From Top-Down to All Around: The Transformation of Organisational Leadership

Leadership is changing
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The understanding of leadership in businesses and organisations, what it is and what we need from our leaders, is changing. The familiar old model for leadership – one based on hierarchy – might actually, finally, be on the way out. (There are some green shoots at least.) In its place is a model of leadership that includes the idea that leading is a behaviour, and everyone leads. Here’s what you need to know about how leadership is changing.

The majority of organisations across the world, in all sectors and industries – from governments to corporations to non-profits – use a hierarchical approach to leadership. Even though hardly anyone has a good word to say about hierarchies and it is increasingly seen as an obstacle to meeting today’s complex demands – they are still among the most common ways to structure an organisation.

But things are changing. We are living in times of unprecedented challenges and opportunities, and as a result new models of organisational leadership are emerging that seek to be open, fluid, and adaptable and move away from individual leaders to an era of networked leadership teams that steer an organisation and where all staff have a voice.

Organisations such as financial-services company Aon provide a good example of leaders acting as catalysts to shape a collaborative network organisation through their ‘Aon United’ initiative, driven by a need to shift to a more integrated and cooperative approach.

The old model

A typical hierarchical organisation follows a top-down decision-making approach, where most decisions flow from the top to the bottom and those at the top have the vision and tell other people what to do.

In general the ‘other people’ are pretty much expected to do what they are told.

There can be so much power, so much formalised authority, so much fear in play in this model, it’s a wonder sometimes people remember how to breathe.

In many organisations this leadership model is firmly established and is so normalised it feels right and appropriate.

Yet many leading writers, designers, consultants and change managers such as Frederic Laloux, Peter Senge, and Linda Hill to name just a few, recognise that organisational leadership need to be much more agile than the old model of hierarchy can allow.

Partly this is because of the pace of change, and the interdependency and complexity of the systems and markets we all operate in, and partly because increasing numbers of people wish to lead their lives according to their own values, and want a higher degree of freedom and autonomy than is often available to them in the workplace.

We think that social contract is shifting. More organisations are empowering their staff, adopting flexible working and a values-based approach.

According to research from Qualtrics, over half (56%) of employees in the United States and United Kingdom would not even consider a job at a company now if they did not agree with its values.

A new model of leadership

Pioneering organisations such as Allianz and Microsoft are shifting their leadership models to a networked approach, and similarly we see that many Higher Education organisations we work with are learning that leadership already comes from many directions. Informal influence really counts and people at varying levels can have as much power and influence as those at the top. It’s a different expression of power, with a broad range of manifestations, nuances and consequences. What it means is that everyone, however ‘humble’ their position, has the potential to lead – and we can all make a difference through our behaviour.

This is something we really believe in and set out to teach in our work.

For too long it has felt like we have had to do that in secret. Selling ‘high performance teams’ and ‘capacity building’ programmes that really are about helping people build their confidence to say what’s on their mind, listen well, ask good questions and make proposals for improvements – in a nutshell to access their agency and learn how to influence well.

That’s the leadership organisations really need as the world around us accelerates and policy goal posts shift to match the populist mood. What’s needed are people who see their role as active agents in the systems they find themselves in.

And what really makes a difference, wherever you are in your career, is your commitment to developing an awareness of your context and then in developing yourself in response to that.

Pete Burden, a senior coach and consultant on our team, sums this up as learning to cope with the complexity that surrounds us all.

What’s still true about leadership

Of course, whilst much is changing about leadership, many things are also staying the same: for example, people still come together around a purpose or a vision. But as most of us don’t find supporting someone else’s vision that inspiring, we increasingly see a drive to generate this collaboratively.

People do genuinely find sharing a vision and collaborating a source of energy and commitment.

To harness real collaboration – achieving more together than you could alone – it is important for everyone to feel included, and to have their individual contributions valued and made valid.

And of course, collaborating means that working together in teams is still important. It is hard to imagine doing anything very useful completely on your own. However, we all know how hard navigating the complexity of relationships that working in a team entails.

Alongside that people today are more aware of ethnicity, neurodiversity, gender, age and different perspectives generally. Recognising this diversity, when properly included and integrated, can be a source of strength, creativity and innovation.

This means that team leaders and team members also need to be able to support that. And they need practical abilities to work with the conflict that often arises where there is difference. Because true collaboration often lies on the other side of conflict.

We believe this is an opportunity for everyone to become much more aware and mindful of their behaviour. To that end, regular reflection and real curiosity are essential – accepting the complexity of our day-to-day human experience.

You especially have to consider how you listen and how you speak to each other, because work is relational. Which means you need to learn to speak with each other and understand things as a team, not just as individuals.

This in turn means emotional sensing is much higher up the agenda than ever before.

This is something we’ve been putting into practice with many of our clients, and also with the Higher Education peer support group that we’ve been running, where participants think not just about how to deal with their current situations, but also about what they bring to it.

If this has got you thinking about leadership in your team and organisation, here’s some questions for you:

  • Do you agree with our observations about how leadership is changing?
  • What do you need from people at the top of the hierarchy?
  • What do you think about taking a more distributed view of leadership?
  • What else do you think about this?

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Get in touch here and let us know.

At Then Somehow we help universities and other organisations build emotional literacy, increase empathy, and help you see the world differently, giving you practical tools to shift the stuff that’s stuck.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help your organisation develop leaders and perform better, get in touch here.

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