Modern Leadership

Last time we talked about management and how the imagery of the management pyramid is exactly the wrong sort of mental model we should be using when we think about how managers enable their team to do their best work. But what about leadership? Surely leadership comes from the the CEO/founder/vision setter in an organization, right? Well, yes, of course it does, but not exclusively. Leadership, like management, is far more complex in a strong, modern organization than the old pyramid model implies. As such, it deserves a better model in our heads that helps us visualize the type of leadership that is best for our organizations, rather than the limited opportunity presented by the classic pyramid.

But first, a side trip. What is leadership, exactly?

Leadership: the act or an instance of leading

Leading: exercising leadership

Thanks, Merriam-Webster.

We all have an idea in our head of what a leader looks like. We touched on it in the Washington-crossing-the-Delaware imagery in the last post.

  • bold
  • courageous
  • visionary
  • powerful
  • genius

But when we expand our perspective, we may realize there are people in the world who don’t meet the above criteria but are still undeniably leaders.

  • flawed
  • frightening
  • misguided
  • wrong
  • tyrannical

(I don’t know if you put Obama in the first camp and Trump in the second or vice versa, but if you’ve been paying attention to American politics at all over the past decade, there’s probably a special spot in each group for each of them. Which is an interesting study on how we perceive leaders in its own right, but beyond the scope of the conversation for today.)

And these are just a handful of the more famous ones. It turns out leadership is everywhere. Teachers are leaders. Class presidents are leaders. College club chairpeople are leaders. Nonprofit founders are leaders. Politicians are leaders. Corporate executives are leaders. Office managers are leaders. Anyone with a blog or podcast is a leader. The only thing it takes to be a leader is to have something to say, and choosing to carve out time in your work or life to stand up and share it.

Leaders can lead a group as small as one or as large as the world, and if people are in an environment that nurtures opportunities to lead, they can be found throughout an organization. The keys to providing team members of an organization the opportunity to lead are twofold: a channel to make their voice heard and an opportunity to fail safely.

First, for team members to have the opportunity to lead others they must have the ability to communicate with others. Depending on the organization, this could take the form of watercooler conversation and a shared whiteboard in the lunch area, email threads and after hours meetings, or Slack channels and weekend gatherings (communication will be a deep-dive topic for another time). If communication channels are alive and healthy and the team feels enabled by their organization to come up with their own ideas and champion them, leadership will emerge.

Not every idea will be successful. Not every idea will generate a critical mass of actors to make it happen. Not every idea will be compatible with the spirit, funding levels, or current direction of the organization. In an environment that nurtures the opportunity for new and established leaders to put forth ideas across the organization, many ideas will fail to flourish, and that’s ok. Some will take hold and grow, and the organization will be better off with that new idea helping to shape its destiny. If the idea gathers enough support, it can even grow beyond the original leader who championed it and become part of the organization itself.

Returning to the original topic of the post, given the diverse opportunities for leadership that can thrive in an environment that fosters it, the classic pyramid once again does not serve us well as a mental model. Instead, consider transforming the pyramid into a complex tent structure, with one main pole at the center, but with other poles scattered throughout the structure, providing many and varied points of leadership to the organization. Or consider a series of spotlights, shooting beams of light up into the night from across the horizon, each providing a point of leadership to the team.

Photo credit: Owen Benson, CC BY 2.0
Photo credit: Lee Down, CC BY-ND 2.0

The idea in each of the models is that leadership can and should be represented as something that can emerge from anywhere in the organization, not just from the executive office. Unlike management, which has a clearly defined structure and relationship between team members, leadership can and should be organic. A team that works in an environment that encourages individuals throughout the organization to propose and champion ideas results in an organization that can grow and improve in a myriad of ways the executive team would never have seen from their vantage point, as well as an organization full of leaders. As with the inverted pyramid of management, this diverse view of leadership enables the people in an organization to have more ownership of the organization at all levels and to turn their work into a more fulfilling opportunity for them to provide a role to the team.

“As I thought of these things, I drew aside the curtains and looked out into the darkness, and it seemed to my troubled fancy that all those little points of light filling the sky were the furnaces of innumerable divine alchemists, who labour continually, turning lead into gold, weariness into ecstasy, bodies into souls, the darkness into God; and at their perfect labour my mortality grew heavy, and I cried out, as so many dreamers and men of letters in our age have cried, for the birth of that elaborate spiritual beauty which could alone uplift souls weighted with so many dreams.”

— William Butler Yeats

Where are opportunities for leadership in your organization? What can you do to help encourage new leaders?