By Roger Collins – Professor Emeritus Roger Collins is Chairman of the Octant Leadership Foundation and Vice Chairman of engineering supply company Inenco. As a leading management consultant, Roger assists organisations and teams achieve excellence in leadership, performance, sustainable success, strategy development and implementation. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of NSW and also serves on the board of the Australian Institute of Management (NSW & ACT).
It’s time to move beyond leadership as an individual competence, to organisational capability, writes Roger Collins.
Individual leaders often make a great difference to events and outcomes. But it also masks the roles and contributions of significant others who complement and enable high profile leaders to achieve great things. It is now time for this imbalance to be redressed in the interests of both higher organisational performance and better experiences for their members and clients.
We can attribute this imbalance primarily to historians and psychologists. They have combined to portray leadership as a unitary phenomenon: predominantly the role and contributions of an individual. As Bernard Bass, a doyen of leadership, observed: “From its infancy, the study of history has been the study of leaders – what they did and why they did it.” Boadicea, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Churchill, Thatcher and Jobs exemplify “heroic” or “romantic” leaders who come to mind as we reflect across history.
This in part affirms the reality that individuals do make a great difference. But it oversimplifies the nature of leadership, limits its impact, and can mislead us in our attempts to develop more effective leadership in our organisations at the very time that this contribution is sorely needed.
The concept of collective leadership
In contrast to the current popularity of leadership as individual behaviour, shared or collective leadership has always existed. Moses had his leaders of the 12 tribes. JC had his disciples. King Arthur had his Knights of the Round Table. Democratic governments have their cabinets. CEOs have executive teams that are called upon to exercise collective leadership as one of their roles. But these examples do not represent or convey the full potential of what is emerging as an increasingly important insight into the potential of leadership as a group quality.
There are at least three forms of collective leadership. First, within a team, leadership may be played out by different team members at different stages of problem solving or decision making. Second, members of an executive team, for example, may act collectively to provide external leadership to their organisational constituencies. And third, distributed leadership may be developed among a group of individual leaders within or across organisational levels and over time in ways that offer consistent signalling and alignment in their influence. It is this last form of leadership that is the subject of the remainder of my column.
The rise of distributed leadership
Several developments can explain the rise in interest and growing importance of effective distributed leadership. The first relates to how distributed leadership can enable organisations to balance the tension between alignment – what is universal across the organisation – and agility. The second way in which such leadership contributes is through enhancing lateral coordination across organisational silos to create seamlessness and consistency in service and product delivery.
Accelerating environmental change requires commensurate organisational agility to ensure sustainability. Such agility is reflected in the ability of teams and units to respond to local opportunities and threats in ways that are consistent with organisational aspirations, values, brand and reputation.
Organisational success requires both a framework that operationalises its business model with consistency and clarity, and sufficient freedom within this framework that encourages local adaptation and innovation. Effective distributed leadership enables geographically dispersed and diversified organisations to respond to change and innovate without losing the benefits of their scale and complexity.
A second driver for distributed leadership derives from the business models adopted by an increasing number of organisations. Many of our organisations’ business models require more effective coordination to benefit both clients and the organisation. Exemplars include professional service firms (PSFs) and hospitals, banks and airlines.
Large and medium sized PSFs need to provide holistic and integrated services to their clients to grow and retain clients. The integration of diverse skills and services can be used to solve complex problems for the client and develop depth of relationship for the firm through cross selling and servicing.
Hospitals have always been highly systemic. We rarely doubt the competence of their professionals. What is often in doubt is their ability to collaborate and coordinate to ensure that disciplinary knowledge and skills are applied for effective patient care. Note that both PSFs and hospitals are staffed by knowledge workers who have been deeply socialised and rewarded for silo-based expertise in audit or tax, orthopaedics or pathology.
In turn, this outcome often leads to narrow perspectives and solutions. In these circumstances, a cohort of leaders, characterised by a shared mindset that acts as an internal guidance system, can reduce the need for bureaucracy that traditionally has been used to guide and regulate behaviour. The mindset or mental program is made up of agreed purpose and aspirations, values and strategy which enable these leaders to transmit consistent signals to their people.
A time for distributed leadership
Our markets are demanding that many organisations increase both alignment and agility which in turn requires more effective internal collaboration and coordination across organisational units and teams. Formal integrative and control devices, such as committees and managerial oversight, can be cumbersome and expensive. Distributed leadership whereby a group of leaders seek to provide consistent influence over both behaviour and outcomes is part of the solution that will meet these challenges.
These observations about the need for and power of distributed leadership may be obvious to many. However, if this is the case, then we would expect that more leadership development initiatives would reflect the unique challenges of developing such collective behaviour.
However, the current popularity of sending individuals off to public or in-house leadership programs reflects an oversimplified understanding and approach to the development of distributed leadership, or a lack of awareness of the need for and potential of this increasingly important organisational capability.
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