon rigid control mechanisms will not prevent catastrophic outcomes.
It’s far better to rely upon a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organization. These responsible and empowered individuals will serve as much better watchdogs than any single, dominant leader or bureaucratic structure.
And as organizations grow in size and complexity, it becomes even more critical to distribute the leadership load. Conventional structures that rely upon concentrated leadership to drive decisions towards the center run the risk of becoming constrained by their own organization. They also lose the opportunity to empower a much broader base of competent leaders. The capacity of the organization increases when it distributes the leadership load to competent leaders on the ground who can make the best knowledge-based decisions.
For many decades, individuals tolerated work environments that showed little value for their contributions and failed to empower them to make a difference. Many believed they had little choice if they wanted to live securely, and they felt helpless in their ability to change things.
New talent entering the workforce is unwilling to live with these trade-offs. They are not wedded to any single organization or intimidated by the idea of picking up and moving to a new opportunity. They recognize they have choices, and that there are better work environments that value their opinions and will tap into their unique capabilities. Organizations that hold onto conventional leadership models will find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain top talent.
So why don’t more organizations move to a more distributed leadership model? Many times the answer lies at the top. Who wants to give up their position and power after working so hard to achieve it? Who wants to disappoint key stakeholders who expect strong and powerful leadership at the top? Why unleash chaos in the organization when things are tightly under control? These serve as powerful forces that hold conventional leadership structures in place.
To shift to a distributed leadership model, it will require strong conviction from senior leaders and a willingness to make fundamental changes within their organizations. It will require re-visiting the embedded values that have been reinforced within the organization, and the values of the current leaders. What is rewarded within the organization? How are leaders selected? What consequences are there for leaders who don’t live up to the desired values? This journey will not be an easy one, and there will be many forces that will fight the change.
It will require a shift within the organization from valuing a key few to valuing the unique contributions of many. Individuals will need to feel they have a voice and can be heard. Leaders will need to recognize that their primary role is to empower others versus build their own power. They will no longer stand behind a title with assumed authority to tell people what to do.
Leaders’ focus will shift to creating the right environment and instilling the right values that can enable capable leaders to emerge. They will recognize that they are only leaders if they have willing followers, and that this needs to be earned every day. Ultimately their contributions will be judged by the people they lead.
Most rewards systems depend upon higher-level management to assess the effectiveness of the leader. This view can be somewhat limited and biased by the fact the managers were often the ones who put the leader in the role in the first place. Those who know their leaders best are typically the individuals they lead. If you want individuals to have a voice in the organization, they must also have a voice in selecting and evaluating their leaders.
In our company, we have found it very useful to adopt a peer ranking system. All associates get the opportunity to rank members of their team, including their leaders. They are asked to create a contribution list in rank order based on who they believe is making the greatest contribution to the success of the enterprise. This approach serves as an excellent form of “checks and balances” when it comes to who is truly recognized for their contributions as well as for overall leadership.
Creating and sustaining an empowered organization does not come easy, and requires constant attention from leadership. As organizations grow, there is a natural tendency to put more controls in place and adopt more bureaucratic structures. A critical role of leaders is to instill the right values and just enough structure to enable the entire organization to flourish.