Leaderless = Leaderfull

I’ve devoted a number of my posts to the topic of leader development.  In this post, I’d like to say more about what I mean by leader development because my thinking doesn’t come from a view that leaders are solely those at the top of organisations.  Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, when I talk about leaders and leadership, I’m not simply thinking about businesses that organise themselves around hierarchies, far from it.  The thing about leader development is that it is people development.  My belief is that the new age we are currently on the cusp of will be dominated less and less by hierarchies and more by relationships and collaboration and this calls us to develop ourselves accordingly.  This new construct is still forming, but many businesses are feeling the power that comes from interconnectedness; a kind of people power that hierarchical organisations would only dream of, if they could just let go of an Industrial Age paradigm about human groups.

In recent months, there has been a fair amount of analysis of the so-called “leaderless” movements of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements around the world.  The Occupy movements seem to be dissolving both in number and in our consciousness.  Much of what I have read seems to indicate that their breakups rest on the fact that they lacked coherent leadership and their failure to clearly articulate their demands.  In a lot of ways, there is some truth to this.  However, one thing I see in these movements is seeds of a new kind of community in which leaderless actually means leader-full.  We are just flexing our muscles.

I was pleased to attend a workshop by Etienne Wenger some years ago, in which he set out his thinking around Communities of Practice.  He defines Communities of Practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”  His model is applied in the area of social learning, however I would say his thinking is applicable much wider to include social and organisational change.  For Wenger, learning is central to human identity and he sees its primary focus as social participation.  His model shows that a CoP will have three elements that bind them together: domain, community and practice.  Domain is a shared area of interest, i.e. this is not just a loose network of people who like each other.  They have a common purpose, e.g. software developers or wine enthusiasts.  Community emerges from the active participation of every member of the CoP; sharing of information, offering help and building relationships.  There are no tourists in a CoP, there is active engagement.  The practice is the set of capabilities or skills the members enact that indicates they are fully fledged members of the CoP.  Over time, members develop a shared repertoire of tools, knowledge, language and strategies that indicate they not only have a common interest, but they actually do something in common, e.g. they take turns to hold wine tastings or they work together on developing new iPhone apps.

How is this related to leadership?

Our current understanding of what leadership means is still largely drawn from conventions of how organisations have been structured in our recent history.  This makes sense; if we have some ways of behaving that are driven by our beliefs, until our beliefs shift, our behaviours will pretty much remain static.  Organisations are only just coming to glimpse the kind of structures that are much more fit for purpose, Communities of Practice being just one.  We have a very long inheritance of organisational structure from our industrial and military past and for a long period in our history, this suited the needs of an industrial society.  Organising human endeavour with a leader at the top and a rigid hierarchy below has meant that we tend to think of leaders only as those with leadership title or those at the so-called “top”.  Leaders make decisions, leaders are accountable, leaders lead while others follow.  This structure naturally lends itself to a command and control way of thinking and behaving and in the days of the early industrial revolution, this suited the needs of businesses.  The tasks involved in driving a successful business were best organised with the head telling the rest of the body what to do and how to do it.  We didn’t need huge amounts of creativity and autonomy to reside in the lower structures; all they needed to do was what they were told because the higher-ups had the end goals in their sights.  Similarly, militaries need that command and control structure in order to carry out their role effectively.  We couldn’t have foot soldiers deciding how they wanted to go about their job, otherwise we wouldn’t have the kind of strength and order a fighting force needs; it needs to be single-minded, not multi-minded.  So, in essence, form followed function.

Even in the early days of Christianity, orthodoxy took hold and dispensed with the more liberal, personal forms of spirituality.  For example, Gnosticism, a movement based on personal religious experience and transcendence arrived at by internal, intuitive means, was vilified as blasphemous and dangerous, and the Church, with the Pope as its head, became the final arbiter for all matters moral, social and spiritual.  With the leader in place, there was no need for individuals to ponder about their morality; as long as they did what the priest/bishop/Pope told them to do, they would have happy and ordered lives, with the added bonus of a similarly joyous afterlife.  No need to question, no need to work it out for yourself.  The Protestant Reformation injected a new brand of thinking into the mix, with believers thinking that they could perhaps have a direct line to God, rather than through the mediator-priest.  Even so, the predominant social structures in place at the time meant that eventually, most Protestant churches eventually defaulted to some form of leadership hierarchy, and those that didn’t were considered fringe movements.

