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The Leaders Everywhere Challenge


gary-hamel-and-polly-labarre's picture

The Leaders Everywhere Challenge

Never before has leadership been so critical, and never before has it seemed in such short supply. It takes extraordinary leadership to keep an organization relevant in a world of relentless change. It takes extraordinary leadership to navigate the complexities of global supply chains, industry ecosystems, and labyrinthine regulation. And it takes extraordinary leadership to unleash the human capabilities—initiative, imagination and passion—that fuel success in the “creative economy.”

Yet for the all the effort that is put into selecting, training and assessing leaders, there still seems to be a dearth of truly top-level executive talent. Hyperkinetic change has a way of turning today’s iconic leaders into tomorrow’s bewildered bureaucrats. Tellingly, only 5 of the 30 CEOs Barron’s picked in 2008 as the world’s best showed up on a similar list in 2012.

When leaders come up short, as they often do, the problem may have less to do with them as individuals than with the top-down structures in which they operate. In most organizations, the responsibility for setting direction, developing strategy and allocating resources is highly centralized. Maybe that mattered less in a world where change was better behaved, but today, senior management’s monopoly on “strategic leadership” can rapidly turn a leader into a laggard.

Get up and running with the Leaders Everywhere Cheatsheet

Beyond these structural limits are cognitive limits. Even the most malleable minds can only attend to so much. With 25 billion gigabits of digital information getting created every day, each of us is becoming ignorant faster. Senior executives have limited time and attention. A problem or an opportunity has to be big to elbow its way into a CEO’s consciousness—and by the time it does, it’s often too late for the organization to intercept the future.

Corporate boards, headhunters and HR professionals often look at the leadership problem as identifying and developing exceptionally talented individuals who can step into critical roles.  While understandable, this elitist approach to leadership development is ultimately bound to fail—there just aren’t enough extraordinary leaders to go around.

That doesn’t mean we should lower our standards when searching for C-suite executives. It does mean we should be working a lot harder to unleash the leadership talents of everyone else. Put simply, a pyramidal organization demands too much of too few, and squanders the leadership talents of those who don’t have leadership “roles.”

In the future, a company that strives to build a leadership advantage will need more than a celebrity CEO and a corporate university that serves up tasty educational morsels to the “high potentials.” It will need an organizational model that gives everyone the chance to lead if they’re capable; and a talent development model that helps everyone to become capable.

At W.L. Gore, the innovative materials science company that is organized as a lattice rather than a hierarchy, nearly 50% of the associates describe themselves as “leaders.” What proportion of the employees in your company would see themselves that way? Probably not enough.

So what does it take to dramatically enlarge the leadership capacity of an organization?  Two things, we think: 

  • First, you have to redistribute power in a way that gives many more individuals the opportunity to lead.
  • Second, you have to equip and energize individuals to lead even when they lack formal authority.

These two challenges are at the heart of the Leaders Everywhere Challenge.

As traditional hierarchies get supplanted by networked, or “social,” organizations, leadership will become less a function of “where you sit,” than of “what you can do.” In a tumultuous environment, where customers expect lightening quick responses, decisions have to be made close to the action. And when the next game-changing idea or disruptive threat can come from anywhere, everyone needs to feel responsible for thinking and acting like a strategist. 

Authority won’t be something that’s handed down from above and it won’t be something that can be captured by a title. Rather, it will be a currency you earn from your peers. Leaders will be the ones who are capable of attracting followers, rather than the folks who have mastered the dark arts of political infighting and bureaucratic wrangling.

In this regard, the web has already dramatically changed expectations.  The web may appear democratic, but it’s far from flat.  Everywhere one looks there are hierarchies.  Track any discussion forum, explore the blogosphere, or roam around a social networking site and you’ll find that some individuals have more followers, more connections and more clout, than others.  Critically, though, all these hierarchies were built bottom-up.  They are “natural” hierarchies.  On the web, you accumulate influence only when you do something that is useful to others, and you hang on to your influence only as long as you keep adding value.

Having grown up on the web, the next generation of potential leaders are particularly authority-phobic.  Remember that classic New Yorker cartoon with Rover sitting in front of a computer?  The caption read, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”  Well, on the web, no one knows you’re a senior vice president either. That’s why every leader is going to have to learn how to get things done in a world where authority is the reciprocal of followership.

