Approaching leadership with a power-with rather than a power-over mind-set can result in a profound transformation of organisational culture. It moves group dynamics away from fear, blame, silos, frustration and disengagement towards ownership, cooperation, creativity and meaning. This kind of emergent leadership does not depend on a single heroic leader who has all the answers, and who has to “motivate” or “engage” the team. Emergent leadership depends on a group of people, who use their power in each others’ service and not as a tool for coercion.
The popular belief that “leaders need followers”, assumes that leadership requires a power gap between someone who is in charge and someone who isn’t.
This reflects a power-over leadership paradigm, which according to Gareth Morgan, author of “Images of Organization” originates from management theory along the lines of old military thinking and the functioning of machines, where employees are viewed as parts that have to be controlled and optimised. This approach may work successfully within stable, predictable environments, but falls short in a modern VUCA world, where organisations require creativity and proactivity to adapt to an ever-changing environment.
If one assumes, that organisations seek to maximise their workforce’s contribution, then limiting leadership responsibility to a fixed role monopolises and hence impedes this goal. If in a team of ten only one individual “leads”, while the others “follow”, one sacrifices (at least) 90% of the group’s leadership potential.
Some may object, that too many cooks spoil the broth and if everyone leads, chaos, conflict and stagnation surely must follow?
“Power over” vs. “Power with”
This objection is true, if we treat leadership as a top-down power-over-approach. In a power-over environment, those higher up in the hierarchical structure have means of reward and punishment that others further down do not have at their disposal. In a power-over culture, higher-ranking individuals don’t seek cooperation but gain compliance through an usually unspoken threat: “if you follow my request you will be fine, if you don’t you will regret it.”
Hierarchical structures are so ingrained in our culture that it is difficult to imagine a world without them. Yet, power-over influencing typically results in two possible outcomes: either obedience – giving in to the request, because one fears the consequences, or resistance – actively pushing back, out of indignation. Either way, the price of this leadership approach is mistrust and resentment, because it violates universal human needs for safety and autonomy.
In addition, the resulting frustration and suspicion stops individuals from taking risks and ownership. It becomes safer to wait for somebody else to tackle an issue, and if something doesn’t go according to plan, blame often serves as protection from the feared penalties. The subsequent culture of fear, mistrust and resentment not only impedes learning and organisational development, it also stands in the way of effective leadership and ultimately productivity.
“Who is in charge?” vs. “What is needed?”
Matthew Syed, the author of “Black Box Thinking” recounts, that in the early phases of the aviation industry, some experienced pilots made crucial errors that lead to catastrophic accidents, because no one dared to challenge the highest-ranking officer. The unspoken rule “the pilot knows best” stopped urgently needed interventions in their track. Many people lost their lives as a consequence. Eventually however, the aviation industry learned to reduce this hierarchical distance so that communication could flow more freely between pilots, engineers and crew-members.
The insight that regardless of rank mistakes are inevitable when we operate within complex environments, lead to a cultural shift where mistakes could be openly discussed as important learning opportunities.
Today, aviation is one of the safest industries in the world.
Similarly, if we shift our focus away from a leader-follower dichotomy, but instead focus on leadership action, positional power becomes (almost) obsolete. All we need to do is to replace the question of “who is in charge?” with “what is needed?” When we ask “what is needed?” we are more likely to act in a way that makes a difference, that moves things forward and serves others. Roles, titles and positions don’t become obsolete, but they only matter to the degree to which they help answering this question “what is needed?” at any given moment.
When all stakeholders, and not just a chosen few, pay attention to the gap between what is and what is needed, and then generate the courage to act accordingly, an exponential gain of productivity, engagement and learning become almost inevitable. Emergent leadership allows each individual not only to maximise their own, but also to build on others’ contributions, to learn through continuous, mutually reinforcing open feedback loops and above all, to work with and not against their intrinsic motivation, experience and wisdom.
© Ragnar Speicher