When confronted with the idea that their whole organisation is full of leaders senior people often respond with apprehension and fear! They use words like chaos, anarchy, pandemonium and failure to describe the possibility of their whole organisation operating at their engaged, full potential as leaders. I think these fears are based on a very traditional and limited view of leadership. That kind of leadership is role based, hierarchical, controlling, and about centralizing the power in the hands of a few.
I don’t believe this narrow definition of leadership is true.
Imagine for a moment an organization with a culture of leadership. In which everyone saw leadership as both their responsibility and their opportunity. Not a burden but a further expression of who they are. An organization where people look for opportunities to lead and know when to follow.
Distributed leadership regards anyone engaging in the influence of another’s knowledge, emotion, motivation or practices regardless of title as potential leaders. Thankfully this is happening all the time, it’s the reality of how things get done. If we acknowledge these acts of leadership, and encourage everyone to demonstrate the ‘leader within’, organisations will be more effective. Some organisations have such as Cisco and Google have put this into practice.
Distributed or shared or team leadership focuses on the act of leadership, not a role or title. Enabling each person to see his or her role in the leadership of an entity is powerful. It strengthens the enterprise. Dependency on a few individuals is diminished. It leads to confidence building of each person. Done well, with accountability to lead as their best self, it encourages each individual to be self aware and continue to learn through the experience of leading.
Empowering everyone to lead from their role requires:
- quality communication
- trust and respect
- role modeling, and
- positive intent
It also needs a clear articulation of the bigger picture that every one can understand and engage in. Established, clear, shared values help everyone understand what behaviours are acceptable. To help all of this work, an organisation needs to ensure all its systems, policies and processes work to support distributed leadership not stymie it.
I am not promoting mayhem – I do understand the need for boundaries and accountability. I see them as part of a system that encourages and sustains ‘informal’ leadership, where it’s needed every day to get stuff done. This could include sharing the more traditional roles in organisational leadership. Adopting a distributed leadership culture assists everyone in leading where they need to. It supports senior leaders, giving them the time and space to focus their own leadership where they can most add value. It means that senior leaders do not need to feel compelled to do all the leading. It enables everyone to lead in ways that help them achieve more in their own role.
It’s very difficult for one person to be effective leading in all circumstances, every day. A great leader knows when to step back and let others lead. Know their strengths and weaknesses, and leads authentically with their strengths, leaving lots of room for others to do the same. Being confident in who you are as a leader gives you the heart and headspace to encourage as much leadership as possible from those around you.
Leadership is not a ‘special’ club for those in formal roles of leadership, but a human capability there for the growing! Distributed leadership can translate to incredible success through which people and organisations flourish.