What does all this mean practically?  What are some of the ways an organization might broaden its internal leadership franchise?  Several leverage points come to mind.  A company could ...

  • Break big units into smaller units, thereby creating more opportunities for individuals to become full-fledged business leaders.
  • Support the formation of informal teams and “self-organizing” communities where “natural leaders” get the chance to shine.
  • Push down P&L responsibility and give lower level employees a lot more decision-making autonomy.
  • Syndicate the work of executive leadership by opening up the strategic planning and budgeting processes to everyone in the organization.
  • Use peer-based review and compensation systems to identify and reward leadership wherever it occurs.
  • Systematically de-emphasize the formal hierarchy in favor of more fluid, project-based structures.
  • Work to legitimize the notion of “bottom-up” leadership through communication and recognition systems.      
  • Distribute the work of critical staff functions by giving associates at all levels the opportunity to help reengineer core management systems and processes.
  • Hold leaders responsible for increasing the stock of “leadership capital” within their organizations through coaching and delegation.
  • And perhaps most importantly, systematically train individuals in the art and science of “leading without power.” (See sidebar, below)

So now it’s up to you.  What is your organization doing to build its leadership advantage? How is it working to escape the limits of top-down power structures?  What is it doing to equip and energize individuals to exercise their leadership gifts, wherever they are in the organization?  How is it nurturing the sort of leaders others will want to follow in a post-bureaucratic world? And what are you doing to strengthen your own leadership capacity?

There are tens of thousands of management renegades in the MIX community, and around the world, who are eager for answers .   They’re hungry for real-life stories and breakthrough ideas that can help them to reinvent leadership for a new age.  So if you share our desire to build organizations where everyone has the right and the responsibility to lead, jump in.

Leading Without Authority

In order to engage in a conversation about leadership, you have to assume you have no power—that you aren’t “in charge” of anything and can’t sanction those who are unwilling to do your bidding. If, given this starting point, you can mobilize others and accomplish amazing things, then you’re a leader. If you can’t, well then, you’re a bureaucrat.

To gain a true leadership advantage, organizations must be filled with individuals who understand how to maximize their own ratio of “accomplishment over authority.”  They must believe it’s possible to do something big with a little dab of power.

What, then, are the attributes of individuals who can inspire others and multiply their impact? 

They are seers—individuals who are living in the future, who possess a compelling vision of “what could be.”  As human beings, we’re constantly looking forward, and we love to sign on with individuals who are already working on “the next big thing.”

They are contrarians—free of the shackles of conventional wisdom and eager to help others stage a jailbreak. It’s exciting to be around these free-spirited thinkers who liberate us from the status quo and open our minds to new possibilities.

They are architects—adept at building systems that elicit contribution and facilitate collaboration. They leverage social technologies in ways that amplify dissident voices, coalesce communities of passion and unleash the forces of change.

They are mentors—rather than hoard power, they give it away.  Like Mary Parker Follett, the early 20th-century management pioneer, they believe the primary job of a leader is to create more leaders.  To this end, they coach, tutor, challenge and encourage.

They are connectors—with a gift for spotting the “combinational chemistry” between ideas and individuals. They help others achieve their dreams by connecting them with sponsors, like-minded peers, and complementary resources.

They are bushwhackers— they clear the trail for new ideas and initiatives by chopping away at the undergrowth of bureaucracy, they’re more committed to doing the right thing than to doing things right.

They are guardians—vigilant defenders of core values and enemies of expediency. Their unflinching commitment to a higher purpose inspires others and encourages them to stand tall for their beliefs.

They are citizens—true activists, their courage to challenge the status quo comes from their abiding commitment to doing as much good as possible for as many as possible. They are other-centered, not self-centered.

Critically, all these roles are rooted in the most potent and admirable human qualities—passion, curiosity, compassion, daring, generosity, accountability and grit. These are the qualities that attract allies and amplify accomplishments. These are the DNA strands of 21st-century leadership. Only by strengthening them can we fully unleash the latent leadership talents that reside in every organization.