In the same manner of form following function, industrial/military societies have organised their education systems to provide adequate preparedness to enter a largely hierarchical workforce.  No real need to teach critical thinking skills, no real need to provide opportunities for meaningful personal growth, as long as you could read, write and add up.  Of course, I’m generalising, but on the whole, industrial/military societies provided, and to a shockingly great extent, still provide sausage factory schooling.  Because these three influences (the industrial, the military and the social/spiritual) were so pervasive, it makes complete sense that they were so instrumental in setting up a worldview that still largely holds sway today.

The world is rapidly changing however.

In a recent TEDx talk, former UK Liberal Democrat Party leader Paddy Ashdown sets out some interesting, if not particularly new, ideas about a new world power structure emerging.  While his talk focusses more on global governance and international power shifts, some of the points he makes are salient and relevant to all kinds of leadership and organisation.  If we consider that leadership and power are inextricably linked, we can look to the Occupy movements as some indication of where we might be headed.  Power, in the sense of potency to act, is becoming more diffuse, whether governments like it or not.  In response there will naturally be reaction, but I believe the tide is surely turning.  While the Occupy movements may not have catalysed immediate changes to global financial or economic systems, I believe they signal a new kind of active involvement in society and growing desire for power to be spread more widely.

Ashdown suggests that we are coming back to an age where global governance is carried out via treaties.  He quotes Lord Palmerston saying, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”  This is ringing true in the world of business.  The BizDojo in Auckland, New Zealand is but one example of professional people coming together in a pragmatic way to share expertise, collaborate on one-off projects and create a fresh new business community.  These knowledge workers know that rigid vertical hierarchies are not the best way to organise themselves.  The strength comes from the power of their networks.  To quote Ashdown again, “In the modern age where everything is connected to everything, the most important thing about what you can do is what you can do with others.”

So what does this have to do with leadership then?

Remember I said that our traditional notions of leadership have come from the hierarchical ways we have organised ourselves.  If our power structures are shifting, so will leadership.  While the Occupy movements have been called leaderless by most commentators in the media, I’m not so sure.  Leaderless if we look at the movements through old lenses, true; there was nobody at the “top” because there was no top.  I think this new social construct will call upon us to shift our ideas as to what a leader is.  In a previous blog, I suggested, for example, that a customer service employee who connects with a dissatisfied customer, preventing them from going to your competitor, is exercising just as much leadership as the person with CEO on their door.  Leader development is people development and people development is leader development.

Power is certainly spreading out to the people.  With more diffuse power, we will all be called upon to exercise leadership.  Strong and effective Communities of Practice consist of people with a wide repertoire of personal characteristics and capabilities that in the old days, might have sat with a privileged few.  Everyone exercises some form of leadership, however the new paradigm of leadership is not about managing hierarchies, but about influencing, collaborating and relating.

Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s book, The Starfish and The Spider, paints a potent picture of decentralised organisations.  Decentralised systems, they say, “have no clear leader, no hierarchy and no headquarters.   If and when a leader does emerge, that person has little power over others.”  However, I contend, they do exercise influence.  This points to a key leadership capability that we all require more of as the old makes way for the new.  People at work will not only require some kind of  professional skill set or technical expertise, but they will also need a well developed set of personal capabilities, those which we term “emotional intelligence”.  This is not limited to freelancers or small business owners, but to anyone working in the Knowledge Economy.  I believe that many businesses will see the benefits of reorganising with a more diffuse power base that unlocks the leadership and creativity of more of those who work within them.

In this article in December’s Harvard Business Review, Gary Hamel poses the question, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve high levels of coordination without without a supervisory superstructure?”  I think he’s on to something.  With highly developed leader capabilities all over organisations, leadership (the practice) will emerge from the interactions and relationships between leaders (the people).  Again, I’m intending leaders to be those with authority and accountability.  It then behoves organisations and individuals to devote themselves to sound capability development of the kind I hinted at earlier.  These would include developing greater empathy, greater abilities to listen, greater abilities to collaborate, greater abilities to problem-solve with others, greater abilities to self-manage and, of course, greater self-awareness.  As Paddy Ashdown says, the most important bit about the structure then becomes your docking points-your connections with others; not your hierarchy.

