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We Need No Less than Pervasive Leadership



Imagine a place where all can learn to lead in a way that enhances organizational agility, so that decision quality is increased and decision latency is decreased. So that freedom and accountability thrive around you. So that the vibrancy you long for in your work life can come into being. This can be your workplace. Pervasive Leadership sets the context in which this happens.

We need leader-full organizations in order to thrive in the present and in the future. Pervasive Leadership combines aspects of servant leadership, chaordic leadership, and personal leadership operationalized through facilitative leadership tools and techniques. It assumes that “leader” does not presume follower in the traditional sense, and that true followers cannot be forced to follow. It also recognizes everyone in the organization has leadership potential and responsibility.

In other words, we need leaders who are competent to and capable of using the tools of authentic power. This means that they must do as they say is best, the most difficult thing to do under difficult circumstances. Their work as a leader is first and foremost work on themselves.

Problem 1: The Dilemma of Organizational Management

Organizations in all sectors―public, private, for-profit and nonprofit―struggle with workforce productivity and performance problems. They all cope with the effects of financial and market constraints and volatility. In times of difficulty, we cast about for someone to save us, but the myth of the great man has been exposed with all its flaws. We now understand that groups of individuals rather than lone individuals can best supply solutions to problems that prevent organizations from thriving. Yet, someone must be the first to speak up. Paradoxically, management practices still perpetuate management-dependent behavior, which slows the organization down and can lead to a sense of no one at the site of the problem being responsible to resolve it. Though what we need is leaders at every level, management-dependent thinking limits both individuals’ and small groups’ abilities to respond rapidly and effectively to fast moving and complex problems.

Generations of workers have been enculturated to look for the authority figure and defer to her. Yet, in practice, deference to authority often goes hand-in-hand with active stonewalling. “I will comply with your forcing power over me, but I will not really comply. I’ll drag my feet; refuse to understand; be, in so many ways, unable to comply.” This kind of response, and the leader/follower dance that results from it, is an example of the disbelief in our personal accountability as individuals to help solve problems faced by organizations. A similar example comes to light when we defer to “the leadership team” and profess to be helpless before their great might. We wait on them.

Indeed, organizations must protect themselves from ill-considered decision making. And, we would want them to be interested in their survival because the salaries they pay us put food in the mouths of our children. But, sometimes, in this effort to self-protect, organizations put unreflective limits on the decision making or action of individuals or work groups. This self-protection also limits the use of personal power, which is a key component of the authentic power leaders must wield in order to lead effectively.

Problem 2: Empowering the Employee

You will hear some managers speak up about empowerment of the employee. Everyone has power within themselves which it is up to them to light like a fuse and keep aflame even in the wind of complexity and human iniquity. We cannot empower others. But, we can put systems and processes in place to sap that power. Often those individuals who are bound by these systems and processes are the ones who have the information to solve serious problems but are constrained to wait for the authority to proceed. This is a waste of human capital. When we comply with a broken system, we disempower ourselves. As Joanna Macy made clear in her analytical work on the similarities between general systems theory and Buddhism with regard to human systems, we are mutually co-arising: We create each other, even in the moment.

Centralized control which prevents reasonable local optimization of work processes often results in a waste of human capital. It can indicate the presence of nominal leaders more in alignment with their short-term thriving than the organization’s long term thriving, and that they don’t see a way to align the two. Nominal leaders are those people employed by the organization to do the leading of it―“the leadership team.” All leaders are nominal leaders until they acquire partners in the pursuit of the goals they share and show that their leadership really is for the greater good.

These problems of the organization’s need to protect itself from poor decisions and the individual’s need to exercise personal power locally indicate the need for a new, modified stance as a leader. They reinforce the emerging understanding that anyone can be a leader. And, it is clear that our society is crying out for leadership.

Evolution of Leadership

This is in alignment with the evolution of leadership at the macro level. From the tribal or clan notion of leadership, to the monarchical or feudal notion of leadership, to the republican model of leadership selected by those led, to a deeply democratic model of leadership, the locus of authority has become increasingly personal while having an ever-broadening impact on one’s fellow creatures and the earth itself. The great man model worked well for the chieftan, and the tribe’s world was local. It became increasingly difficult to prop up the great man and required greater force through the monarchical phase. The notion of the great man became more diffuse during the republican phase, wherein a great man could come from anywhere, pulling himself up by his bootstraps. And, typically through connections with others who may or may not be part of the traditional power structure, this great man from humble beginnings has done great things and even literally moved mountains and crossed seas. As the individual’s influence has broadened dramatically through our ability to reach out to each other faster, cheaper, and more immediately, the power of the word, which is much of the power of leadership, devolves to the speaker at the point where he permits himself to speak up.

