Leadership in Evolutionary Organizations: Who’s leading anyway?

In the process of working with organizations that are aiming to become fit for the future and fit for humans, the classic perspectives on leadership have left the two of us a little bored — surely there must be a more fulfilling way to interact with each other. To put it bluntly:

Snakes and ladders: a fun board game for children, not so effective as a model for unleashing potential in others

If you look at the typical hierarchical organization — the leader’s game is one that you win through your ability to sell ideas to others and persuade employees to act on decisions made above their heads. The reward is a step up on the corporate ladder. Fast-track points if you get others to believe it was their idea through some form of co-creation “theater”.

Therefore the never-ending lists of leadership models are about the best way to do this.

Even being a “mindful” leader, the most recent trend in the leadership arena, is about using the leader’s mindfulness as a means to getting more productivity out of employees. And although we do recognize that a boss who is mindful probably is a lot nicer to work for, the setup still leaves all the decision-making power with those further up the hierarchy. And for that reason, is still fundamentally disengaging at its heart.

This is not a fun game. We don’t think it inspires people, we don’t think it unleashes creativity and it certainly doesn’t help us all to spend time on the problems most worth solving. As organizations move forward, our perspective on leadership is in dire need of a revolution.

We’ve spent a bit of time exploring this topic over the last few years, reflecting on our experience out in the field whilst reading around 200 of the most recognized leadership books and articles. It has taken us on a journey from Chester Barnard’s “Functions of the Executive published in the late 1930’s to Jim Collins’ “Level 5 of Leadership” in the 2000’s to Schein’s “Humble Leadership” released in 2018. All the while, we’ve had the following questions in the back of our minds:

  1. What is changing in the environment for leadership?
  2. What characterizes the typical leadership models out there?
  3. And how is leadership exercised in evolutionary organizations?

So what is changing in the environment for leadership? We’d argue (and we wouldn’t be the only ones) — quite a lot.

An overview of Laloux’s management paradigms from red to teal

Frederic Laloux’s book “Reinventing Organizations” was released in 2014 in which he makes a point that we are on the verge of a paradigm shift in the way our organizations exist and are “managed”. His wording for the organization of the future is the “teal” organization. Whereas “orange”, hierarchical organizations of the past operate like a machine, teal organizations of the future exist like a living organism: “sensing-and-responding” to the world around them. The direction of this movement brings the emergence of elements such as self-managed teams, decentralized decision-making and internal marketplaces.

Five years on and with more organizations leaning into new ways of operating, we are no longer “on the verge” of a paradigm shift, this paradigm shift is in motion. And along with the shift comes new fundamental assumptions when it comes to many aspects of organizations — not least, for leadership.

A few fundamental assumptions within the “old” management paradigm:

  • An organization’s purpose is to use resources as efficiently as possible in the pursuit of financial profit.
  • Decisions are made by leaders and cascaded down.
  • You can use formal power and the hierarchy to “make” other people do what has been decided.
  • The whole point is to make the system as efficient as possible.

A few fundamental assumptions within the “new” management paradigm:

  • Organizations exist to help unleash our whole human potential in order to solve our most important challenges.
  • Decision-making is decentralized — the one(s) with the most knowledge find solutions and test them.
  • You cannot depend on formal power.
  • The whole point is to find ways of tapping into our collective intelligence and finding solutions that can solve the big issues out there.

Leadership as we know it won’t get us to where we want to be.

Having touched upon what characterizes typical leadership models (question #2) in the introduction of this article, we’ll skip to what we think is the most interesting question: “How is leadership exercised in evolutionary organizations?”.

Leadership is about channeling energy in the direction of our toughest challenges

Leadership is the name that we have given to our interactions with others that results in some type of movement, most often with the intention of moving us toward a better future (together). As the world gets more complex, we are going to need to put our heads together — so we need leadership to help us get better at solving the big problems in the world. This brings us to our first fundamental assumption of leadership in evolutionary organizations: The purpose of leadership is to expand and channel the intelligence of the crowd.

It’s about guiding and framing: figuring out what can be done to share and synthesize the experience and knowledge of each individual in the crowd, explore critical challenges and search for solutions together. We need leadership to sense and respond, not to command and control. And finally, we are certainly not limited by the number of challenges we could tackle — so the more leadership, the better.

On that note, who gets to be the leader? Everyone. All the time. In fact, let’s ditch the word leader all together and just talk about leadership as an activity that everyone can do instead. Here comes the second fundamental assumption: Leadership is an activity — not associated with a rank or a role.

To us, this means a few things. It means that we acknowledge that every individual has strengths, ideas and perspectives to bring to the table. And it means that whether it is your first day at work or ten-thousandth day at work, you have something you can contribute. What can you contribute with? This leads us to the third fundamental assumption: The leadership that is needed is based on the situation.

Sense and respond — figure out what to contribute based on the situation

This means at every moment, each person is adjusting their behavior according to what is needed. It could be as simple as entering a hot meeting room and opening the window to let some air in for the good of the energy in the room. Or witnessing group think then daring to speak up and challenge the status quo. Or noticing that a colleague has taken the lead on facilitating a discussion then deciding to “step back” and be led by them. For every individual it requires a few things: Self-awareness, situational awareness, taking ownership and being a little courageous every now and again.

Going back to all the hundreds of leadership perspectives that have been shared throughout history. Are they all redundant? Maybe some of them, but probably not all of them. We would just recommend you to revisit old perspectives with a new lens made up of these updated assumptions:

  • The purpose of leadership is to expand and channel the intelligence of the crowd.
  • Leadership is an activity — not a rank or a role.
  • The leadership that is needed is based on the situation.

What about the transition from the “old” to the “new” leadership paradigm? Glad you ask…

We’re not saying this transformation is going to be easy (in fact changing behavior is pretty much one of the most difficult things we can try to do), but there are a few things you can focus your attention on whilst getting started. Stay tuned — we’ll go into the details of what we believe to be true levers and capabilities to enable human flourishing in our next articles.

In the meantime, what do you think of our updated fundamental assumptions of leadership? How do you see leadership in our organizations of the future?

This article was written by Katrina Marshall Dyrting and Susan Salzbrenner as a perspective on how we can navigate toward organizations that are more fit for humans and more fit for the future. Thanks to all who have contributed thoughts, conversations and critiques in the process of putting this piece together.

Katrina Marshall Dyrting

Written by

Holding space for emergence. Exploring the future of work. Prototyping a way forward.

Nordic Management Lab

Viewpoints and perspectives on the future of organizations and work

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