In 2008, Brafman and Beckstrom wrote “The Starfish and the Spider”. The metaphor they use is the one of the spider, incapacitated as soon as its head is hit, compared to the starfish which can be split in several bits and continue to live and grow. They then develop their argument following which “Leaderless organizations” are the way to the future. I do not subscribe to that point of view which is typical from the vision of too many people: we either need a providential and strong leader or we should have none. They seem unaware of what we increasingly see happening: the raise of “Leadership” .
Whereas the impact of the emerging “Disruption Economy” is clear on strategy (the need to re-insource the strategy in the organization through a “strategizing process”) and organizations (creating “intelligent organizations”), the way it is going to affect leadership isn’t always clear. It is what we call “From Leader to Leadership”, or emphasizing the role of collective leadership rather than focus on the individual.
Most of our clients see this evolution as well, and request, when we design and deliver a leadership program, that we move away from the focus on the leader, to help participants understand and enable a rapid development of “leadership as a process”.
This change is justified, in our eyes, by three main needs:
- Reducing the dependency: In a fast moving, highly complex business, it is increasingly dangerous to depend on a few, undisputed and undiscussed leaders or specialists. I will mention no names, but how many stories have we heard by some clients about the “Judgment of God”, deciding that such a trend would have no future, or such new product could be let go to a competitor and the company missed a trend. If all the stories about Steve Jobs’ exclusive leadership are true, Apple was lucky that he was such a genius with an unfaultable flair for what the market needed. But for one Jobs, how many Mike Jeffries do we have? (Jeffries is the C.E.O. of Abercrombie & Fitch, who’s arrogant comment on the fact that his brand wasn’t for overweighed people, prompted a large boycott and series of ironic clips on the net… six years after the words were spoken. By the end of May 2013, the company share price fell 8% in one day after the company had to admit a drop in 15% of its year to year sales…) In the army, the special forces develop their young soldiers and officers to take decisions three levels above their rank. The reason is not only practical (to prepare them for taking the right decisions, should their officers be incapacitated) but, above all, to ensure a higher quality in the debate (Before and After Action Review). The point is to train the “juniors” so that they will dare to challenge the higher ranks and will not bow down to the “Seniority means Superiority” game that may be played by some. Likewise, a frequent cause of crash in the airline industry is attributed to the lack of challenging capacities from the crew of the 2nd pilot vis a vis the higher officer. Apparently (and in hindsight) several could have been missed if only the stewardess or assistant pilot had insisted on their idea. So moving away from blind and obedient reliance on a single, heroic leader and progressing towards “Team Leadership” to ensure better quality of debate and decision making is one of the reasons for which organizations switch to Leadership.
- Drastically improving the engagement: I was recently in São-Paulo, co-facilitating a strategic reflection with the leaders of an UK based, true learning organization. They know what disruption is and they aim at creating it rather than being victims of it. Knowing Brazil’s cultural leadership weakness about the Power Distance (“The extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally” following Geert Hofstede who invented and measured this cultural trait)I was a bit concerned, however, that the fact that three levels of hierarchy would be present, causing for the lower ranks to become passive and guess what the higher ranks wanted to hear. My concern was rapidly invalidated by the engaging behavior of the “significant leaders”, listening actively, asking open questions, summarizing, supporting, challenging and clarifying (as we recommend in the book “Engaging Leadership”). The meeting became a truly strategic dialogue between HQ based senior people and operational knowledgeable local deliverers. At the end of the meeting, not only was the quality of the output remarkable, but a shared feeling of ownership and engagement on the strategy had started to emerge. I didn’t dare to think what results we would have reached with a powerful and autocratic leader driving the discussion. Leadership had created quality reflection, engagement and ownership.
- Finally, leaders need to have the humility to recognize that, alone or even supported by their colleagues of the Management Committee, they will not be able to “scan the periphery” in permanence, looking for threats and opportunities, listen and capture minimal signals of what could become a tsunami or a favorable wind… They become the bottleneck to the success of the organization f they fail to create an “intelligent organization around them”. And too strong, dominating, intimidating leaders, no matter how good their intentions are, will not create intelligent organizations. Leadership and responsibilities have to be truly divided.
I have shown this short clip some time ago but find it so illustrative of what leadership is, as opposed to a single leader. In football, the leader is the one who momentarily holds the ball. And the faster the ball moves, the better the result. If the player is individualistic, he may help his team when he is at his best. But nowadays, the coaches simply prevent that person from shining and the whole team is paralyzed. For the pleasure, look at the last goal of the 1970 World Cup finalist, Brazil, probably (a personal opinion) the best team ever in the History of this sport. Individualities were strong (Pelé, Tostão, Gerson, Rivelino, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto) but all committed to the success of the team.
Have a great week all