Because of this evolution, not only has the organization’s need to be “leader full” become more urgent, but that urgency has arisen as the individual’s ability to lead, to influence the behavior of others, has skyrocketed. However, as often happens at such historical junctures, we are not ready. Every employee has the power to reach everyone in a split second in a knowledge organization, but, in the main, she is not armed with the insight and understanding that allows her to wield her power to her own—and the organization’s—best advantage.

What Pervasive Leadership Brings

Pervasive Leadership acknowledges that individuals cause each other to come into being. This is the principle of mutual causality. It affirms that the individual is important, of unique and inherent value, but not without reference to the community of which she is a part.

Pervasive Leaders see work as a developmental path for the individual—themselves and those they partner with in the organization and that it can be a force for the development of societies. They see that everyone has influence on the potential of the organization—and society at large. They leverage conflict for its value in deepening and bringing greater meaning to relationships. So, they don’t avoid it. Pervasive Leaders find greater value in relationships between individuals than in isolated individuals. So they nurture those connections. At a minimum, Pervasive Leaders have learned to:

  • Change their mental model of I and Thou. They see themselves as being in a dialogue with everyone in their work group, or, if the organization is small enough, everyone in their organization. They have something to learn and something of value to offer. Where they are granted power-over authority, they use it extremely rarely. They have learned to function in a way that makes that kind of authority largely unnecessary.
  • Act locally; think wholistically. They realize that patterns and problems they see in their immediate work group are also likely arising elsewhere in the organization. They solve them locally and offer the solution to the larger organization. They also seek solutions elsewhere because someone else may have spotted and solved the problem first. Their objective is always to help the organization move forward and fulfill its stated purpose as fully as possible as quickly as possible.
  • Enact empathetic stewardship. They realize the importance of empathy and the risks of compassion fatigue. They realize also that, while each individual is uniquely valuable, the organization as a whole is the ship we all travel in, so they are careful to advocate for the needs of the organization in balance with the needs of the individual.

Organizationally, the purpose and importance of Pervasive Leadership is that it improves and makes the greatest use of the leadership skills of everyone in the organization while improving decision quality and decreasing decision latency in an iterative manner. So, good decisions are more likely to be made, carried out, measured, and learned from by the organization. It does this by constantly enacting the three principles cited above in the words and actions of all its leaders, employing every individual’s ability to learn from the experience of the organization while testing the conclusions they draw from that experience against the world they know they are creating through their words and actions every day. Pervasive Leaders are constantly considering themselves and the organization from four ways of looking at things: as they were, as they are, as they might become, and as they ought to be.

Pervasive Leaders foster decision-making that doesn’t rely on bureaucracy for permission. They hunt down and remove unnecessary delays between problem definition, solution selection, execution, feedback, and adaptation so the organization can move forward quickly and learn as it goes. These leaders strive to increase individual engagement in the organization by modeling engagement themselves.

From the individual’s perspective, Pervasive Leadership provides the clearest pathway along which personal and professional growth can occur at the fastest rate. It also is far more likely to result in engaged participation in the organization than will a power-over bureaucratic hierarchical approach to leading. It is also more likely to result in an engaged and aware citizenry.

The Pervasive Leadership model requires that leaders be particularly good at learning, teaching, and modeling character driven attitudes and behaviors. This engenders natural, rather than enforced, leadership. Pervasive Leaders know how to build intrinsic motivation, motivation from within, in themselves and others. They value people who function autonomously within the context set by senior staff. They typically have a mission as a leader that goes beyond profit or augmentation of personal status. A pervasively led organization can make more decisions faster with a higher rate of appropriate outcomes. In this way, they are more agile than traditional top-down organizations.

Preparation for Pervasive Leadership

To be effective, Pervasive Leaders must have a familiarity with principles and skills such as:

  • mutual causality,
  • effective conflict engagement,
  • facilitation,
  • debate to dialogue shifting,
  • engendering stewardship,
  • retrospective and after action review design and participation,
  • problem identification,
  • encouragement,
  • deep listening, and
  • generative questioning.

