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A More Powerful Leadership Structure for Effecting Change

Over-reliance on hierarchical leadership creates organizations that are less adaptable to change. Yet, most leadership development programs steadfastly remain focused on developing individuals to function within traditional leadership roles. It’s time to reassess these deficiencies. Here’s how to go about it.

A recently completed survey by CEB documents the need for more reliance on a new leadership structures and more extensive leadership education. It reports how leaders are overwhelmed. Some 70-80% of the leaders surveyed are being asked to do more and to achieve faster results. 74% report that they are working with more stakeholders than they have in the past. There is also growing sense of dissatisfaction. In 2003, senior leaders say they would replace 12% of their staff. The number today has grown to 32%. A recent Gallop poll indicates that 87% of employees are at best only partially engaged. Also, many say that there are Leadership deficiencies. Senior executives report that only 37% of their leaders have the required skills they need. Only 44% of employees agree that their managers help them with their work.

A new set of leadership structures

We hire the best then shoehorn them into an organization structure that limits their capacity to act. We are frustrated. They are frustrated. It is time to expand our notions of organization structure and leadership. Command and control is necessary…sometimes. Teams are necessary…sometimes. Hub and spoke leadership is necessary…sometimes. And from what we are learning from companies like Google and Facebook is that a leadership structure that is a network…is also necessary. In the longer term, those organizations that are capable of multiple plays….using the right structure at the right time based on the challenges that must be met are the ones that will likely be the most successful.

Below is a depiction of leadership structures of several organizations:

Can organizations that relied heavily on one strong charismatic leader maintain sustainability once that leader moves on? Can Apple remain a powerhouse without Steve Jobs? What will happen when Jeff Bezos of Amazon steps aside? As Jim Collins notes in Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, “The moment a leader allows himself to become the primary reality people worry about, rather than primary reality being the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity or worse.”

The comparison between two giant retailers, The Ames Department Stores and Walmart provides an insightful example. Milton and Irving Gilman who started the former were strong charismatic leaders. Upon their departure the company floundered and eventually failed because it had not created a strong management team to succeed them. On the other hand, Walmart thrived because Sam Walton believed in distributed leadership, encouraging entrepreneurship down to the individual department level. Though both companies initially held essentially similar strategic visions, one thrived and the other failed in large part because of their leadership structures. In 2002 Ames Department Stores declared bankruptcy and Walmart ranked first on the Fortune 100 list.

An alternative

No longer is it sufficient for leaders to be transactional or transformational as the CEB study suggests. Rather it is time to augment our organization structures and leadership competencies with those necessary to create a networked structure. This structure is the most challenging to implement and perhaps the most apt to yield incredible results with the least amount of resources.

Here is an example of its power. Why can’t the largest armies in the history of civilization stop Al Qaeda? It is a network. Not reliant on one leader alone, it morphs to the situation at hand and the specific capacities of small groups of people to take destructive action. It is able to accomplish far more with far less because of its structure. Wipe out the major leader and there is enough distributed strength for the group to successfully undertake its sinister schemes. It grows in ways that more powerful nations with far more resources struggle snuff out.

Imagine more effectively unleashing capacities of your people in your company within your marketplace. Leaders who master the art of building a network leadership have far more power than those in the conventional hierarchical mode because they position themselves and others to better sense and act on information, to develop more possibilities, and thus find it far easier to execute.

Reassessing leadership competencies

Despite billions of dollars spent on leadership development do we have the capacity to excel by implementing more effective leadership? Here the CEB report provides a pessimistic response. Its survey demonstrates that senior leaders report that only 7.3% of their leaders have the capacity to function in the more sophisticated network structure. These critical leadership competencies are taken from the CEB study.

  1. Empower Staff: Push autonomy and empowerment downward through the organization
  2. Motivate Others: Motivate staff to achieve goals
  3. Build Team Spirit: Address issues disrupting team (network) functioning
  4. Listen: Encourage others to share their views
  5. Consult Others: Encourage team (network) to become involved in the decision-making process
  6. Communicate Proactively: Share information widely with others
  7. Network: Encourage and assist others to develop people networks
  8. Manage Conflict : Facilitate the resolution of conflict between others
  9. Test assumptions and investigate: Question and challenging assumptions
  10. Encourage and Support Organizational Learning: Encourage a culture of continuous improvement
  11. Innovate: Question traditional assumptions and produce new ideas, approaches, and insights
  12. Seek and Introduce Change: Encourage others to change inefficient work practices
  13. Have Vision: Encourage other people to think about the organization’s long-term potential
  14. Adapt: Adjust change positively
  15. Accept New Ideas: Support change initiatives
  16. Deal with Ambiguity: Tolerate conditions of uncertainty

A prescription for progress

The above leadership competencies suggest a new way to think about leadership. Here are some principles that can lead to more powerful and vibrant leadership.

Stop thinking of leader in the singular! Instead think of leadership as plural, a core organization competence.

To create a network structure see leadership:

  • As a critical organization function similar to operations, finance, marketing, that has deliverables that can be measured
  • Not as an organization chart, but a shared responsibility among many regardless of their title
  • As a measurable, teachable, repeatable, improvable process to make it easier for people with diverse education, goals, and work experiences to work together
  • As a discipline (rather than art) requiring the use common language, process, and tools to plan strategy, build engagement for change, and execute with confidence
  • Needing safe opportunities to practice on real issues and allow people to incorporate leadership into their work
  • As a network of people who collaborate to create extraordinary results

Ralph Jacobson ([email protected]) is the founder of The Leader’s Toolbox which creates agile leadership for sustainable organizations. He is the author of “Getting Unstuck: Using Leadership Paradox to Execute with Confidence,” and “Leading for a Change How to Master the Five Challenges Faced by Every Leader.”




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