It's time to reinvent management. You can help.

Rethinking the Work of Leadership

by Dan Pontefract on July 15, 2013


dan-pontefract's picture

Rethinking the Work of Leadership

In 1973, Peter Drucker stated in his book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, "Management is not culture-free, that is, part of the world of nature. It is a social function. It is, therefore, both socially accountable and culturally embedded." 

Tom Peters some thirteen years later in an article, Managing As Symbolic Action, remarked: "It requires us, as managers, to get people to share our sense of urgency in new priorities; to develop personal, soul-deep animus toward things as they are; to get up the nerve and energy to take on the forces of inertia that bog down any significant change program."

Yet, here we are in 2013 with organizational leadership models that continue to deny the social nature of organizations and wallow in inertia.

Our leadership practices remain authoritative. People are disengaged, distrusting and perhaps even disenfranchised.

According to the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer, less than 20 percent of respondents believe leaders are actually telling the truth when confronted with a difficult issue in their organizations. Furthermore, a study conducted by the Human Capital Institute and Interaction Associates in 2013 found only 34 percent of organizations had high levels of trust in the places they work. Furthermore, a paltry 38 percent reported their organizations had effective leadership running the show.

To cap off a small sliver of dismal data points, research firm Gallup found that over a twelve-year period between 2000 and 2012 the percentage of engaged employees in the workforce has shifted between 26 percent and 30 percent. That is, roughly 70 percent of employees in today's organizations have spent more than a decade essentially collecting a pay check, an almost Shakespearean spectacle of tragic ambivalence. 

What if our approach to leadership was to evolve into Drucker’s vision of "socially accountable and culturally embedded" management?

Cam Crosbie is the CIO of Equitable Life Insurance Company of Canada, represented by more than 10,000 independent producers across Canada and Bermuda. Cam completely understands the need to “lead without authority.” He does so, quite simply, by asking questions rather than barking orders. Before moving forward with a big decision or a large project, Cam makes a practice of asking lots of questions, including, as he says, "even the so called 'dumb ones'".  

As a CIO, Cam believes it's important to reach out to others and inquire before pushing ahead. Cam said, "I hope that in some small way if people see the CIO unashamedly asking the simple questions, it clears the way for clearer and more meaningful discussion." Perhaps the first step toward a better future for your organization is to acknowledge that you don’t necessarily know the way there—and, just as important, to understand that by asking questions, you not only awaken and engage people, you stand to collect more valuable perspective and ideas than you would by starting from a position of authority.

Leadership isn't a 9-5 job—it's communal, it's holistic and it's accretive. It’s time to abandon the long-held notion that the “leader” knows all and should decide everything. A fancy title doesn’t put you above others—it puts you in their service.

TELUS, a national telecommunications company in Canada, with $11 billion of annual revenue and over 40,000 employees worldwide (and where I am head of learning and collaboration), has worked incredibly hard over the past five years to raise employee engagement from 53 percent to 80 percent. It did so through myriad actions including the launch of the TELUS Leadership Philosophy. The TLP is an enterprise-wide leadership framework that cultivates a collaborative, social, open and engaging mindset among all employees regardless of rank or title. It encourages all employees to “engage and explore” with one another before “executing.” It defines key behavioral attributes such as communicating, collaborating, learning, deciding and adapting such that everyone can speak the same leadership language.

In mid-2010, an internal program was born at TELUS entitled Customers First. The overarching goal of the program was to improve the likelihood that  TELUS customers would recommend the company. As the program began to gain traction, another idea surfaced: Customer Commitments. Think of the commitments as customer promises—specific actions that any TELUS team member would carry out to help a customer regardless of role.

Instead of locking its most senior executives in a room to decide what the Customer Commitments were going to be for the organization, we designed a collaborative process that involved the entire organization. Over 1,000 different examples surfaced over a two-month period. Through focus groups, interactive online polling and voting, the 1,000 were whittled down to a final four. 