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rick-chapman's picture

Leadership is not an attitude that we gain overnight, it takes lots of dedication and patience. Otherwise, we are facing problems in our leadership development. So, in order to improve our leadership skills and attitude, we need to follow leadership coaching programs, expert advice, positive attitude and many others. Thanks for providing such great instructions on how to improve our leadership challenge and how to maintain a good leadership attitude.

dixon-de-lena's picture

And the ninth attribute (not roles): They are fully-functioning adults with all the capacities of someone who has done their inner work - wrangled with their past, their inner critic, their shadow(s). They possess emotional, social and ecological intelligence so that they are useful to others more than they are to themselves. They are "native" to wherever they are, not just a squatter, so they empower all those who engage and engage those who feel most dis-empowered. Most of all, they are living mirrors of the virtues which our humanity has stood on to make its attempts at building great societies.

peter-rennie's picture

Hi folks, thanks for the invitation to share some thoughts.

First a true story. It came from Aileen.
‘Recently a colleague and I attended a presentation at a conference. The speaker had made a mistake but had not realized it. She had based her talk on some data that was no longer valid. As we left the auditorium my colleague began to criticize the speaker. I was tempted to join her in a moment of schadenfreude but instead suggested, "Let's go and talk with her about it!"
"What's happened to the bitch in you?" asked my friend.
"The bitch has gone!" I said. "Although that was fun I've found a new way that is much more interesting."'

Aileen has just demonstrated spontaneous leadership. She has found an effective solution to the problems of the pyramidal paradigm. But to understand how she got to this place we need to go back to an earlier time when she was blocked. We need to understand the cause of those blocks.

Edward de Bono observed that the key to developing effective solutions lay with broadening our perspectives. I would like to start by briefly exploring and broadening our perspective on the nature of structure?

Gary, Polly and several comment writers have pointed to the problems of the pyramidal structure. As many of you will know these problems have troubled writers for two thousand years.

Anthropologists are confident that 'man' has struggled with the problems posed by hierarchy for much longer, perhaps for as long as human beings have walked the earth. In most cases hunter gatherer groups resolved the problem by ostracizing those individuals who wanted to create hierarchies. To the hunter gatherer the concept of 'one above many' threatened their very existence by undermining the unity held by the ethos of 'one amongst many'. It is almost certain that for most of Homo sapiens' existence our social and organizational structures were based on circles. In a very real sense Homo sapiens was Homo circularis or circular man. This implies that hierarchies are not the natural state of man. (Over the last decade work by primatologists and neuroscientists have also supported the proposition that hierarchies are not innate.)

Hierarchies first appeared about 10,000 years ago which is a relatively (in evolutionary terms) recent phenomenon. Enter Homo pyramidalis (pyramidal man). Over time Homo circularis was eclipsed by Homo pyramidalis. Why? Because circles have problems when groups get too big. With some notable exceptions circles lack direction and a mechanism to coordinate a number of circles. (By the way the Sociocratic structure is a good attempt to marry hierarchy and circle and in a hybrid structure)

Please pardon me for introducing the seemingly pretentious latinized terms, Homo circularis and Homo pyramidalis. There is a reason and it is important. Structures are not only 'out there' in the world as organisers of the relationships between people. They are inside us. The pyramid and the circle are über organizers of our cognitive processes. Daniel Goleman pointed out, 'Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are remarkably potent biologically almost as powerful as those to our very survival.'

Think of the time and energy that people put into maintaining or bettering their position in the organizational or social hierarchy. We even have a term for it - status anxiety. And it causes great dysfunction, beautifully captured by Theodore Zeldin, 'In most meetings pride or caution forbids one from saying what one feels most deeply.' Think of the billions of poor decisions that were made whilst most remained silent. Or the billions of ideas that have never surfaced because people were too fearful of being criticized. . .

The biggest problem of the hierarchical organization is not the visible organizational structure that graces the wall of the HR Director’s office. The biggest problem is what is invisible. It’s in our head. Homo pyramidalis has a pyramidal mindset.

With this perspective we can see that in order to overcome the problems of hierarchy we need to find replacements for;
First, the organizational (and social) structure and
Second, the organizing structure that exists within our heads.

Two solutions worth considering are the sociocratic structure (mentioned above) and the parabolic structure. The parabolic structure overcomes the problems of both the hierarchical and circular structures. The parabolic mindset helps people to move from being an organizational bystander to becoming a thoughtful participant. One who can form true partnerships across the organization. Enter parabolic man a.k.a. partnership man a.k.a. Homo parabolicus. This is the structure that helped Aileen to spontaneously act in the story above.