They must additionally have skills in modeling and coaching these competencies. Pervasive Leadership assumes all of these competencies will coincide with professional specialty competency, or subject matter expertise, such as programming, testing, product management, and so on. We are not seeking a “Pervasive Leadership Center of Excellence” in organizations, though some may emerge in academia or as think tanks.

Pervasive Leadership is not a spectator sport. It cannot be done to or for you. It’s emergence in an organization is likely to be organic. It is likely to be initiated by a champion trying to solve problems related to employee engagement, product or customer relationship quality, or other aspects of overall organizational agility and effectiveness.

Pervasive Leaders actively share power, preferring power-with rather than power-over. This means the replication model is typically through rapid partnering. This can be supported and accelerated through self-knowledge enhancement tools such as personality, conflict, and learning style inventories. It is most effective if paired with skill building tasks, projects, or other scenario or action-based learning.

Value to Participants

The value returned to participants in a pervasively led organization extends well beyond their work life. Rational anxiety is used as fuel, rather than introducing fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). Core strength, or character, increases. Circumstances requiring courage and resilience become less daunting. Instead, these formerly unpleasant circumstances actually become useful character building exercises and puzzles to solve. The individual acquires tools useful in family and community life. And they, through example and rapid partnering, develop more Pervasive Leaders.

A Case Regarding The Challenges of Agility

The pursuit of business agility presents its own special problems. In order to transform traditional organizations into agile organizations, we often find ourselves encouraging people to do things not only differently, but actually to do things we have asked them not to do under the previous paradigm. For instance, we ask them to take action now and ask for forgiveness or advice later; speak their minds when they have doubts about the direction given by an authority figure; take responsibility for fixing problems when they see them rather than reporting the problem and waiting for direction.

I fulfill many different kinds of roles depending on the needs of the client I am engaging with. Because of this uncommon viewpoint, I am in a position to see patterns that others may not see. Not only am I a “professional stranger,” in that it is my job to move through multiple organizations in a given year, but I typically engage with multiple groups and several levels of a client organization at the same time.

Whether I am spearheading a project turnaround, providing interim, or turnaround, leadership, forging a new type of role, or helping a client improve their agile adoption, I usually begin with a bit of walking around and talking to everyone who might be able to shed light on the problem. Often when I do this, I discover there is a lot of fear present. I usually pick three key questions that I ask everyone so I can do an “interview” in as short a time as five minutes. Fifteen minutes is optimal. One of the key questions I asked this time was “How do you feel about your ability to deliver at Company X?” In this organization, the answer I frequently got was “Hopeless!” There were also sometimes tears, eyes cast upward, and despairing frowns. That was new–and much more concerning than fear.

This organization, like so many, had invested quite a bit of money in agile coaching and training over the course of a year by the time I came on the scene. Nonetheless, there wasn’t much evidence that the organization understood how an agile team functions or how the framework was meant to be used. And, there was a lot of fighting – every day. And there was hopelessness. At one point, the organization was losing people faster than it could hire them. I noticed one Scrum Master who was vociferously complaining that she hadn’t been trained to do this new role—it had just been assigned to her, while another one had industriously dug in, got the training she needed, read what she could find on the web, and was functioning well.

How do you unsnarl a situation like this? Who has the influence to do so? You might be surprised.

We have been enculturated to rely on “the leadership” to make decisions and provide direction. Fostering agility requires that we give up this dependency and derive different expectations for senior staff and others we would previously have referred to as “the leadership team.” We need them to set clear vision and context. It’s useful and appropriate if they can provide coaching and mentoring so we can take on a portion of the burden of leading the organization from where we sit. Yet each individual must be part of minimizing decision latency (the time between noticing a problem and resolving it effectively) and decision quality (the appropriateness of our actions, skills, attitudes and strategies to the problems we encounter) if an organization is going to attain true agility. We dare not be held back by nominal leaders who are not prepared to support agility.

Working with various organizations, I have seen several things happen. Though it can be scary at first, with practice, team members get better at speaking up and saying what makes it hard to meet their goals. Sometimes that requires pointing to difficulty between team members—and resolving it. Sometimes it requires asking for less management interference and less task switching.

The nominal leaders in this organization began having a series of facilitated discussions on leadership. The content focused on a new approach to and purpose for delegation and conflict engagement. They discussed tactics for developing greater self-awareness more openly. They took another look at who is accountable for what and what the nature of accountability actually is. They worked on beefing up their dialogue skills to ensure that they had the wherewithal to coach and demonstrate the kind of accountability they seek across the organization. All these skills and perspectives are required to help move Pervasive Leadership forward.

