Wanting Better Leadership Doesn’t Mean Needing Better Leaders

Photo by Hope Abrams

One of the things we do at The Ready is introduce organizations to the ideas and practices of self-organization. Recently, we were delivering a workshop on this topic when the topic of employee engagement came up. One of the executive team mentioned they had recently conducted an employee survey where one of the main findings was that members of the organization indicated they desired “better leadership.” Considering we were just wrapping up a workshop on self-organization, an approach to work that mostly removes the trappings of traditional leadership, this momentarily caught me off guard. How can self-organization be the path to better organizations if the main thing people in this org wanted was better leadership?

To resolve this paradox I think it’s helpful to separate the surface level meaning of this survey data (“We want better leadership!”) from the respondents’ attitudes (“Aspects of how we work suck and I think if we had better leadership less things would suck!”). The survey may have given people the option of indicating their desire for better leadership, but what does that say about how they want their actual day-to-day work to change? What is it about better leadership that makes them feel better about their work and is it true that the only path to those outcomes is through better leaders?

Leadership is a Path to Something Else

I would wager that when people indicate they want improved leadership what they are actually craving are things like, “Greater clarity of purpose,” or “Greater decisiveness,” or “More focus on action,” or any number of behaviors not inherently connected to leadership. These organizational habits often emerge from strong leadership. A good leader can undoubtedly facilitate behaviors and attitudes that make work better. However, I don’t think better leadership is the only (or best) avenue for experiencing these positive outcomes.

An organization that fully embraces self-organization should experience these exact same outcomes. Since most of us have never worked in a self-organized company our default expectation is to look toward our leaders to create the environment we want. Much of our work at The Ready is showing people that there are other ways to do be decisive, have a bias toward action, have a clear purpose and vision, and generally be a high functioning group of people. Of course, it takes practice and some patience to develop the habits, as a team, that allow for these positive outcomes. You can’t throw a group of people who barely know each other together, with no explicit system of making decisions or doing the work, and expect them to function as efficiently as a team with a great leader.

If self-organization simply allowed for these same outcomes but without a leader you may (rightly) question why the extra effort is worth it. Why not just have a great leader lead the team and ensure there is clear purpose, vision, decisiveness, and so on? We argue that a truly self-organized team functions better than one with a single leader.

A Team of Leaders Is Better Than a Team With a Leader

A team with traditional leadership looks to one person to drive the overall trajectory of the team and to make key decisions. It’s easy to abdicate responsibility for the decisions a team makes when their is one “official” leader. Buy-in from team members is often weak and the quality of the decision is limited by the processing power and data to which the leader has access.

In a self-organizing team there are many more people who have the authority and ability to sense tensions the team is facing and to do something about it. People in a self-organized team are able and expected to bring all their various perspectives together to make better decisions and help guide the path of the team. Members of a self-organized team usually feel more committed to the course of action because they haven’t been assigned a task by a leader, they’ve assigned themselves to the work that needs to be done. As the work our organizations undertake becomes more complex the expectation that one person can make the best decisions and distribute work effectively becomes more and more tenuous. A complex world requires a team full of people sensing tensions, collecting data, and integrating wide perspectives into better action.

It takes work and practice to get good at self-organizing. None of this happens overnight and learning new ways of working feels awkward at first. However, it’s important to keep in mind that just because employees indicate they want better leadership doesn’t mean that the only way to achieve that outcome is through focusing on leaders.

In a self-organizing team everyone becomes a leader with the power to improve the working situation for everyone else.

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