Our patriarchal society portrays a leader as a strong person who moves masses. The core belief is someone at the top knows the direction (vision) and people are to follow him by being the motor. Leaders in companies have more information than the followers. They were considered omniscient. This perspective repudiate the idea that followers are able to make decisions on their own. Innovations were also catalyzed in few places (e.g. army, schools, clubs…). Employment in companies is quite “simple” before the internet.
Things have changed. Nowadays, with access to internet, one can learn almost anything. Many people share their knowledge in forums, online courses or videos. You can learn for free. You can read or look up any topic. Employees are now as educated as their hierarchical superior, if not more. The power balance has changed. So did leadership.
Let us consider a different definition of leadership. One that takes into account the apparition of the internet and its influence in society. The access to network and knowledge is not reserved to elites anymore. We saw the democratization of information, communication and innovation. For example, everyone can learn to code and create a startup to sell an App.
Our evolution influences the way we interact with each other. We can only adapt to it. Previously, being a leader meant making decisions and letting others implement. Nowadays, being a leader means making a decision along with other leaders, defining together the actions to be taken and putting them in place together.
The pyramid structure evolved into a network…
Big companies have different programs to encourage new initiatives such as buying startup, intrapreneur programs, interconnectedness of different department.
What does this imply for leadership then?
In this context, anyone can become a leader. This is the reason why we see the emergence of so many startups lately, including an outburst of intra- and entrepreneurs. Individuals unsatisfied with the current pyramidal system create their own system. The reasons for their success depends on chance, financial support and most importantly the team they built around them.
An arduous transition
There are two sides of the coin in this arduous transition of leadership, the leader’s and the mitmachers’ perspectives. Let’s face it, some leaders are scared of losing control, power and status. The pyramidal system already showed its flaw with the numerous harassment, scandals and defamation made public. For example, Volkswagen manipulated one of its software to sell their cars in the USA. No one seemed to know who was responsible for it.
We also witnessed a massive urge to be more creative, more active and more agile. There are leaders who aspire for shared power in their companies yet they are faced with mitmachers who are petrified at the thought of taking over control and responsibility. They were used to being told what to do and in some cases what to think.
Both existing leaders and leader-to-be must learn new ways to cooperate. The boundaries of the command chains are now blurred. It is the role of each individual in companies to redefine them.
The mitmacher are interested in giving life to the leader’s vision yet they are also leaders themselves because of their unique competencies and knowledge. Enabling them in making the best decisions in their area of expertise turns them into a co-leader.
Taking decisions in a network of leaders with shared power
A fascinating and important question is: How can we make decisions if everyone is a leader? Well, remember the definition of a leader in the network of leaders. There is not one leader whose role is to decide alone and distribute tasks. There are as many leaders as there are mitmacher whose role is to decide along with others and take action to make things happen.
Since mitmacher have more autonomy they can determine the actions to be taken with more agility without waiting for approval. They need to learn new skills: decision making, planning, cooperation, assessing results, and adjusting. They can respond instantaneously to the changes in their environment. For example, they can offer a better deal to an important client without having to ask anyone or wait long for a response.
How can an organization survive in this jungle?
Transparency and connectivity are becoming the norm. The internet made transparency and connectivity almost inevitable because people use tools that simplify their life. The internet gave companies an easier, more transparent and faster way to communicate and exchange information.
Transparency as a core value
I hear people screaming: anarchy, hippies, inefficiency, scandal. They have not considered one important aspect of leadership: transparency. The internet is changing the way we work and live because it is possible to create transparent flows of information and communication.
- Transparency in responsibility thanks to applications & tools (e.g. trello, slack)
- Financial transparency (e.g blockchain, international tax treaty reinforced by new technologies)
- Process transparency (e.g. use of tools like Jira)
Circle: connecting with others
We also have to consider the number of people we can relate to in our workplace. There are different estimation. Dunbar estimates that we can relate to 150 people while an alternative number is given by the anthropologist H. Russell Bernard, Peter Killworth and associates, estimating the mean number of ties to 290. (Source: “Dunbar’s Number”. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number. Last edited 26. Jan. 2018. Accessed [05.02.2018].) Whatever the number we take into account, we know that we cannot connect with everyone even via transparent system.
Companies that are already working under the principle of shared power (leadership network) are organized in circles. Each circle receives a main responsibility like an organ in the body. Individuals specialize like cells. We are then responsible to decide and take action in the interest of the organization’s vision (the survival of the body).
The importance of leadership is then the individual capacity to find and connect with people who want to achieve the same vision. The organization has to remain alive to achieve its vision.
Jumping into the future: I can imagine that we will focus more on personal development and learn to evaluate our competencies, knowledge and interests thanks to new technologies. We will then be able to connect with the right person to achieve our vision. Each individual development and growth will be a critical aspect of solving issues.
We can build up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Let’s extrapolate that we will achieve our higher self thanks to the intelligent use of new technologies. By freeing ourselves from cultural and societal programmation we can create a world we, you and I, can freely be ourselves while being attuned with others.
New technologies have always made our life easier. The wheel for example allowed us to transport huge stones from one place to the other. Electricity allowed us to light up our places at night and heat up our places. The robotization, the utilization of AI and the interconnection of factories thanks to the internet (Industrie 4.0) could also free us from repetitive and exhausting tasks. We may end up one day with nothing to do but enjoy life because our basic needs will be fulfilled.
Next time, we will see how communication changes and evolve in networked companies.