One manager I encountered saw little to no value in these kinds of discussions. Instead, she chose to leave the organization for one in which she felt more comfortable. Sometimes people whose primary job it is to manage others want those others to “just do their jobs.” Some managers can’t hear that what they were saying is unclear or unhelpful to those they claim to lead.

Often when agile practices begin to emerge at the team level we begin to hear that teams want managers to “step back,” “get out of the way,” and “stop interfering” with the work. While it’s frequently true that managers need to stand back so teams can more easily deliver, it’s also just as true that teams need to step up and take on some of burden than managers previously carried on behalf of the organization. This includes understanding the constraints and the volatility of the business they’re in. As managers adapt their strategies and tactics to be more facilitative and less directive, and team members step up to leadership and decision making and all of the personal and organizational awareness required at their level to lead well, the organization benefits. It begins to deliver on its promises to customers—perhaps painfully, at first—but as leadership is strengthened across the organization it can deliver with greater resilience and agility and spot new opportunities it may not have previously had the resources to notice.

The organizations I am aware of are still on their journey to Pervasive Leadership, each at their own pace. Adopting agile methods of developing and delivering products and services is the first phase and often highlights the leadership gaps across the organization. The pursuit of agility quickly points out that we need to lead differently, with less of a sense of power-over and more of a sense of power-with, and that the leadership load needs to be re-distributed. Clearly, there are management actors, or nominal leaders in many environments, who struggle to see their way forward in supporting agility. And, often, those who had not previously seen themselves as part of “the leadership team” are challenged to step up to lead in the ways that they can already—through the nature of their own daily engagement with the organization and their peers. In fact, there is not a person in the organizations I am aware of who does not have a role in unsnarling the ties that bind them.

There Have Been Foreshadowings

As Peter Block, creator of the stewardship model, has been known to say, leadership as a competency model, a set of “skills,” results in a progressively stultifying management dependence. We see it everywhere these days. Perhaps we see it everywhere because we do not each do our bit to step up to leadership in our personal lives, and then in the organizations that matter to us. In the recording Freedom at Work he says:

Leadership sounds to me—even though the word has held on for so long—as if you need a follower for there to be a leader. That’s the arrangement of the world. Leadership, to me, in its best stance [is] to initiate an alternative future—that’s an act of initiation, it’s an act of creativity.

. . . the Thomas More Business School in Minneapolis [has] a statue out front of a man with a chisel in his left hand right against his knee, where his body is not yet formed. In his right hand is a huge hammer that he’s about to strike. And he’s blindfolded. I love that image of entrepreneurship. It says that this person is creating something out of some inner sense, by looking inward. He’s created of his own choice.

The best leadership is of that quality. The typical leadership is [as] if leadership is a competency model—as if it’s a set of skills. A role modeling kind of thing. I think that breeds dependency. It’s not good for democracy. It’s not good for a customer. It’s not good for an employee.

This is resonant with what Dee Hock, founder of VISA corporation, says about leadership in his Harvard Business Review article The Birth of the Chaordic Age:

Most organizations are based on compelled behavior—on tyranny, for that is what compelled behavior is, no matter how benign it may appear or how carefully disguised and exercised. Future organizations will embody community based on shared purpose.

And, similarly, in his book of the same title:

One who is coerced to the purposes, objectives, or preferences of another is not a follower in any true sense of the word, but an object of manipulation. Nor is the relationship materially altered if both parties accept dominance and coercion. True leading and following presume perpetual liberty of both leader and follower to sever the relationship and pursue another path. A true leader cannot be bound to lead. A true follower cannot be bound to follow. The moment they are bound, they are no longer leader or follower. The terms leader and follower imply the freedom and independent judgment of both. If the behavior of either is compelled, whether by force, economic necessity, or contractual arrangement, the relationship is altered to one of superior/subordinates, management/employee, master/servant, or owner/slave. All such relationships are materially different than leader/follower.

Induced behavior is the essence of leader/follower. Compelled behavior is the essence of all the others. Where behavior is compelled, there lies tyranny, however benign. Where behavior is induced, there lies leadership, however powerful. Leadership does not imply constructive, ethical, open conduct. It is entirely possible to induce destructive, malign, devious behavior and to do so by corrupt means. Therefore a clear, meaningful purpose and compelling ethical principles evoked from all participants should be the essence of every relationship and every institution.

