I remember reading an interview with a woman who, not able to find the right books for her kids on the market, decided to establish her own company publishing quality children’s literature. Asked what made the company successful, she replied: “I was not an expert in a publishing business, but I knew exactly what kind of expertise I needed to get started – so I engaged the right people. The key to our achievements was how we worked together, using the collective knowledge and skills of all our team members.”
I can’t recall the name of the woman and her business, but these words stuck with me. This was not a typical success story that we are so used to hearing: one where there is an individual charismatic leader who, thanks to his or her outstanding capabilities, has brought an organization to exceptional heights, or saved it from crisis.
We are surrounded with hierarchical power structures, where decision-making and responsibility is concentrated in the hands of one individual or a few people, and we tend to see and perpetuate this model as a norm.
Yet, is this the best model for our times? Today’s organizations operate in a world with rapid and intense changes in all dimensions, where simple cause-and-effect chains have been replaced by complex interconnections, and it is increasingly difficult to make sense of the present – let alone predict future events.
To be able to lead effectively in such an environment, when a structure limits leadership to a top individual, this person would need to have truly extraordinary knowledge, skills and competencies.
A quest for super-leaders
Just how impressive is this desired set of knowledge, skills and competencies becomes clear when we look at standard vacancy notices for leadership posts.
To fit the bill, a candidate must be an experienced expert in the topic, think analytically, anticipate new trends and capitalize on emerging opportunities.
He or she needs to have outstanding managerial, operationally pragmatic skills while creating a compelling vision and sustainable strategy, driving creativity and innovation and anticipating and managing risks.
A strong, confident decision-maker and problem-solver, the person must deliver results efficiently and on time while motivating and engaging people and modeling integrity and ethical behavior.
He or she must be a charismatic and persuasive communicator, speaker and writer who can also effectively manage diverse relationships.
All of this accompanied with an ability to cope well with pressure in a dynamic and change-oriented environment.
In short, organizations with typical hierarchical power structures tend to seek super-leaders.
But super-leaders are few and far between; they are also very costly. So, what often happens is that while expectations are unrealistically high, candidates recruited for top posts are only “good enough”.
When faced with unpredictable challenges and ever-mounting demands coming from multiple directions, they often find themselves overwhelmed by the pressure and unable to live up to their responsibilities.
Read also: Recycling mediocre leaders
When super-leaders fail
Classic hierarchical leadership structures simply cannot cope with the current rate of change, complexity and unpredictability. The more complex the structure, the bigger the challenge. And, because the hierarchical structure is so dependent on how the top individuals perform, when they fail or leave, the entire company or organization suffers – or collapses altogether.
All other factors aside, most of the recent spectacular organizational failures had one thing in common: a failure of a single leader or a group of leaders at the top.
At a critical junction, Blockbuster changed its CEO whose individual poor judgment and harmful choices led to the company’s closure in just two years.
Initial attempts by some of the most senior Oxfam leaders to cover up, then to justify the Haiti sex scandal caused some 7,000 regular donors to withdraw their support immediately after the scandal came to light, and the government to cut some £20 millions of state funding. The damage to public trust in charity work will take decades to repair.
The list of top leaders who caused harm to their agency goes way beyond these well-known cases and includes companies and organizations of all types and sizes.
In the words of Dee W. Hock, the founder of Visa International, “heroic leaders, once a godsend, are now a public menace. We need to think about organizational leadership in a new way — a way that fits the times in which we live.”
Read also: The “Bad Boss” School of Leadership
The value of co-creation
Up until the turn of the millennium, leadership studies focused almost exclusively on the attributes, roles and effects of individual leaders. And yet, in the “leader = top individual” equation, the often-lost element is the fact that it is the combined effort of the people and teams that creates results.
Time and again throughout decades of my leadership learning and practice, I have seen how leading with others– as opposed to leading others– can create outstanding results.
It started decades ago, in a post-war place where I was setting up a non-profit organization. A new entity, it had very little money and no recognition. But it had a group of carefully selected people who wanted to volunteer long-term to help local communities recover.
It was exactly like the publishing house owner said: I was not an expert in a post-war recovery, but I knew exactly what kind of expertise I needed to get started – so I engaged the right people and we worked together, using the collective knowledge and skills of all our team members.
The volunteers came from all walks of life and brought a very diverse expertise: we had engineers, economists, health specialists, educators, media professionals, artists and many others. When they put their brains together, they came up with brilliant, creative solutions to local problems.
I couldn’t back them up financially. But I could offer support in turning their ideas into group projects, getting them promoted and funded, planning and acting together, and learning through the process.
“My” volunteers were leading their individual projects but were also engaged in making decisions and solving problems of the entire organization. We shared a common set of values, a commitment to our collective work and ownership of results. And this was how we made the organization grow, in less than two years, into a viable local entity with a stable financial base.
Over the years it had morphed as the situation changed, but its programs remained well-known and respected; some became a part of local development strategies, others grew into successful organizations and enterprises.
It was also amazing to see how “my” volunteers grew professionally through the process. After I left, some of them continued the programs – no longer volunteering their time but employed as staff members. Others set up their own successful non-profits and companies, still others became leading consultants for large international organizations.
To this day, when our paths cross sometimes, they tell me that they owe their success to that experience of co-creating our organization and its programs.
Leading with others
Responsible leadership begins with individuals in formal leadership positions, but it doesn’t end there. At all levels of organizations, there are people who, in the right context, will show their leadership abilities even if they are not in the formal leadership roles.
An investment in finding and empowering these people, and engaging their diverse knowledge, skills and competencies in completing tasks, making decisions and solving problems together can go a really long way.
Some companies and organizations already know it and apply different models to engage people and teams.
There are small ones like a biotech firm AgBiome that has no managers and is run by committees of committed employees, and Zappos online shoe and clothing retailer that gives employees ownership and empowerment to make decisions.
There are also giants like the Mondragon Corporation, the 10th largest Spanish company, with 75,000 employees working in co-operatives driven by a philosophy of participation and solidarity, and Google that sees people working effectively in teams as its key success factor.
We know that this approach to leadership has a positive impact in education and healthcare systems. We even have evidence that engaging multiple sources of leadership can drive achievements in a low-carbon city agenda.
To succeed in today’s dynamic and highly complex, interconnected world, we will inevitably need to depart from a static, traditional hierarchical structure with a formal super-leader at the top.
We will need to embrace a more distributed, people-centered leadership process that develops and harnesses the collective knowledge, skills and creativity in diverse and inclusive teams.
And leading with people will inevitably need to be accompanied by leading with a purpose larger than short-term, self-centered gains, and leading ethically.
This is not just my personal belief. In the newest 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, 67% of employees say that their employer needs to have a greater purpose so their job would have a meaningful societal impact; 74% want a company that is values-driven and inclusive, and where they are informed, take part in the planning processes and have a voice in key decisions; 80% expect their employers to invest in staff training and professional growth, and giving them tasks that they find interesting and fulfilling.
People want their employers to be trusted partners for change. For many, these factors are deal-breakers: they would never work for an organization that does not meet them.
We can no longer afford to ignore these voices.