Before I go on, you might want to ask, It’s a nice story Peter but one swallow does not make a Spring. Does it work in an organization?

Yes it does. A division of managers with whom we have been working, just last year, won two most senior national (Australia and New Zealand) awards for university administration and a third member was runner in up in another category.

What does a parabolic structure look like?

Think of a parabolic mirror or a parabolic satellite dish. Even better still think of an umbrella but lying on its side and then a series of umbrellas.. . . It's better to look at a diagram . . . but rather than me going on for another few hundred words you could;

Download the article 'A Practical Theory to Help You Change Society One Organization at a Time,' Peter C Rennie Journal Spirituality, Leadership and Management 2010 vol 4 no 1

View a video at

Visit our website . . .

Email me . . . . .

I welcome anyone's thoughts and continuing the dialogue.

Warm regards, Peter Rennie Managing Director Leadership Australia

laurence-lock-lee's picture

So how does one find these 'leaders without title'? We recently conducted a social network analysis (SNA) of an organisation looking to transform itself from a top down hierarchical driven organisation to encouraging a more responsible and accountable 'shop floor'. Interestingly we found someone on the shop floor, a storeman (let's call him Stevie), who's importance, as nominated by his peers, was way up there amongst the top management of the organisation, even though he had only been in the organisation for a relatively short time. Of course none of these top managers had ever heard of Stevie. Our initial thoughts were that he must be a union representative or the local drug dealer! As it turns out after some digging we found that he was just a very helpful guy who over a very short period of time gained the respect of his effect a real natural leader.

So in answering my own initial question...with SNA we typically ask a simple question "who do you depend on to do your job well? Those that get get nominated a lot are clearly important (like Stevie). Now to find out who the 'leaders without title' are we simply remove those with titles from the map. What's left is a clear picture of who the natural leaders are....see more here:

francis-jeyaraj's picture

Leading without "Title" empowers ordinary employees and lower-level specialists the opportunity to really contribute and build an organization. It is too important to be left only to the power driven functional managers. The process owners who offer the most interesting ideas could be given a chance to get directly involved in reinventing the processes. Front line or people without title should be given opportunity to get into the re-engineering processes.

jim-fritzemeier's picture

As usual thank you MIX for your hosting and presenting new ways to think about leadership issues. I love Gary Hamel’s book, "What Matters Now" and especially the chapter titled “Building Communities of Passion. I am sure many have read Gary’s book, but for those who have not Gary tells the events of a real-life hero, Drew Williams who, as “the assistant vicar of an Anglican church 25 miles northwest of London in Chorleywood, Hertfordshire,” created communities of passion in his church. Drew “believed that the true mission of St. Andrews was to bring hope to those outside the building and beyond the congregation.” He thought this mission could best be accomplished through the creation of groups of members Drew called Mission-Shaped Communities, MSCs. Here was Drew’s leadership method; “Drew was clear about one thing; every group had to have a purpose beyond merely meeting up. Each week Drew met with all of the nascent teams, praying for them and encouraging them to take risks and fail forward.” These MSCs were very successful carrying out their own called mission. Gary tells us several lessons; first, it is scary but leaders sometime have to say; “I don’t have a plan, what’s yours?” As Gary says’ “That’s humbling, but it’s the only way to release latent talent within your organization.” Second, “if you want the unexpected, you have to give people the right to do the unexpected.” Finally, Gary tells us, which we all know; “One thing I am sure about: if you want to take full advantage of the extraordinary talents in your organization, you will need to ask yourself each day, “What can I do to make this place feel less like a hierarchy and more like a community?” Drew didn’t just get the talents of the members’ backs, Drew got the talents of the members’ hearts.

sardar-azhar-rafiq's picture

We can’t regularize a harmonize setup of methodological framework in organizational developmental context across the board on same level because mostly organizations synthesized governing principles and employee developmental framework according to her original setups and in my point of view governing principles and developmental framework are not the universally applicable, it needs changes within different paradigms. The question is why organizations still unable to put effective framework for employees to extract a great deal of potential, the reason behind is that organizations are unable to define and measure cultural trends keeping new setups in view that’s why buffer arises, as we know that culture is a learned behavior and what we learn from society and what we learn from organizational culture are totally different aspects therefore in order to capture and find out synchronizing patterns we need to setup such values, norms, code of conduct and developmental framework which are closely associated with that culture where business is being flourished, the dilemma is, this behavior only reflected in brand promotions activities of particular segment of business, I think this formula should be implemented within employees perspective as Michael Henderson formulated that “ work is not just about process, its about people, if you lose sight of that, you lose people and furthermore Michael advice to organizations is to not focus so exclusively on building the business, but on building the culture and its social networks, linked to the brand”