If the culture at TELUS was one that relied on authoritative leadership, the Customer Commitments would have been created in a couple of hours by a few authoritative leaders. Because the culture was healthy, open and participative as opposed to dogmatic and ruthlessly hierarchical, the organization collaborated without authority. This is the work of leadership today: asking questions, involving people, connecting them to each other, creating a platform for their insights and ideas to make a real impact—in other words, unleashing leadership behavior everywhere.

In this moment of reflection, as we seek to redefine the work of leadership, let us remember the words of  Nelson Mandela:

“[Ubuntu is] the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others; that if we are to accomplish anything in this world it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.”

If you’re lonely at the top, it’s time to start recognizing and amplifying the contribution of those around you. 

Dan Pontefract is the author of Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization and is the Head of Learning and Collaboration at TELUS.

Learn more about the Leaders Everywhere Challenge and read, like, comment on the stories and hacks here.

You need to register in order to submit a comment.

paul-vincent's picture

To build a leadership attitude in our personality, we should take preventive steps, such as; effective learning skills, decision-making ability, unique personality and many others. But it is quite tough to maintain this attitude forever, in most of the cases, we lost our confidence level and skills. So, it is quite better to learn effective leadership skills from different sources and trying to implement to get success in life. Thanks for such a wonderful article which highlights certain facts about leadership.

naveen-khajanchi's picture

Great thoughts and insights . I wanted to connect with you in person Dan , do share your contacts or drop a mail to

ken-everett's picture

Top stuff!

Flat Army = great metaphor.

New leadership role: Architects of collaboration

Endorse Rob's comment about Wheatley's book: way ahead of it's time.

billie-jo-toiherangi-tuiawhina-beauchamp's picture

Hi all,
My comment is not as enlightening as all of yours but I would just like to say quite randomly that - This is my very first 'blog' I have ever really read and I cant express enough how much i have appreciated reading, firstly, your blog Dan and secondly, all the ethusiastic following comments from others.
I was lucky to have this 'blog' fall into my lap, but i suppose it only did because I initially looked for it (by joining eXchange). I feel it is my time to learn this and i am more than willing....but who am i to say that it is the 'right time' for my neighbor / boss / fellow employee to learn this as well.
I do believe that we may sometimes feel like our leaders are not, in some respect, applying 'certain/new innovative' practices within their particular organisations but somehow i cant help but think thier 'time' hasn't come, to do so. I suppose we only learn what we want to learn, right! Well, the good thing is we are on the right track by conversing with each other and making certain knowledge and info attainable for all 'ready' inquirers.
Thank-you all for enlightening my day.

ehab-abbas's picture

Hi Dan, I'd like to invite you to see my post "Cracking the Leadership Code" at the MIX Leaders Everywhere Challenge, where I use analogy between man and matter to explain the dynamics of overcoming inertia within the leader's self and community, and what it takes to dismantle the social statues quo, and reorganize or create a new social configuration.

monique-jordan_1's picture

Dan, the answers [to getting people engaged] are clear, well understood and have been known for decades as you point out through the quotes from Drucker and Peters. The example from TELUS is intriguing. My dilemma is how do we take these types of examples (which are scattered throughout the business world and globe) and make them executable for the all. I fully agree with the principles of leaders everywhere. I have in fact built highly engaged teams as a c-level executive, soccer coach and mom. Like many people who have been able to apply these concepts, they are second nature and reflect how I see the world. I've been reading about 'TELUS-type' examples for the past few decades and in the same timeframe that I've read and learned about the great work going on in these companies, the data (referenced in your comments) reflect general movement in the opposite direction. Even with all these examples and numerous best-selling books and executive leadership programs, levels of engagement, trust and leadership effectiveness continue to drop. Now as globalization spurred by technology are disrupting the very business models that have worked for so long, there is a collective understanding and agreement that leaders must give up the command and control behavior and involve their people. So why can't this be done? What is getting in the way of just doing what we know must be done?
The old adage "it’s easier said than done" comes to mind, but why is that proving to be so true? I don't have the answer but it is the problem I am trying to resolve. The only conclusion I have come to is that organizations who are able to make these changes are led by someone who instinctively gets it and not only behaves in a way consistent with the new role of leaders but also makes fundamental changes in the environment that reinforce the leaders behavior. I have watched many leaders of large organizations who genuinely want to make these changes fail more times than not. It reminds me of the scores of people who commit to getting healthy (losing weight and becoming fit) every year but somehow never get there. Those that are successful usually have stronger support networks and make the changes in their environment to support healthy behavior. And I have come to believe that the same under-current that prevents millions from moving toward their goal of fitness and health is the same under-current that prevents well-intentioned leaders from creating the engaged environments they want and believe are necessary for organizational health and financial fitness.
I am trying to develop a Leadership Development program for my company that not only builds new skills at the executive level but also creates the right support network (leaders everywhere) while making the necessary changes in the environment to reinforce the new behaviors and enable success. The problem is, I am not exactly sure how to do this.
I believe this is an adaptive challenge that requires a real dialogue with the very people who want to increase engagement, I think is a more of a journey that teams/organizations must take together. I don’t think it is someone (even someone who has done it) coming in and ‘telling’. I think every teams’ journey requires real practice to embed these new ways of working in their muscle memory which implies they must ‘unlearn’ the ways of working that are currently embedded in their muscle memory. This is not something that can just be told or explained. Yes it is important to tell and explain to gain clarity and espoused commitment and while that may be enough to excite leaders to move in the right direction, it falls far short of enabling them to realize their commitments.
I am going to read your book (hope there is a Kindle version) and see if there are any additional insights that can help me help my organization engage everyone!

