Why a narrow view of leadership destroys organisations

Prof Tim London of the UCT Graduate School of Business cautions on the dangers of having too narrow a view of leadership.

Previously, I wrote about the dangers that emerge from thinking that major organisational crises such as those currently facing Oxfam, Carillion, KPMG, and others are the sole result of a few very big decisions. While that article focused on the need to recognise the importance of paying attention to smaller, “atomised” decisions as a way of avoiding crises in the first place, I also raised another danger for organisations: thinking of “leadership” as only residing in a small number of senior positions. This narrow view of leaders and leadership, like ignoring the smaller decisions, generally creates a series of impacts on the organisation that, while each can be hard to spot, can eventually combine to create serious faults.

These breaking points can manifest across three broad areas of the organisation: its structure, culture, and people. As noted, the small faults can come in a huge variety of ways, so it’s best to focus here on a few key areas that should be monitored for the accumulation of these smaller areas of slippage. Three key areas that tend to exhibit problems when leadership is seen as only residing in senior leadership positions are a lack of employee engagement, a more toxic culture of internal politics, and a decrease in innovation.

Disengaging your people
Create an environment that tells people that the quality of ideas or work on display is far less important than the title of the person providing it, and watch your people start to disengage. This rarely happens all at once and each episode can be exceedingly hard to notice in the moment. This is what makes it so crippling to organisations and so difficult to remedy.

Disengaged people don’t necessarily quit, but they give less and less at more and more opportunities. The quality of the routine work they do decreases, they miss deadlines, they need more reminders. Again, the challenge for addressing this is that you must try to address what is not there: people not speaking up, providing extra inputs, going the extra mile. Avoiding this doesn’t mean giving everyone a leadership role on every project, obviously. What it means in practice is ensuring that, regardless of who is the “leader” on any initiative, they are open to ideas from others. This means moving away from a command-and-control structure and one that encourages people to step up when the situation demands it, while also being able to step aside when someone else is better placed to lead things.

For many organisations, this can be a big change, but getting there can be tackled in small steps: for smaller or less demanding tasks, put someone in charge who doesn’t have a traditional leadership position. Yes, you may have to support them a bit more, but you’ll wind up engaging that person while developing their leadership capacity, while simultaneously sending the message to others that they will have opportunities, too.

Decreasing innovation
Related to this is the need for any organisation to constantly be innovating, even if it’s incremental innovation. Disengaged people will not give you innovation: they’re not trying to help their boss, who doesn’t care much about them; they don’t care about the success of the organisation because they’re not invested; and they don’t think they’ll be listened to even if they do have a good idea. As with engagement, the challenge here is when it is absent: good luck trying to pinpoint why it’s gone or how to encourage it to come back!

There are only so many senior leadership positions and, no matter how insightful or talented the people in those roles might be, there is no way they will be the only ones with new and innovative ideas.

Creating structures that allow for people throughout the organisation to bring forward new ideas is essential for the growth of the organisation, as well as the leadership development of all of your people. Again, there are small steps to building leadership in ways that can drive innovation: creating spaces for anyone to bring up new ideas is a start – even better when these ideas are heard by prominent people in the organisation. Crucially, those who have come up with the ideas must then be given ownership to carry them forward, with the support of others, to develop their leadership skills.

Building a toxic work culture
Finally, it’s important to recognise the wide-ranging impacts that disengaged, disempowered people have on organisations, as well as how many organisations couple that with structures that exacerbate these issues. For example, in many organisations, there is a “bottleneck” effect to hierarchical structures, with only so many senior leadership positions to go around. This results in an environment where a group of people know that only one of them can rise to the next level at a time. Inevitably, office politics and gaming of the system rear their ugly heads.

Other structures related to leadership that can create these destructive environments, despite hiring people who would almost certainly prefer to work in much more constructive ways, are promotion processes that lack transparency, feedback systems that only work top-down, and pay for position title rather than for performance (preferably group rather than individual performance).

Addressing those types of issues can help to build a culture where people are more willing to step into leadership roles as needed. Just as crucially, it also makes them more willing to step aside for, and support, colleagues who are better positioned for a particular endeavour to step ahead of them.

Indeed, there are many issues that arise from defining leadership by position only; the three here are important ones, but only a small sample. Strong, dynamic, and sustainable organisations have much more nuanced views of leadership and who can lead. They see leadership as able to come from anyone in the organisation, regardless of role, as they may have the expertise, connections, or viewpoint that is most impactful in a given situation. Similarly, leadership in these organisations is not viewed in a binary way: either a leader or a follower. Instead, these more vibrant organisations recognise that people must be able to shift between these roles, taking into account the current realities, to ensure that leadership is being exercised and supported in the most impactful way.

This raises important question for leaders to ask about their current organisations, as listed below. The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about how prone your organisation is to viewing leadership so narrowly that you put yourself in danger, or if you’re on the way to building a network of leadership that will get the most out of your people. Consider the following:

  • Who do we promote into leadership positions, why those people, and how are they chosen?
  • Is leadership in our organisation siloed, or do we recognise and support leadership that crosses traditional boundaries and structures?
  • Do we encourage leadership in all our people, or just those with the “right” positions?
  • How open are people higher up in the hierarchy to challenging feedback or innovative ideas, from people lower than them in the hierarchy?