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Chapter 11: Leadership: strong or distributed?

To get started…

…refresh you knowledge on leadership and trust based on Chapter 11 of your textbook.  Take special notice of leadership traits, the behavioural theories of leadership, contemporary issues in leadership, and elements of trust in leadership.  Then read this article about leading teams into autonomy.

So, to summarise…

Even in this day and age, some people call for ‘strong leadership’ or ‘strong leaders’, where the leader is the one who decides on the course of action, who convinces their staff to rally behind it, and guides them on how to do that.  For example, the Governor of theReserve Bank of Australia Glenn Steven, calls for strong political leadership, to enable economic reforms.  Of course, political leadership is only as strong as the mandate they get from their voters.  As history has shown, strong political leadership does not always lead to the best outcomes, even when democratically elected.  This is also evident among leaders in industry: Steve Jobs was a strong leader, and he did get results, but without him, the sustainability of those results is not guaranteed.

Another way to look at leadership is surfacing as the power of the crowd is discovered: distributed leadership.  This is an open, collaborative, and decentralised style which is required to deal with global changes in work and technology.  The education industry, which tends to encourage the nurturing of each individual, has been using this distributed style in schools.

The aim of distributed leadership is to create self-sustaining teams and organisations, because relying on a single person to maintain company success is not a sustainable way to run.  Even if you find one right person, they will not stay there forever.  And in general teams outperform individuals, and that goes for management too – so to develop an autonomous team is a stepping stone to developing an organisation which does not rely on a single leader.

The article describes the journey one manager, Theodora Pankofka, took transforming her team into an autonomous one.  The team she took over had a history of low performance and autocratic centralised management.  First, Pankofka made a determination: to have the whole team (including herself, mind you) changed.  Then, she met with every stakeholder involved with the team, and tried to get their perspective on what the team delivers them, what the team should change, and what the team does well.  She then spent time with the team categorising all the issues and identifying what needs to addressed.  The team identified quality issues as the most prominent issue, and this issue was addressed by Pankofka, as well as by the team.  As they addressed the problems, the team members themselves communicated with the stakeholders, which not only developed trust with them, but also empowered the team to operate on the same level as their manager.

The next step involved removing the Pankofka from the sole leadership position, and giving individuals on the team opportunities to lead – one at a time.  Pankofka held back and gave the team opportunities to resolve issues, even when she knew the solutions herslf, so that they would know that she trusts them, and thus remain empowered to resolve problems in the future. 

Even when the team failed – which was expected – Pankofka used it to further build the team’s confidence in their own ability to solve problems.  Accepting the team’s failure meant that they now knew that they are in a safe environment, they can take risks, and they also have sufficient resources to practice their learning. 

Then, Pankofka diversified their network, by adding individuals with strengths and expertise which added to the team.  This sometimes meant simply hiring people who come from a different geographical area.  Sometimes you’ll need to dig a bit deeper and find other differences, such as skills or technical expertise. 

In the end, one year down the track, the team was a success story – it was a top performer in the organisation.  Not only that – Pankofka could have stepped off the team, and its strengths would have remained.  This is what distributed leadership is all about – it may be clumsier, but it can be more robust and sustainable in the face of change.

Some issues to notice and pay particular attention to here are…

  • Traits associated with leadership
  • Leadership styles: centre, orientation, managerial grid.
  • Path-goal model, transactional and transformational leadership
  • Credibility and trust

Consider the following questions for discussion…

  1. What kind of traits would expect distributed leadership members to have?  Why?
  2. What leadership style would you say distributed leadership members need, if they genuinely wanted to transform their teams into autonomous? Why?
  3. How do the transactional/transformational leadership styles apply to distributed leadership members, who aim to develop autonomous teams?
  4. How would you assess the leaders’ credibility in general?  How would you assess their credibility on issues like developing autonomous teams?
  5. If you were a CEO who was genuinely committed to developing autonomous teams, how would you develop the trust of your employees?