Spread The Love: Three Qualities That Help Distribute Leadership
“I don’t know what you’ve heard, but Joe is part of the problem.” Sandy lowered her voice and leaned in so only I could hear her. “I mean he’s great; he’s really inspiring. But it seems like maybe he’s too good of a leader, I don’t know.” Sandy’s words intrigued me so I paused. “What do you mean, ‘to good of a leader,’” I asked. “Well,” Sandy continued, “Whatever he’s involved in will probably succeed, and succeed big.
But when he’s not involved, let’s just say it’s a crash and burn.”
Many years ago I coached Joe. He was the senior leader in a high energy, entrepreneurial-oriented organization. Joe was smart, funny, good looking and pretty humble to boot. As a leader, Joe made it easy to follow him. He was kind but had an appropriate firmness. He listened but also could give direction and break stalemates. He was reflective but moved with a healthy urgency. It was energizing to be around him. I found myself anticipating our coaching sessions, not because I thought I could help him, but because he might rub off on me. Joe was a natural leader.
However, after a couple of months of working with Joe, I found a chink in his armor. If you didn’t report to Joe, you rarely felt his influence. If Joe didn’t lead a project, it failed or faltered. When work did fail, Joe would ride in and rescue it with his energy, charm and authority. When you were with Joe, you felt like you (and the organization) could do anything. But as Joe’s voice faded, so did progress. In other words, Joe’s leadership ended at his office door. What was going on?
Joe, and his organization, had fallen prey to a problem that is common in many entrepreneurial endeavors. By the time I showed up, the organization had grown beyond a “one leader solves all” mentality. Yet Joe was still the catalyst for most of the leadership. Or to put it in another way: the mindset of the organization did not allow for leadership to “spread” beyond Joe. There was no thought given to distributing the leadership.
The lack of distributed leadership was also driven by another related mindset prevalent in the organization. What was that mindset? Let’s call it the heroic-leader mindset. It goes like this: without an inspiring and heroic individual to energize and lead us we will not move our mission forward. Without Joe as hero, the mission, and the many people depending on its success, was in peril.
Heroic leadership is about the “I”
Distributed leadership is about the tribe
Moving from heroic to collective leadership requires people in an organization to understand distributed leadership. This means people must shift their view of leadership from “hero-based” to “tribal based.” Until this shift occurs, organizational stakeholders may experience the predictable characteristics of hero-based leadership: bottlenecks, territorial infighting, a lack of front line initiative, unproductive complaining and blame (to name a few).
What Is Distributed Leadership?
Lots of things, not everything, but lots of things, are better if they are distributed. The Internet is a good example. It’s the distributed networks, information, conversations and commerce that make the internet the town square of the world. The same is true for peanut butter, soccer teams and mulch. Each one is better when it’s spread out.
And then there’s leadership.
Like other things, leadership works better when it’s distributed. When organizational power, ingenuity and transformative influences are distributed, organizational outcomes increase (Yukl, 2008). The genius, and the ability to harness genius, is in the tribe, not in one individual (even if that one individual is a genius).
I recently saw a meme that pictured Elon Musk (founder of Tesla and SpaceX) sporting a big smile. Written below Musk’s picture was the following: This week he sold 14 billion orders for a revolutionary new car and successfully landed a rocket on a floating drone ship. What did you do?
My first reaction to the meme included a few four letter words. My next thought was, “No he did not. Elon Musk did not do those things. A tribe did those things. It was a dedicated group of people that did the work and drove the results.” This is not meant to diminish the genius of Musk. Of course he was part of it. But the meme promotes the hero rather than the ingenious tribe that was involved. Distributed leadership goes beyond the hero to emphasize a dynamic that happens between people.
Mary Uhl-Bien, in 2006, described distributed leadership this way: ‘leadership’ is conceived of as a collective social process emerging through the interactions of multiple actors.
OK, what does that mean?