Finally, I think it’s important to recap a point I have made in previous articles, that is, that a new paradigm of organisations will not simply do away with the old.  The new construct will include and transcend the current one, so we will still find that some organisations work best with a hierarchical structure or a command-and-control style of leadership.  However, they will be best applied when they fit the purpose of the organisation.  I suspect, for example, that local emergency management structures will require a command-and-control style of leadership in crisis situations.  I, for one, would prefer that a highly efficient response team deals with a natural disaster or fire to one that organises itself on the basis of peer consultation.

I have set out just a few of my thoughts and reflections in this article and, as always, am keen to read what you can add and build onto what I have written.  I’m no expert, and I suspect there isn’t one anyway.  We are in immersed in the unknown right now and the New Normal will come about from all of our contributions.


8 thoughts on “Leaderless = Leaderfull

  1. John – another excellent article. In thinking about the leader-less/leader-full experience of the Occupy movement I reflect on their impact. They managed to raise significant questions about our social values, and their subsequent effect. Just questioning basic values, asking, ‘how is this working for us’, IS good leadership. However, I am not sure the next question of, ‘what do we want instead? what could that look like?” was asked or addressed. There was a lot of questioning (good stuff), and a lot of resisting (not so good as this only serves to perpetuate what is).

    So there was leadership, in a collaborative, non-hierarchical way that had some good global impact (questioning our values as a society is always a good thing as it calls us to be better). But there was not enough good leadership in the sense of holding a space for finding solutions. This can be done through a hierarchical structure, or more likely in a contemporary setting, through a collaborative set up. The role of the ‘leader’ in this process – and leader being any member of what you call a Community of Practice – is to become a container, an environment, a system through which questions can be asked, solutions fostered and grown as a collective.

    This is my picture of the new emerging leader – it’s all grey and wobbly and fuzzy around the edges. I can see why command and control and hierarchy is so seductive – it’s much simpler! Everyone knows their role and place. But it just doesn’t work in today’s climate of global interconnectivity and rapid change.

    Thanks for another awesome article!

    1. Zoe, thanks so much for adding in. I’m with you on the Occupy movements, the simple act of speaking up and questioning has begun to create something new I reckon. These sorts of structures are new and as such, I do believe that we are still flexing our muscles, however there was indeed embryonic leadership shown in the movements. I agree that the question you raise “What do we want instead?” is not yet clearly addressed, but the grey, fuzzy wobbliness will take some time to clear while this conversation goes on, I feel. Many thanks for building on!

  2. John,

    This is yet another extremely thought provoking post (don’t know how you get the time to produce them).

    It’s interesting that in both the Arab Spring uprisings and the Occupy movements it was the media who were always looking for a figurehead or spokesperson (trying to avoid the word leader) who they could latch on to and perhaps become the face that everyone around the world would associate with. It’s strange that there haven’t been any ‘faces’ coming forward over the past year and this is both a positive aspect of what has happened and also a less positive one. I believe it’s positive because it goes a long way to prove the point you make that when there is a common goal that can be shared easily (social media?) people will collaborate willingly providing they feel strongly enough about something. The less positive aspect to this is that most of us still want to associate an individual or group of recognisable individuals with an organisation or movement. This is possibly why the Occupy movement seems to have fizzled-out, at least in terms of the amount of media coverage it gets now. The Arab Spring uprisings are perhaps a little different in that even if we, the general public, aren’t aware of their ‘leaders’ I’m sure interested governments around the world have been all along.

    What we are seeing is the increased desire for individuals (is it a generational thing?) to become more involved in ‘leadership issues’ than perhaps has been the case in our industrial age economies. I do wonder, however, if the fast growing economies of China and India see things in the same way?

