#579  Innovative Leader                 Volume 12, Number 6                         June 2003

The Leaderful Community
by Joseph A. Raelin, Ph.D.

Dr. Raelin (j.raelin@neu.edu)  is professor at Northeastern University and management consultant.  He is author of Creating Leaderful Organizations: How to Bring Out Leadership in Everyone (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2003).  

Conventional leadership may be not what we need as we prepare to manage twenty-first century organizations.  There are four tenets of conventional leadership.

  1. Leadership is serial.  Once one achieves the office of leadership, that position continues at least for the duration of that term of office.  And during that term, leaders do not cede the honor to anyone else.
  2. Leadership is individual.  A group has only one leader.
  3. Leadership is controlling.  The conventional leader believes it is his or her ultimate duty to direct the group and engender the commitment of its members, who play subordinate roles.
  4. Leadership is dispassionate.  Although leaders may recognize that employees have feelings, the leaders must make the tough decisions for the group in a dispassionate manner.  Conventional leaders are also the authoritative source when the operation faces problems, and they tend to exude a confidence that they are in charge and that subordinates can rely upon them to handle any challenge.

What Does It Mean to be “Leaderful?”

Some so-called “leaderless” groups are no longer in need of a leader, or even a facilitator, because the group has learned to conduct its affairs on its own.  It no longer has, or needs, leadership.  The problem with this idea is that it suggests a group may at times be devoid of leadership.  It can go on for a while until there’s a crisis.  At that point, a leader may emerge to settle things down.  Consider, though, that some groups don’t lose their leadership when they work like a well-oiled machine together.  Leadership, at this point, becomes distributed across all members.  It is not leaderless; it is leaderful.  It is full of leadership since everyone shares the experience of providing leadership.

I refer to the unit that receives or conducts leadership as community, rather than group or organization, because it is more hospitable to a notion of leadership that applies to the whole rather than to the parts or their sum.

The Four C’s of Leaderful Practice

Leaderful leadership offers an alternative approach to conventional leadership that is ripe for the requirements of communities in the current era.  Leaderful managers are concurrent, collective, collaborative and compassionate.

The concurrent tenet of leaderful practice is the most revolutionary.  It suggests that in any community, more than one leader can operate at the same time, so leaders willingly and naturally share power with others.  Indeed, power can be increased by everyone working together.  Since leaders perform a variety of responsibilities in a community, it is pointless to insist that only one leader operate at any one time.  For example, and administrative assistant who “knows the ropes” and can help others figure out who is knowledgeable about a particular function may be just as important to the group as the position leader.  However, this same position leader need not “stand down” nor give up his or her leadership as members of the community turn their attention to the administrative assistant.  They, as well as many others, can offer their leadership to the community at the same time.

Leaderful leadership is collective.  Since we have dispelled the assumption that a group can have only one leader, we can entertain the view that many people within the community might operate as leaders.  Decisions are made by whoever has the relevant responsibility.  Leadership may thus emerge from multiple members, especially when important needs arise, whether preparing for a strategic mission, creating meaning for the group, or proposing a change in direction.  Although someone may initiate an activity, others become involved and share leadership with the initiator.

Leaderful leadership is also collaborative.  All members of the community, not just the position leader, are in control of and may speak for the entire community.  Although they might assert themselves at times, they remain equally sensitive to the views and feelings of others and consider their viewpoints as equally valid.  They thus seek to engage in a public dialogue in which they willingly open their beliefs and values to the scrutiny of others.  Their listening to others becomes rapt.  They also understand the difference between collaborating as a pretense and becoming fully involved.  Collaborative leaders realize that everyone counts.

Finally, leaderful managers are compassionate.  By demonstrating compassion, one extends unadulterated commitment to preserving the dignity of others.  Each member of the community is valued regardless of his or her background or social standing, and all viewpoints are considered regardless of whether they conform to current thought processes.  In practicing compassion, leaders take the stance of a learner who sees the adaptability of the community as dependent upon the contribution of others.  Members of the community, not necessarily the position leader, handle problems as they arise.

Why Do We Need to Be Leaderful?

Managers already are having to cope with new forms of organization.  Information, reorganized now for decision making in the form of distributed knowledge, is gradually breaking down our bureaucracies.  More people have access to information that was once the exclusive domain of top management.  As every organizational member receives the necessary tools to run his or her immediate work function, he or she also sees how that function connects to the rest of the organization.  When workers become more connected to one another, the entire enterprise becomes much more interdependent than in the past.  Salespeople communicate customer preferences to systems designers.  Nurses and dieticians become part of the same team.  Expertise has become as much a function of the cross-functional unit operating together as intelligence professed by one single individual.  Each worker also likely possesses knowledge that may exceed that of his or her superiors.   

In order to unlock the knowledge of the workforce, organizations are becoming far more fluid, experimenting with virtual and network structures that have begun to even challenge our conventional notion of “internal” and “external.”  In such organizations, clear boundaries that distinguish the employees inside from customers, suppliers, and even competitors outside no longer exist.  At Home Depot, for example, you might find a clerk who looks like a Home Depot clerk but who actually works for Georgia-Pacific.  Why?  By collecting detailed point-of-sale information, Georgia-Pacific expects to lower prices and reduce out-of-stock shelves while lowering inventory.

Leadership, then, becomes operative as a collective property, not the sole sanctuary of any one (most important) member.  Our teams still require leadership, however.  They still need to establish a mission for themselves, work collectively toward that mission, sustain their commitment, and face future challenges as they arise.  It’s just that the leadership of the unit needs to come from within the community, not from an ultimate authority imposed from the outside.

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