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Syndicating the Work of Leadership

by Gary Hamel on May 24, 2013


gary-hamel's picture

Syndicating the Work of Leadership

We live in a world where never before has leadership been so necessary but where so often leaders seem to come up short. Our sense is that this is not really a problem of individuals; this is a problem of organizational structures—those traditional pyramidal structures that demand too much of too few and not enough of everyone else.

So here we are in a world of amazing complexity and complex organizations that just require too much from those few people up top. They don’t have the intellectual diversity, the bandwidth, the time to really make all these critical decisions. There’s a reason that, so often in organizations, change is belated, it is infrequent, it is convulsive.

Because, typically, in those traditional structures, by the time a small team at the top realizes there’s a need for fundamental change, by the time a problem is big enough or an opportunity clear enough that it prompts action, that it breaks through all the levels, commands the attention of these extraordinarily busy people up top—it’s too late. So if we want to build truly adaptable organizations, we have to syndicate the work of leadership more broadly.

I think the dilemma is that as complex as our organizations have grown, as fast as the environment is changing, there are just not enough extraordinary leaders to go around. Look at what we expect from a leader today. We expect somebody to be confident and yet humble. We expect them to be very strong in themselves but open to being influenced. We expect them to be amazingly prescient, with great foresight, but to be practical as well, to be extremely bold and also prudent.

How many people like that are out there? I haven’t met very many. Right? People who have the innovation instincts of Steve Jobs, the political skills of Lee Kuan Yew, and the emotional intelligence of Desmond Tutu? That’s a pretty small set. And yet we’ve built organizations where you almost need that caliber of person for them to run well if you locate so much of the decision-making authority in the top of the organization.

MIX co-founder Gary Hamel in conversation with McKinsey Publishing’s Simon London on the Leaders Everywhere Challenge

How do we overcome the formal hierarchy and promote more natural leadership? How do we dramatically expand the leadership capacity of our organizations? And how do individuals learn to lead without authority? Do you have a bold idea or a story that tackles one of these questions? Join the Leaders Everywhere Challenge and earn a chance to win this year’s HBR/McKinsey M-Prize for Management Innovation (deadline June 17th).

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matthew-bryan's picture

Leadership is very much essential for every individual, he or she is able to take decisions and able to deal with problems with proper courage and confidence and this courage and confidence, we can get from leadership attitude. So, we should understand the importance of leadership in our life and also following different types of instructions from different sources to develop our leadership style.

ikway's picture

Thanks for a good & insightful read.

What is the difference between influence & manipulation. Where does the thin line exist / disappear.

On a side note : What is you thought & opinion about Toyota Production System or for that matter the people part of Japanese way of organisations/ production systems.

muhammad-al-waeli's picture

Until now few people see leadership as an everyday-everyone-everywhere activity. The failure to realize this costs us a lot of leadership that is badly needed in our organizations and communities. Two things prevent leadership from unleashing: rigid structures and false assumptions about leadership. In order for the future to be full of great leaders everywhere these two things need to be resolved today.

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

ikway's picture


Thanks for sharing your perspective.

I intend to check with you for your toughts on this article by Mr. Lou Adler
"There are only four jobs....?"

Also I would like to refer / recommend you to read the following (if not already),

Gandhian thoughts on 'Gramarajayam', 'Panchayatraj', 'Co-operative societies', 'Self Sufficient Village Societies'
and 'AMUL : Anand Milk Union Limited :- India's White Revolution.

paul-cesare_1's picture

As Jim Collins said, we know true leadership exists "...if someone follows when they have the choice not to." The crux of the matter is the difference between the definition and consequences of true "leadership" and the definition and consequences of true "management." The good news is that both leadership and management capabilities are learned and individuals can be both leaders and managers. Leaders tend to "cultivate" conditions for goals to get accomplished whereas managers tend to "dictate" how goals will be accomplished. We all know that just because an individual is promoted to a higher level position in an organization it does not, de facto, mean that they possess the ability to influence and inspire work associates at all levels to "want to" (through intrinsic motivation, i.e. their own volition) accomplish great feats. I believe a critical mass of top-down environment managers are satisfied with the status quo because their individual safety and financial needs are satisfied. They played the game and from their viewpoint, they are succeeding in their career. Their careers and their sense of reality relative to the top-down game get reinforced everytime they get promoted or get promoted by transfering to another top-down organization that values their competencies, character and consequences of their decisions.
I very much agree that it is critical we create sustainable systemic structures which credibly influence managers to choose to "multiply people's talents" as opposed to our current outmoded system that allows and even rewards managers for "diminshing" human capability levels.