william-p-dole's picture

I do believe you have touched upon a very important issue - understanding the reason(s) for the continued high failure rate to realize the power of non-authoritative leadership behaviors within a larger organization. I also think you have hit on one of the reasons for this in your conclusion "that organizations who are able to make these changes are led by someone who instinctively gets it and not only behaves in a way consistent with the new role of leaders but also makes fundamental changes in the environment that reinforce the leader's behavior". But it's not just the CEO, it's each member of every leadership team and every manager within the organization that needs to "get it" and act it. Unfortunately, many of these individuals give only lip service to how leaders should lead by creating a climate that unleashes the full potential of every employee and by serving and developing people through work rather than the other way around. Some, I suspect, will never change within their own scope of responsibility, despite their stated organizational "commitment" to being on-board. So to effectively implement the necessary cultural/social leadership change even with the "right program" you will need as Jim Collins has emphasized in Good to Great to "get the right people on the bus and get the wrong people off the bus". Then and only then do you have a fighting chance of moving toward a leadership everywhere culture over time.

Bill Dole

ehab-abbas's picture

Hi Monique, since you're looking into building a leadership development program, I'd like to invite you to see my post "Cracking the Leadership Code" at the MIX Leaders Everywhere Challenge, where I use analogy between man and matter to explain the dynamics of overcoming inertia within the leader's self and community, and what it takes to dismantle the social status quo, and reorganize or create a new social configuration. I present a holistic Leadership Body Of Knowledge (L-BOK) to enable address the structural and cognitive limits of the current leadership practice, and enable organizations achieve sustainable competitive advantage in leadership development.You might find some interesting ideas there.... I'd love to hear your thoughts.

jeff-levy's picture

Thank you - nothing of any importance ever occurs without a conversation first, and creating consciousness and awareness around this emerging model of effective leadership gives this conversation breadth and depth. Such examples position what has long been a theoretical discussion that many "busy" CEOs pass off as "can''t work in this organization," and places it front and center of achieving competitive advantage. What business leader could ignore that conversation?

shankar-jagannathan's picture

This article is so on point regarding the immaturity of many leaders who confuse strong leadership with being decisive and firmly in control from framing the problem to deciding a course of action. The best instances of leadership are where teams come to a natural and well-thought out decision, and honor the leader for allowing them to execute on it.

gareth-mcgrath_1's picture

If you read this article superficially, you might well come to the conclusion that it is superficial! But I think it presents a very powerful description of how leaders SHOULD lead. Leadership isn't, or at least it shouldn't be, about 'command and control' - listening and connecting are the 21st century leaders tools. So if you DO think this article is superficial, you probably need to reflect on your own approach to leadership.