Well, think about the more traditional idea of leadership. It goes something like this. Leadership is a set of actions one person, or a small group, employs to energize a bigger group to accomplish a goal (when it’s a really big goal we call it a mission). Leaders can do this because they possess a set of qualities (inherent or developed) that inspire and engage others to get and stay involved.
Joe embodied this more traditional view of leadership. He was the hero who regularly saved the day and then gave people temporary injections of inspiration and direction. These temporary injections allowed the organization to progress. But of course the affects of the injections wore off. Even Joe could no longer keep up with the injection schedule that was needed to sustain his influence.
If a company grows beyond a few people (even if it doesn’t) the influence and expertise needed to sustain progress must move from the hero to the tribe. This is a critical movement. Some heroically-based organizations, believe distributed leadership is about finding more “Joe’s.” Distributing leadership is about finding more heroes who can lead smaller pockets of the the organization just like the uber leader. In doing this, the hero mentality remains prominent just distributed. But finding more heroes doesn’t necessarily distribute the leadership.
Researchers and practitioners of distributed leadership don’t discount individual leadership qualities or roles. But they are less interested in formal authority and more interested in the quality of the interactions that occur between people. What is paramount are the many interactions that are distributed throughout an organization. These interactions contain the possibility of insight and ingenuity. When these interactions lead to either to insight or ingenuity, leadership “happens” (emerges) in that moment. Distributed leadership then is about a process that occurs between people and what emerges as a result.
Here’s how I describe distributed leadership:
Distributed leadership is a high-quality, high-ingenuity interaction between people that leads to creative-solution making.
When it comes to distributed leadership, we could say the sum of the exchange is greater then the people involved. Something “more” happens during the interaction that enables new ideas, ingenuity, strategy and/or smart actions to emerge. The discovered ideas, strategies and ingenious actions can then be used to accomplish mission-objectives.
The irony about Joe is that his interactions with people did lead to insights and ingenuity. In a sense, he was distributing the leadership in his own exchanges. But that wasn’t translating beyond him. Why? Others in the organization assigned Joe’s ability to his stature as a leader, not to a process they too could learn, develop and execute. The mindset in the organization was, Joe is a leader, so of course he can create solution-making moments. We can’t lead like Joe, so we can’t do that. We just need more Joe’s and we’ll be set.
Distributed leadership is about fostering the interactions that Joe demonstrated, not more Joe’s. Everyone can interact in transformative ways. We don’t need to rely on a few heroic leaders to do it for us. Insight and ingenuity aren’t confined to a small group of super hero’s. Anyone interacting in ways that foster insight and ingenuity is practicing leadership (in that moment). This doesn’t mean that strong leaders have no place in an organization. Of course they do. But strong leaders, in a distributed model, create the environment and foster the permission for everyone to inspire, engage and creatively solve challenges.
Distributed Leadership is About More Than Organizational Structure
Some people confuse a distributed (flatter) organizational structure with distributed leadership. Organizational structure alone will not ensure distributed leadership. For example, it’s possible to distribute leadership in a top down organization. If people in a top-down organization use their interactions as incubators of ingenuity, they can fuel creative solution-making within that formal authority structure. Take the military as an example (though kinder and gentler, they are still hierarchal). Some pretty amazing innovations have occurred in U.S. health care through discoveries that occurred in the U.S. military. For instance, trauma care has advanced due to innovations developed by military personnel as they cared for patience on the front-lines (Gawande, 2007).
On the other hand, just because an organization is flat (few hierarchies), doesn’t mean it automatically distributes leadership. An organization with a flat structure could end up with very little distributed leadership if people in the organization over control or stifle interactions. Beyond that, If the interactions in a flatter organization are mind-numbingly routine with little to no expectation of insight or creative solution-making, the leadership is not distributed.
