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Having Leadership Emerge in Organizations

Organizations should create an environment where people feel empowered and trusted, with a culture where leaders can thrive says Pawel Brodzinski.

In closing the leadership gap Pawel describes what he calls the leadership gap:

An organization or its part finds itself in a situation where they need more leaders that there potentially are available. They might outgrow the old model and the existing leaders just don’t scale up. They might be facing challenges when someone had left the organization. It might be a simple consequence of evolving how the organization works.

According to Pawel there is no shortage of leaders. What he sees is a shortage of companies that let leadership emerge.

Pawel will talk about the leadership gap at the the Lean Kanban Central Europe 2014 Conference. InfoQ is covering this conference with news, Q&As and write-ups.

In this InfoQ interview Pawel shares his view on leadership and culture, explains what it is that makes leaders thrive in organizations and what organizations can do to create an environment where leadership would emerge.

InfoQ: Can you share your view on leadership with the InfoQ readers?

Pawel: The more I work with different organizations, especially those that can be considered mature, the more my views on leadership evolve. My thinking on leadership used to be very individual-centric. Over time my perspective evolved toward more holistic approach. In the spirit of systems thinking I do believe that an environment we work in has profound influence on what we would perceive as leadership.

On one hand the environment, or the system if you will, defines who is considered a leader. It is a common situation that we are talking about a position of a leader. This goes with an assumption that we can promote people to leaders and then assign leaders to teams. Majority of organizations still work this way. After all we treat formal hierarchy in organizations as something that is completely natural and obvious.

Let’s do a thought experiment then. What would happen if we didn’t have a hierarchy? What if there wasn’t anyone who could promote or assign leaders? Would we end up with total chaos? Interestingly enough, we do have some real life answers to these questions. There’s the idea of no management companies. While obviously management and leadership roles are fulfilled in this or that way the dynamics of who does such stuff and who is considered a leader is completely different.

This shows how much the system influences how we perceive leadership in different contexts. And of course examples I shared are just two points of the whole spectrum. The bottom line is that there’s much to be done in terms of evolving how organizations operate and emergence of leadership, or lack of it, is a function of that effort.

This is, in fact, aligned with the definition of leadership that Gerald Weinberg proposed: leadership is a process of creating an environment in which people become empowered. It says about process of creating environment. It doesn’t say about personal traits, skills or roles.

That doesn’t mean that I underplay the role of people in this whole puzzle. In knowledge work context everyone contributes in the design of work environment as there are few to none physical constraints. From that perspective each individual can contribute toward either petrifying existing state of the system or moving it toward one of many directions.

InfoQ: Culture is sometimes mentioned as one of the causes for a lack of leadership. Do you agree?

Pawel: I would go even further than that and suggest that frequently it is the ultimate reason of lack of leadership. Let me ask a simple question: what happens when the leader of a company is micromanagement freak who double check on everything their subordinates do? Not only will there be lack of accountability across the lower ranks but also this very attitude will be copied across the hierarchy. What do we end up with? Definitely an organization that has huge leadership debt.

This doesn’t have anything to do with the exact design of structures, hierarchy, rules, etc. It’s all about behaviors and what drive these behaviors, which is exactly how we define organizational culture.

When we are talking about culture I would typically look for how much autonomy people have. How much they can change. How far they can go before they really have to ask someone for permission.

My litmus test for culture are the famous Grace Hopper’s words: It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission. The more of such attitude I see the more supportive the culture is for doing the right thing without asking and taking responsibility for the outcomes. The second dimension of that is how far anyone’s sphere of influence goes. I can be completely autonomous in the context of my own team but it doesn’t automatically mean that I can change anything that surrounds it.

What we are talking about here is decision-making, accountability, autonomy, influence. What is it if not leadership? Let me repeat one thing though, it doesn’t happen because someone is given a position of a leader. It happens because people work in a supportive environment that makes it easy for them to act that way.

It is organizational culture that heavily influences what that environment is and how it is evolving.

InfoQ: In your opinion what is it that makes leader thrive?

Pawel: In the context I laid out above there is no single answer for that question. If we assume that an environment can be enabler of leadership it also means that many, if not all, people can become leaders. This obviously means that there will be lots of different leadership styles and each of them would require a different set of properties to prosper.

A good thing is that when we consider emergent leadership the features that will enable emergence of leaders would likely make them thrive as well, unless an organization evolve away to a new setup. A difficult part in that scenario is giving up on power.

The most common scenario is that the power is assigned to managers and they act as (benevolent) dictators within given prerogative. The problem with us humans is that we don’t really like to give on that power. After all so often we we do know better, don’t we? The problem is that even if we know better and act accordingly we disable autonomy and thus discourage people to lead.

This is by the way why changing formal hierarchies and their rigidness play such a pivotal role in emergence of leadership. This is also why we look at no management companies as shining examples of environments where leadership thrives.

Even if we discuss less radical scenarios the pattern will be similar. In order to enable people to lead we need autonomy. To provide that autonomy we typically need to redesign informal and formal power structures. To do that we often need profound change in thinking about what leadership is and how perception of management affects the whole setup.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to create an environment where leadership would emerge? 

Pawel: The critical move, and the one that has been teased in answers to previous questions is understanding what leadership is and how it can be driven across the top ranks. Without that there will almost certainly be resistance against the changes.

I don’t say that every company has to enter the no management path and ban the formal hierarchies. Pretty much the opposite. I would discourage such a move in all but most mature organizations. Nevertheless every move toward more autonomy is a move in a good direction. The challenge here is the power balance. The more autonomy everyone has the less power is assigned to leadership positions.

This is exactly what we want to achieve – instead of discussing static leadership positions we should think how and when anyone can act as a leader. Such a change won’t happen without top ranks jumping on the bus as it’s enough that CEO doesn’t play by the rules and every other manager considers that as a perfect excuse just to enforce their way.

By the way, that’s not only the problem with evolving toward more participatory and emergent leadership model. The same prerequisite is true for pretty much any large-scale change in an organization.

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