charles-ehin's picture

Example: Morning Star is a complex, capital-intensive $700 million business with double-digit growth over twenty years (in an industry with an annual growth rate hovering around 1%)--and a collection of 400 colleagues without bosses, titles or job descriptions, who determine their own roles and responsibilities, negotiate their commitments peer to peer, and make their own decisions about who to hire and how to spend the company's money.
Likewise, ideas aren't taken up the chain of command, they travel out to the relevant colleagues. In this system, where nobody (and everybody) is the boss, strong peer relationships make for a stronger organization. As Green (CEO) reports, the clear commitments and systems of follow-through among peers increases individual initiative, enables the organization to respond to changes in the environment quickly, and inspires a high level of loyalty, collegiality and engagement.

roger-bromley's picture

As I mentioned in my hack, leadership can only be defined in terms of the organisation – and in its time. As the traditional hierarchical organisational structures dominate, so does it constrain our thinking about leadership. For example, Steve Jobs is, rightly, held up as a genius of innovation leadership but would he have been as successful running an outsourcing cleaning company? He would most probably have been fired or left. Equally well, the leader running the world’s best outsourcing cleaning company would probably be useless running Apple.
So far so good, the dilemma arises for the guy trying to run an efficient cleaning department in Apple, or trying heading up innovation in the cleaning company. Given the current top-down mono-cultural organisations, neither of these guys have the optimum type of leadership. It is only in distributed organisations with designed-in diversity, can the appropriate leadership be fine-tuned for the operating unit. Also, fine-tuned to the unit’s timeframe e.g. starting up, mature, in decline, undergoing re-structuring.
As all large organisations are a complex mix of different parts all with different trajectories, the notion of the “leader” is increasingly obsolete. As the boundaries of traditional organisations are becoming increasingly blurred, the notion of a single leader is rapidly becoming a liability and dangerous constraint on organisational thinking.

frederic-jleconte's picture

Agreed.Our outdated traditional organizations push many quite good leaders into a Peter's syndrom dead-end.And some others into a uselesswaiting list parking lot. Like empty taxis in Paris airports.
Not because of the typical former limits and gaps in skills and intellectual capacity, but because of complexity versus time management weaknesses and associated delays in daily decisions.
Now, if we are talking about (D.Tutu x S.Jobs X LKYoung) kind of combo leaders, I agree there is few hope to get enough individuals eligible.
Though we better consider a back-wash procedure to reverse the flow of power concentration, while also increasing our set of tactics involving co-operative intelligence.A likely cleaning positive pressure again clogged filters...

japheth-kawanguzi's picture

Interesting! I guess Management should be the same everywhere whether in Africa or Europe as it involves getting the best out of people. As such the challenges are more like uniform. My observation is it really doesn't matter how perfect/effective the models out there are, they deliver much less than the intended impact.
This is more so because in search for talent, management has been swayed to believe that the grass is greener on the other-side. Most executive recruitments are externally sourced.

I would like to argue that the grass is greener where it is watered and not on the other-side. If internal capacity is built in an environment that challenges innovation and free thought, business strategy execution would be more of a common realization in most organisations. In other wards lets have more of what George S. Patton Jr. denotes "Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”

daryl-grace's picture

Management across the areas of specialization must be properly managed and controlled to maintain quality service and production.
buying soundcloud follower

peter-zipp's picture

It's not that we don't have enough suitable people out there - it's that we don't know how to identify them!
On the other hand, there are many people who have been "promoted" to positions of leadership who are totally unsuitable.
Our selection methods are stuck in the post-war era of the 1950s. The current fad for "celebrity culture" doesn't help at all either.
If we are so bad at picking leaders, how could we expect anything so radical as innovation? (Let alone new blood...)
As for possible solutions, I'll post them in the "Leaders Everywhere Challenge" ;-)