    Bringing Communities of Practice into the discussion is intriguing as by definition everyone involved has to be a contributing member in one form or another. To be successful CoPs have to be voluntary groupings which virtually guarantees active involvement once things start moving. Far too often I’ve seen organisations create what they call CoPs and then ask people to join! Considering movements or groups of associates as CoPs makes sense as significant decisions will naturally fall out of discussion and individuals will gravitate to lead aspects they are best suited to and others will allow that to happen because of the mutual respect involved. How this could be transposed onto anything other than small or maybe medium sized businesses is difficult if not impossible as we have to accept that some people simply go to work to get paid in order to live their lives outside work. Not everyone will be passionate about the ‘shared vision’ of their organisation but providing they contribute in their own way they don’t have to be.

    This post raises so many interesting points and deserves to be widely read – it could certainly promote an ongoing discussion for some time to come.



    1. I really appreciate you adding your thoughts into this conversation Paul. I’m also glad you expand it to China and India, and I would say your question goes for other fast developing economies. With regards your experience of CoPs in organisations, I’ve seen similar, because as you say, they are voluntary. There are one or two organisations where I’ve seen them work in pockets, where the people involved are indeed all passionate about what they do. In my experience, this has tended to be in the social services sector by and large, where most folks tend to gravitate because of their strong interest in a cause or social issue. For others, where work is just a thing to do to get paid, I also wonder if a structure like CoPs would emerge, but I’m sure some other kind of alternative to rigid hierarchies could blossom given a greater desire for diffuse authority and accountability.

      I really enjoyed reading your comments, much appreciated!

  3. Hi John,
    Nearly breathless from my re-read (yes) of this incisive post. Where do I start? Can’t possibly address the many rich and deep threads running through this article. Here are a few that stood out –

    I believe we’ll be learning about leaderless leadership from Occupy for a long time. Case in point: I just heard the story about a former Wall St analyst, Alexis Goldstein, who “joined” Occupy after the infamous NY pepper spray incident. Unhappy with her work and Wall St culture for several years, she and others creating their own form of COP, started meeting to discuss the Dodd-Frank (Wall St reform) bill’s Volcker amendment, which will ultimately reshape (or not) the Securities/Exchange Commission (SEC). Consequently, Occupy SEC was born http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/02/20/occupy-the-sec-pitches-an-extreme-makeover-of-wall-street/
    Working quietly behind the scenes, this group has produced a 325 page treatise to essentially reshape Wall St “according to the Nation’s needs, not Wall St’s).

    I raise this not only to address the impression that the Occupy movement has fizzled out – but to use it to illustrate that leadership is moving in powerful new forms and directions. Even the classic protest models (which I believe have been critical to creating change historically) are taking new shape.

    I think your analysis of the 3 major influences is perfect. We look to these models still because they are the introjects of nearly every culture over millennia. As you aptly stated, “our traditional notions of leadership have come from the hierarchical ways we have organised ourselves. If our power structures are shifting, so will leadership.” Our neurally hardened and habituated mindsets are experiencing unprecedented (and relatively “quick”) levels of chaos in response to the explosion of challenges to the status quo globally.

    Your views are so important here because essentially what you are talking about is a transformation of power arrangements. This is evident at every level of societies, but entrenched power fueled by massive wealth in the top echelons of organizational leadership (which especially here in the US is completely enmeshed with political influence now) will resist change until they must let go. You can see it now – the PR, the tweaking at the edges – all stalling tactics in hopes that what is happening globally is – just a phase.

    Apologies for going on…….. Very inspiring stuff! I think I’ll even dust off my copy of the Gnostic Gospels.

    Warm regards,

    1. Wow, I hadn’t heard of Occupy SEC, it looks impressive! Once again, thanks for commenting Louise. I would also call what is happening now “stalling tactics”. Increasingly irrelevant power structures try and tinker around the edges in order to preserve the status quo, unaware of the massive changes that are happening, with or without them. Watching Mubarak in the dying days of his regime was a good example. Make the odd tiny concession here, dish out the odd promise of something new, but in the end, it was too late. Interesting times indeed, all pretty unpredictable. It feels like a major sea change, but time will tell. Of course, there will be the usual reactions to change, but an idea whose time has come is pretty unstoppable I reckon.
      All my best,

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