The democratization of leadership

May the force be with you — Photo by James Pond

“It’s difficult not to be frustrated by the excessive focus on leadership, but it’s become so popular that we apparently can’t teach enough of it.”

— John Van Maanen, M.I.T.

We are obsessed with leaders.

Leadership is coveted by both people and companies.

However, we have a hard time defining what leadership is. As Joseph C. Rost, the author of Leadership for the 21st Century, explains: “The lack of agreement on the matter means that leadership is practically ‘anything anyone wants to say it is,’ and leaders are ‘anyone who is so designated.’”

When it comes to distributing authority, most organizations default to treat leadership as a badge of honor — it’s tightly held by a few individuals.

The paradox is that, though organizations crave for more leaders, they keep the ability to lead behind closed doors.

What if we let go of treating leadership as something exclusive?

Simply put, let’s democratize leadership.

Leadership for All

“The Force will be with you… always.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi

If leadership is so beneficial for a company, shouldn’t we have more leaders rather than less?

Helping organizations build a culture of change, I see a recurring theme. Companies invest millions of dollars in becoming more innovative but, most of the ideas, don’t get past the innovation team. The main reason is that the rest of the organization feels left out of the innovation party.

If you want your organization to become more innovative, why just limit that task to the innovation team? I’m not saying it’s wrong to have a team of specialists. My point is that innovation can come from anywhere and anyone.

The same applies to leadership — organizations need to readjust their mindsets:

1. Leadership should not be defined by a title or seniority:

Though experience and wisdom shape a good leader, seniority or age don’t necessarily guarantee it. As I like to say, people are like wines. The great ones improve their quality as they age; the bad ones turn into vinegar.

2. Let’s demystify leadership:

We tend to refer to leaders as if they were extraordinary people. Some might be. However, being a genius is not mandatory to be a leader. Some were born with the right qualities; others develop their skillset through experience and time. Leadership is a role we play, not a status. The more we practice it, the more we get better at it.

3. Unleash the ‘leadership gene’ within everyone:

Everyone has the potential to lead. They might not end running a company, but they can lead a team, a project or parts of it. Most people are not given the opportunity to lead because someone believes they don’t have what it takes. I’ve seen many people that were written off by everyone and ended being fantastic leaders. You never know until you try.

4. The Participation Age requires new rules:

People want to play an active role in building a great company. They want to share the share the action and the results too. As Chuck Blakeman says: “People don’t want a job, they want work. A job only pays the bills, but work is meaningful and requires that I use my brain.” The industrial era management approach needs to be upgraded to the 21st Century requirements.

5. Rapid change demands rapid adaptation:

Our ability to adapt is a competitive advantage — it not only requires to understand the changing reality, but to act fast. Empowering people to think and behave like leaders, is a must to operate in a more fluid and agile way. Adaptive Teams thrive in changing conditions because they embrace the mindset of a leader. They don’t wait for someone to tell them what to do, they know how and when to switch and adjust their behaviors.

The complexity of today’s business reality requires all hands on deck; one leader can’t do it all. The more leaders, the better.

By democratizing leadership across the organization, you can accelerate change but, also, see challenges from a more diverse perspective — critical to driving innovation forward.

The Benefits of Democratizing Leadership

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” — John C. Maxwell

Leadership is imagining new scenarios. Leadership is to be courageous to operate and make decisions while navigating uncertainty. Leadership is transforming reality, not just understanding it.

Leadership is about being vulnerable and human — not about being right or perfect. Leadership is removing the obstacles that are blocking others from doing great work. Leadership is coaching your team to lead too.

How might we create the conditions that will allow everyone to embrace the leadership spirit?

A Culture of Scarcity needs to leave room to one of Abundance, as I wrote here. Rather than managing limited resources, teams should focus on identifying new sources of innovation and growth. To adapt to survive, not to thrive.

A Culture of Abundance encourages collaboration to stay ahead of the game. It’s built on the foundation of Psychological Safety and Transparency. To foster a space where people feel free to experiment, where they won’t be criticized or mocked for bringing new ideas to the table, and where clarity and on-going feedback are the usual communication style.

Change is a collective effort — it requires everyone to play the leadership role.

Democratizing leadership doesn’t mean everyone runs the company or that all opinions count the same. It means for people to feel self-empowered by “owning” the accountabilities and responsibilities of their specific domain.

Democratizing leadership requires opening the doors for more participation.

When people feel and act like leaders, regardless of their seniority or title, they become more self-confident. Freedom of choice and act doesn’t drive chaos, anarchy, or selfishness as some folks like to think. On the contrary, when people feel they can lead their own destiny, they feel more responsible, accountable, and engaged.

Leaders are at the front of the scene today. Their actions and decisions are dissected and challenged by everyone. We live in an era of transparency. So, why not embrace that reality?

Get in front of your team more often. Create more spaces for people to express their opinions, provide feedback, and share their ideas — to act as leaders too.

Some Ideas to Get You Started

There’s not such a thing as the perfect game plan to liberate the ‘leadership gene’ within your team.

Sometimes, experimenting with different approaches is much better than launching a “we are all leaders” initiative in a Powerpoint-driven meeting.

Check out these ideas to start small and see what resonates with your team.

  • Share your ideas in a prototype form: Rather than for asking for feedback once you made out your mind, expose your team to rough concepts. Let them be part of your thinking process. Early feedback not only will make the team feel that the idea is also theirs — thus, reducing resistance. It will also save you a lot of time and money.
  • Design opportunities for experimentation: The most effective way for people to learn is by doing not by being trained. Small projects are perfect for people to learn to lead, make decisions, and to improve their act. For those that are control freaks, small projects allow small-risk/ high-potential opportunity for younger talent to develop it’s leadership chops.
  • Create leadership duos: Partner a seasoned leader with one that’s being developed. Think of a blend of mentorship and apprenticeship — the person not only is coached but also participates in meetings or events that would normally not. It’s a duo because it’s a mutual learning experience.
  • Experiment with self-selected teams: Allow people to choose the projects they want to work on and who they want to work with. Sounds uncomfortable? Well, it’s less complicated than it feels. Learn how you can get your feet wet.
  • Encourage thought leadership activities: Writing or speaking in front of large crowds are excellent ways to develop vulnerability (a critical trait for any leader). Feedback and pushback will help strengthen their ideas as well as build resilience — just because they are on the stage doesn’t mean people won’t challenge their ideas.
  • Provide opportunities for volunteering: Similar to small projects, but outside of the office. Let your team lead some of the volunteering initiatives, allow them to make decisions, to bring new ideas to the table — to experiment with new behaviors.

People don’t need to be promoted to start leading.

The right environment, not a title, is a must to liberate the ‘leadership gene’ within your team.

Everyone should be, not only prepared but allowed to lead.

Leadership is a role that everyone should play, not a badge of honor limited to a few executives.

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