ruth-seliger's picture

Great article! But: there are new leaders and new typs of organizations emerging. The apporaoch of "Positive Leadership" is getting known and accepted. It is good to point out the problems but looking towards the new alternatives gives us confidence and energy to move things forward to the right direction.

tomas-wallaert's picture

Hi Dan,
Working in a university college I can only confirm the importance of 'influence without authority'. People are incredibly sensitive to authentic leadership, it is the most effective way to engagement. When power or structure get in the way , instead of helping to accomplish the vision, you en up with even more than 70% of the staff simpy collecting their monthly pay check.
In the daily reality this type of leadership requires much more energy and focus, not only from the top, but from the entire leadership group. This makes it a tricky balancing act, certanly when staff members get contradictory signals from different leaders. But when as an organization you are determined to mobile all the energy and creativity available , you have no choice .
Best regards and good luck!

rafael-pablo-molina-fernando's picture

Leadership is, indeed, dynamic. It is like the flow of the river, it is not the same water at one spot of the river, but continuously flow changing all the time. But it is still water. Leadership is relational because we are all people who should relate to one another to create value in our organization and particular job. Leadership is such a broad concept it cannot be defined in one sentence or word, but can be seen in actions and also words. MORE POWER TO YOU DAN !!!

rob-koonce's picture


Thank you so much for this excellent posting! This is an issue of followership and leadership. Not to deflect from what you state, but I am currently writing a book on a similar topic. As the e-mail alert for this blog hit my inbox, I was rereading a passage by Kelley (2008) in The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations, a Jossey-Bass Publication. I am the incoming chair of the Followership Learning Community for the International Leadership Association. In brief, you are absolutely correct. In extending what you state, Kelley (2008) suggests, “Followers cannot abdicate their courageous conscience by outsourcing it to the leader. Rather, followers need to learn how to…combat groupthink,…avoid the dispersion of responsibility so often found in groups, and how to advance institutional integrity…” I applaud what you state.

Kind regards,


ehab-abbas's picture

Hi Rob, good luck with your book; most needed discussion. In my post "Cracking The Leadership Code" at the MIX "Leaders Everywhere Challenge", I make the point on the mutual inclusiveness of leadership and followership. Making the analogy between man and matter, like the atom carries positively charged protons and electrically charged electrons, I suggest that every person is endowed with the genes of leadership and followership. And considering the way the natural world is organized around us (at the celestial level) and within us (at the subatomic level), I posit that everyone is a leader within their own organizational sphere while "orbiting" another larger organizational universe. And finally, to your point that “Followers cannot abdicate their courageous conscience by outsourcing it to the leader", I suggest that leadership is not always congruent with virtue, and what could begin as an authentic and genuine reform mission could stray along the way and become an ugly reality, hence the burden on the leadership community to monitor and scrutinize their actions along the way.....I'd love to hear your thoughts and critique of my post.


rob-koonce's picture

Hi Bob,

Agreed on the mutual inclusiveness of leaders and followers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. One of the most compelling scientific descriptions of organizational life that I have ever read was a brilliant book by Margaret Wheatley entitled Leadership and the New Science. In it, Wheatley (2006) convincingly argues her case by alternatively considering organizations in the context of Newtonian and quantum physics. I cannot even begin to broach what she covers in that book in a single post here on the MIX. She covers numerous thought provoking ideas that we would be well advised as a community to continuously consider. One of the ideas that stood out for me the most in that book was Wheatley’s recognition of the inherent interplay and interdependence of the various parts of an organizational system (leaders, followers, processes, etc), and the clear dependence of an organizational system on each element within that system. As previously alluded to by others in responding to Dan’s excellent original posting, one of the problems that we face in leadership and followership is in constantly attempting to redefine what works for “the organization” as a single system. In reality, a single answer does not exist. Because change is a constant, it seems appropriate for leaders and followers within any system to share the burden of responsibility and accountability. As Wheatley (2006) effectively points out, either/or does not exist.



ehab-abbas's picture

Hi Rob, thanks for your response and for pointing out the work of Margaret Wheatley which I was totally unaware about, but sure seems very interesting as it takes the same perspective I am advocating in my jack... I shall follow you on tweet, and I look forward to reading your book soon!!