Not long after I coached Joe, I coached another leader who was the founder of a very flat (structured) start up. When I arrived, the company had grown to about 100 employees. But the flat nature of the structure did not create interactions of ingenuity between people. Rather, it gave the founder a way to “keep an eye” on all 100 people. Or so he thought. Instead of fostering the conditions necessary for creative interactions, the flat structure provided the founder a way to tightly control, well…everything. Just because his org chart was flat didn’t mean the interactions led to the inventive progression of the mission. Quite the contrary. People resented the flat structure, the control and the inability to contribute to a shared vision.
Now, with that said, structure does matter. Hierarchical organizational structures can inhibit distributed leadership because people look “up the organizational chart” for decisions and solutions. Flatter organizational structures tend to foster dialogue and ingenuity between people because solutions must come from those on either side. However, structure alone does not automatically lead to or away from distributed leadership. The practice depends on what happens between people no matter the structure.
Fostering Distributed Leadership
If you want to distribute leadership in your organization, you’ll want to first foster three critical characteristics. Without people everywhere (in your organization) developing these three qualities the likelihood of distributed leadership significantly diminishes. Don’t just announce that you want more distributed leadership at your next staff meeting. Work first to develop qualities, throughout your organization, that precede and enable distributed leadership. Here are the three qualities.
1) In order to distribute leadership, people first must be ALIGNED around organizational priorities, values and ongoing work. Alignment is different from raw agreement or forced compliance. Alignment is about a shared view that creates cohesion of effort and emotional engagement. People can disagree on some aspects of their work and remain aligned. People create alignment by finding the critical areas where a shared view is essential to mission or project progress. When critical alignment, or realignment, is achieved the interactions between people will move quicker to insight and ingenuity—because they agree on the big areas of focus.
2) Before leadership can be consistently distributed, people must be PROACTIVE in the execution of their responsibilities. They also must be proactive in solving challenges and opportunities not directly related to their area of responsibility. If people don’t take initiative—within and beyond their boundaries—it will be difficult to distribute leadership. Distributed leadership rests on the premise the organizational stakeholders are engaged because they want to be not because they have to be. Beyond “want,” proactivity requires that downstream leaders solve problems before they become upstream issues. Proactive people initiative ingenuity at the place where the challenge or opportunity emerged. They don’t wait for the hero to save the day. They save the day, and appropriately include formal leaders in their ideas and actions.
3) To distribute leadership, people must be COLLABORATIVE in their approach to problem-solving and solution-making. Distributed leadership de-emphasizes a top-down approach to decision-making and power-sharing. Downstream leaders work to solve problems and seize opportunities without a constant need for upstream guidance. This requires upstream leaders to allow downstream leaders space to act. It also requires downstream leaders to respect the limits of their authority—knowing when to include upstream leaders in order to protect the organization and/or enhance execution. Without a strong sense and practice of partnering, distributed leadership won’t work. Selfish agendas or territorial squabbles dismantle ingenuity and creativity.
It’s critical that people demonstrate all three qualities together. Without all three present, you get distortions that will inhibit distributed leadership. Consider the chart below which reveals some of the problems the can occur when people do not posses all three qualities.
|The Selfish Star
|The Endearing Laggard
|The Valuable Rebel
|The Distributed Leader
Spread It Around
You wouldn’t clump your peanut butter on a tiny corner of your bread. Why concentrate all the leadership in one spot of your organization. Smart leaders/founders understand that they don’t just need a few heroes sprinkled here and there to ignite their organizations. They know that the quality of the interactions, all over their organizations, is what moves the mission forward. So spread out the quality of interactions, let go of the hero mentality, and foster the conditions and qualities that increase creativity and ingenuity. Then watch the tribe make its magic.
Gawande, A. (2007). Better: A surgeon’s notes on performance. New York: Metropolitan.
Uhl-Bien, M. (2006). Relational leadership theory: exploring the social processes of leadership and organizing. Leadership Quarterly, 17, pp. 654–676
Yukl, Gary. (2008) How leaders influence organizational effectiveness. The Leadership Quarterly 19 (2008) 708–722.