How Pervasive Leadership Is Different

Pervasive leadership excels the two models typical in technocratic organizations today, the charismatic and technical expert models, in the following ways. When the charisma wears off, there may be insufficient insight into organizational and human systems for a “great man” type of leader to make the necessary changes. The leader is, after all, not omniscient. Technical expert leadership has a short span of viability. The demands of technical currency often distract the technical expert from mastery of herself or an understanding of human and organizational systems. And, research shows that, especially among knowledge workers, the fear that leadership through forcing introduces impacts productivity and, eventually, quality. It comes down to each participant to do his or her part to lead the organization. This results in leadership being a pervasive characteristic of the organization rather than a quality concentrated in the hands of the few who direct the many in all things.

While Pervasive Leadership encompasses servant leadership and stewardship, personal leadership, and chaordic leadership, it is different in that it points to a range of ways to operationalize the model.

But, How Do You Do It?

First, you consider your own understanding of leadership, who is responsible to lead, and what your role as a leader or follower is in all your relationships. You consider how you lead now and whether that is likely to engender more leaders around you. In other words, you look at your stance as a leader. Second, you look at the skills you use to help improve your own ability to partner and lead in the future and to develop leadership in others keeping in mind the three key principles:

  • Change your mental model of I and Thou.
  • Act locally; think holistically.
  • Enact empathetic stewardship.

And operationalize the principles using facilitative techniques. Over the years, quite a range of tools and techniques have evolved to support a Pervasive Leadership model. They include, but are certainly not limited to the following:

  • Dialogue models.
  • Interest-based mediation and negotiation.
  • Situational leadership practices such as the five levels of authority enhanced by Jurgen Appelo to the seven levels of authority.
  • Partnering models such as those in the work of Marshall Goldsmith and Riane Eisler.
  • Influence and inquiry models such as those in the work of Daniel Goleman which lead to emotional intelligence models.
  • Inquiry models such as those coming from the usability heuristics community and customer partnering communities such as contextual inquiry.
  • Research into trust building and trust breaking as shown in the work of Stephen Covey and John Gottman.

And— Yes, the list would seem to be endless.

I do not propose that you need to know or learn them all, but that you embark on the journey and learn—and practice—all you can. However, adopting the Pervasive Leadership stance, building a cross-organizational community of Pervasive Leaders, and selecting a set of practices that align with the leadership stance for those leaders to use in spreading the model, that is what I do propose here.

There are, of course, already people in every industry struggling to lead in a way that enhances organizational agility. Often, they struggle against the dominant paradigm. Many go sour or lose strength or hope in the face of the pushback they experience. Some are crushed. Many do not realize they do not need to do this work alone but do not understand how to grow similar leaders around them.

Pervasive Leadership is not a stepwise transformation model. It is a way of leading to enhance agility, to strengthen the self, others, and the organization no matter what agile framework you have selected. It is a way of freeing yourself and others to become the heroes of your own lives thereby restoring our society as a whole to true freedom and accountability.

Suggested Readings for Additional Understanding

  • Bens, I. (2006) Facilitating to lead! Leadership strategies for a networked world. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Dreher, D., & Laozi. (1996). The Tao Of Personal Leadership. New York: HarperBusiness.
  • Greenleaf, R. K. (1991). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
  • Griffin, D. (2002) The Emergence of Leadership: Linking Self-Organization and Ethics. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
  • Hock, D. (2000). The Art of Chaordic Leadership. Leader to Leader, 2000(15), 20-26. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.
  • Hock, D. (2000). Birth of the Chaordic Age. Executive Excellence, 17(6), 6. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.
  • Macy, J. (1991) Mutual causality in Buddhism and general systems theory: The dharma of natural systems. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

About the Author

Jean Richardson is experienced in project management, writing, training, public speaking, and requirements and business analysis - a software development professional since 1989. Her experience and career path have spanned both traditional and agile methods, frameworks, and cultural perspectives.  The leadership model she espouses, PervasiveLeadership, is designed to help leaders set a collaborative context while still meeting their own stewardship responsibilities to the organization.  Jean consults with clients interested turning around difficult work situations and teaches courses inEffective Conflict Engagement, Collaboration for Cross-Functional Teams, Setting Collaborative Context, Working Together When You Can’t Be Face-to-Face, and FacilitativeLeadership.

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