Senior executives must give up their decision rights
'Leaders' who create 'followers' stifle, smother and strangle their organisation's true leadership capacity
Ideas on leadership remain heavily influenced by traditional notions like this from Harvard Professor John Kotter, author of the 1996 bestseller Leading Change:
“Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen”.
In this regressive ‘top-down’ view, an elite cadre of people ‘define a future vision’ and ‘align’ and ‘inspire’ others to ‘make it happen’.
The defining/aligning/inspiring is done by this elite - the ‘leaders’ - and done to everyone else - the ‘followers’.
Shortly after Kotter’s book appeared, my former colleague Dr Peter Senge proposed a view of leadership better suited to our increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world:
“Leadership is the capacity of a human community to shape its future”.
This progressive ‘inside-out’ view doesn’t segregate people into ‘those who do leadership’ and ‘those who have it done to them’.
Instead of creating followers, this approach develops more leaders – or to be more precise it develops the organisation’s leadership capacity.
Kotter did eventually acknowledge this failing in his book’s 2012 update, noting in the preface: “more agility and change-friendly organisations” and “more leadership from more people, and not just top management” are increasingly vital.
If you want to create a future-fit culture, traditional leader-follower relationships must progressively give way to leader-leader relationships.
As a frustrated senior executive client said to me about his peers stuck in the leader-follower mindset: “Why would anyone think that they’re smarter than everyone?”
But senior executives have traditionally been encouraged to think just that – except in some high-tech firms where the innovation and agility at the heart of a future-fit culture are ‘baked into the DNA’ and leadership already centres on diverse people co-creating new value together.
As the world becomes ever more volatile, complex and unpredictable, organisations that fail to escape the leader-follower mindset will inevitably struggle to achieve the levels of innovation and agility required to survive and thrive.
Recognising, accepting and acting on this understanding can prove very challenging for those who’ve ‘climbed to the top’ in hierarchical command & control organisations and see themselves as decision makers.
By claiming, and often jealously guarding, the ‘decision rights’ they effectively appropriate for themselves the community’s capacity to shape its future and, in doing so, impoverish its true leadership capacity.
“I am the decision maker” leads to a form of blindness that prevents them from seeing what’s often obvious to people one or two levels down from ‘the top’.
The traditional, regressive, top-down, leader-follower mindset has multiple negative effects:
Discourages wider engagement that would improve decision-making;
Drives disagreements and dissenting voices underground;
Increases decision-making bottlenecks and senior executive stress;
Perpetuates the ‘all-seeing, all-knowing leader’ myth;
Prevents the leader-leader relationships that build leadership capacity;
Stifles, smothers and strangles the innovation and agility at the heart of a future-fit culture.
The low risk, high leverage way to unlock the true leadership capacity of the organisation is to get the key influencers whose mindsets, attitudes and behaviours systemically affect everyone and everything operating from a leader-leader mindset.
This means that leadership development is so closely tied to the attitudes and behaviours of key influencers that it cannot be outsourced to HR, business schools or other training providers.
One of the biggest ‘aha’ moments for senior executives who want to create future-fit organisations is when they see that the organisation’s future critically depends not on the decisions they make but on how effectively they enable sense making, decision making & action taking to become ever more tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded and widely distributed throughout the organisation.
Many worry (even if they only admit it privately) that old school traditional ‘Kotteresque’ mindsets about leadership may simply be too deeply embedded in the organisation to successfully pull off the required shift.
But few contexts have a more deeply ingrained legacy of leader-follower mindsets than the US Navy. Yet under Captain David Marquet, the nuclear-powered submarine USS Santa Fe went from being the worst performing to best performing ship in the fleet.
The key to this unprecedented turnaround is in the subtitle of Marquet’s 2015 bestseller: 'Turn the Ship Around: A true story of turning followers into leaders'.
Here’s Marquet describing the key to shifting from leader-follower to leader-leader mindsets: “We had no need of leadership development programs; the way we ran the ship was the leadership development program”.
The bottom line is that organisations and individuals both lose out when ‘leadership’ creates followers.
The organisation loses out by failing to develop the agile leadership capacity to survive and thrive in an uncertain and unpredictable future.
People individually lose out by failing to experience the intrinsic motivation that comes from playing a real part in shaping the future of the organisation - for everyone’s benefit, including their own.
[This piece is an extract from my 22-page 2019 report on The Five Fatal Habits that have consistently prevented organisations from creating future-fit cultures over the past 30 years]
John Kotter is a former professor at Harvard Business School
Peter Senge and I served together on the Global Leadership Team of the Society for Organisational Learning from 2009-2015. His definition of leadership as community capacity is in ‘The Dance of Change’ (1999 p16).
Ibid (Kotter 2012, preface page ‘ix’).
That’s why Scott Adams’ ‘Dilbert’ cartoon strips work so well. He puts the uber-traditional ‘pointy-haired boss’ in charge of a group of people like Alice, Asok and Dilbert who are far more competent at technology-based innovation.
This 7 minute video describes the nature of these seeing-being traps.
This 7 minute video describes how this precise, deep focus on key influencers unlocks leadership capacity.
Marquet describes in the book how they were obliged to transform leadership on the Santa Fe because his lack of technical knowledge of that particular class of submarine meant he couldn’t succeed by applying the traditional command and control mindset.