sardar-azhar-rafiq's picture

Mostly organizations operate under the traditional mode and in order to regain market share along with satisfaction and retention of employees its dire need to indulge in some sort of contemporary mechanism because through the invasions of IT in globalize perspective, future of work is being transformed therefore keeping these realities in consideration organizations needs not to focus on new business case solely but business case in terms of employees branding and extraction of true leaders within that is important.

hsaine-lahcen's picture

Very interesting article. Thank you.

"These are the DNA strands of 21st-century leadership." I would rather say that "These are the DNA of successful Leaders since The Dawn Of Time!!"
Thank you.

peggy-mcallister's picture

Love the challenge, and the attributes you list for what the new leadership looks like.

There is a paradigm in our culture that is dying... one that is defined by limits, separation, scarcity, polarization, and looking to external forces for validation (be they Boards, shareholders, senior executives, etc.) The foundation of this paradigm is fear.

In my experience, change in a paradigm of this magnitude happens when people no longer believe in the myths that have sustained it, or at least when they are willing to risk sailing off the end of the world to test unexamined assumptions. And for many leaders who have been weaned on the old belief structures, there is an opportunity for a new sort of leadership development process. One that offers them tools to investigate the matrix of beliefs that have held together their world view, indeed their own identity. Such a process is not for the feint of heart. But it is this sort of transformational process that leads people to reclaim their authentic voice, to focus collaboratively on a shared Purpose, and to let go of a need to continually find external validation for something that never existed except as an idea in their own minds.

sardar-azhar-rafiq's picture

Yes leaders are everywhere, the thing is how to find those leaders in this horizon where leadership practices solely attached with so called materialistic means/ power dilemmas, actually in some part of the world leadership associated with some basic norms and so called hierarchies in sub-systems and only few of individual get charmed and blessed by default but now its time to populate and originate those capabilities within embedded structures and as far as organizational perspective is concerned yes we are the by-product of systems and processes within that, too much contradictory approaches found within and outside the organization, within organization we have set of operating procedural frameworks and leadership expectations but when we go outside in society or in a particular structure we find contradictory approaches and i think we need to identify that break even between times and try to address that challenge in true essence.

I must say, its a nice and innovative approach and platform where every one contribute according to his / her wishes and knowledge and try to bring some new ideas in order to contribute in management / leadership perspective.

john-a-bushfield's picture

'Management' and 'Leadership' are tightly integrated into today's business vernacular, but their meaning and usage will dramatically change in the next decade or two; maybe three. Both the business model and organization model will need to change as well. Systems, processes, procedures and policies will need to be radically altered to support all this change. Between then and now it's going to be painful and exciting, with new winners and losers. Painful because many won't or can't get it, and will fall by the wayside. Exciting, because a whole new world of opportunity is going to open up in ways never seen before.

It's inevitable; nothing can stop it or slow it down. The outcomes will make it better for all constituencies: employees, employers, vendors, stakeholders, customers, and communities. Life will be enriched in all manners.

As an conceptual matter I can envision it clearly. Many of the details have yet to be figured out. This challenge should benefit both.

mike-myatt's picture

This is a much needed challenge. In fact, every organization should constantly be evaluating what "leadership" means to them. I recently wrote about this in Forbes:

carlos-largacha-martinez's picture

Great Challenge! And I totally agree with you. We need to show the world that there are thousands of good examples of companies that threw to the basket the 'command & control' style and are much more sustainable.

arvind-chaturvedi's picture

Command and control structure works only in the Armed Forces, that too with harsh enforcement. The result is outdated practices, no innovation and no return on investment!! The message is loud and clear that the way forward is to allow leaders without authority to perform and intercept in time. Of course they will function alongside the bureaucrats who are happy to hold on to the title of authority and they are in abundance. They certainly need to be supplemented by the true leaders. And these true leaders must be provided immunity from any adverse fallout from authority for outsmarting the regular bureaucrat. If the regular bureaucrat is uncomfortable it won't be difficult to find another one who loves the title.