Issue 4.2 | May 2013

In this Article: how to distribute leadership without creating anarchy.

by Jonathan Wilson

When a dictator falls, cue the unruly mob. After weeks of tension, threatening violence and mass protests, the morning of February 25, 1986 dawned with the media reporting that ousted President Ferdinand Marcos had fled the Philippines with his family and cronies. My boarding school friends and I, who had in previous days watched Manila from the hills while smoke rose over the city and fighter jets flew to and fro above protesting crowds, took this to be a delightful opportunity to get close to some action. Just teenagers, we made our way into the city and to Marcos’ infamously luxurious Malacañang Palace, abandoned only hours before. The grounds swirled with thousands of Filipinos and, while some were curious and some were celebrating, there was a threatening mood in the air. In the midst of the vast mob a lone Western TV crew bobbed about like a leaf caught in cross-currents. Some of my friends sought to enter the palace and were confronted by men with long knives who made it clear that coming further was not a good idea. The palace was ransacked in short order. The largely poor and working class crowd soon discovered something both scandalous and absurd: the three-thousand-shoe collection of their former president’s wife, Imelda Marcos.

Within every leader there is a dictator waiting to happen. The catalyst for our autocratic behaviour can be our ego, our pride, or our conceit, and often is. As frequently, if not more so, it is fear. To enter leadership is to discover the fear of the mob. Even if you exercise leadership in a small organization, it does not take many seemingly wayward direct reports to feel like you’re facing a troubling threat.

The response in such a situation is, typically, to tighten the reins. Loss of order seems, in our minds, to represent a loss of control, and thus we work to recover and intensify control. It is, with certain extreme exceptions, the wrong response, and wholly counterproductive. For an unruly mob is not usually an indication of incompetent or recalcitrant direct reports, but an indication of failed leadership. Disorder is not usually the manifestation of over-empowered direct reports, or an expression of managers who have relinquished too much control; it reflects the failure to equip the mob to lead well.

Enthroning the Mob

The role of an organizational leader is to ensure that a team successfully fulfills its reason for existence. The means to successful performance is the unleashed but channelled potential of staff. Autocratic leadership works directly against such performance. The tremendous irony of dictatorship – which is all about power – is that it ultimately shrinks organizational power and thus performance. A leader that hoards power in fact places a massive limit on power – the limit of a one-man-band set of skills, imagination and capacity.

The antidote to directive leadership is distributive leadership: to distribute leadership within the mob. Just the prospect can trigger a rise of panic in the bosom of a leader – perhaps followed by the self-calming assurance that it’s a bad idea because to make everyone a leader is to make no one a leader. But this is to misunderstand the nature and purpose of leadership. Leadership is a quality before it is a function. It is about taking responsibility before it is about taking authority. In short, leadership begins with ownership. And when direct reports own their work, they perform.

The behavioural sciences are beginning to demonstrate this. To unleash your mob, says Dan Pink, author of Drive, in which he outlines proven motivators of work-place performance, leaders need to create the opportunity for staff to enjoy:

  • Mastery – being able to learn, grow and excel in knowledge and skill.
  • Autonomy – having the freedom to determine how one goes about fulfilling one’s responsibilities.
  • Purpose – knowing that one is working towards a meaningful goal that Pink describes as “transcendent”, i.e. beyond the achievement of personal well-being and for the wholesome benefit of others.

In the same work Pink points to a number of studies showing how both carrot and stick motivators (the stock-in-trade of directive leadership cultures) demonstrably undermine performance.

Barriers to Distribution

Fear – and distrust – makes us reluctant to distribute leadership. But the answer is not therefore to centralize control within our leadership function. It is to deal with the real causes of that distrust: if it is our doubts about the capacity of our team members to exercise leadership, it is to equip them well and support them well; if it is our concern that they will use their freedoms in self-serving ways, it is to hold them accountable to that brand of leadership that is defined by ownership, responsibility and interdependence. You may also need to consider the possibility that the mob is unruly because they don’t consider you safe, reliable or competent as a leader, or because they don’t consider your team’s or organization’s objectives be reasonable, meaningful or risk-worthy. Such factors combine to create a powerful incentive to resist authority.

The rewards of distributed leadership outstrip the risks posed by empowering the mob.

  • If you give away leadership, you increase your organization’s capacity, both to innovate and to execute.
  • If you give away leadership, you increase your organization’s responsiveness to change and crisis.
  • If you give away leadership, you increase your organization’s speed to market.

But most counter-intuitively of all, if you give away leadership, you consolidate your own.

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