Establishing a Culture of Distributed Leadership

Here’s a guest post I wrote a few weeks ago for Right Management’s Talent@Work blog:

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Deborah Ancona, a professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, wrote about a concept called “distributed leadership”.

She used the term to respond to a reader’s question: “How can a senior leader encourage junior leaders to act and make decisions when they find themselves without specific guidance? How can a junior leader know when it’s right to take charge?”

Distributed leadership is basically just what it sounds like – pushing leadership, or in most cases, the freedom to act, to others. Think of it as the opposite of “command and control”.

Based on a quick Google search, the term shows up most in the academic environment. However, Deborah does a nice job advocating the concept with historical and current examples that can readily apply to the corporate environment. She cites John Buford, a Union cavalry officer during the American Civil War, and a local leader in Haiti who took matters into their own hands rather then waiting for orders from above.

Distributed leadership sounds to me a lot like empowerment, one of the leading corporate buzzwords of the 90s, as well as delegation, a term that dates back to the 1600s. The desire for autonomy, freedom, and responsibility is not something that generation X or Y has brought to the workforce – it’s a basic human desire that leaders need to leverage.

Unfortunately, just like we all have a basic need for recognition and belonging, managers and organizations will often take a deceptively easy concept and still somehow manage to screw it up.

What does it take to “let go” as a leader? Building on the points made in the Deborah’s articles, the following conditions need to be in place:

1. The right managers.
Managers have to be willing to let go of what may have gotten them promoted in the first place – being the expert, solving problems, and making decisions. Some managers learn the importance of letting go the hard way – though overwork, burn-out, under-performing and dissatisfied teams, and failed relationships. Others – those with strong leadership potential – are more naturally inclined to manage that way. It’s the hard-core, autocratic micro-managers that will struggle with it the most and most likely either resist letting go or do it in a way that could make things even worse.

In order to establish a culture of distributed leadership, you’ll need to either hire leaders with a track record of being willing and able to let go effectively, or teach managers that are wiling to but don’t know how.

2. The right employees.
To quote Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Not everybody is ready to assume great responsibility. There are some that would prefer to be told what to do. Then again, laying a responsibility on an employee that isn’t ready is another recipe for disaster.

Again, it goes back to hiring profiles, assessment, and development. Look for employees that have a track record of seeking our new and bigger responsibilities, that can handle ambiguity, and with strong problem solving and decision making skills.

In order to get someone ready to take on really big decisions, a leader has to start grooming them by giving them little decisions that gradually get bigger. Using Situational Leadership can help you determine when it’s time to provide a heavy dose of direction and when it’s time to let go.

3. The right organizational structure and systems.
A relatively flat, decentralized organizational structure, where there are fewer management layers and managers have broad spans of control promote distributed leadership. Increasing a manager’s number of direct reports makes it harder to micromanage them.

Organizations that practice distributed leadership build processes that embed leadership into the system – rather than allowing only a few at the top to lead.

4. Clear direction and values.
Without a rock-solid vision, mission, goals, and values, distributed leadership can turn into distributed anarchy and chaos. Managers at companies like Johnson & Johnson, Google, Southwest Airlines, and Wal-Mart have lots of local autonomy but make decisions within a very clear set of boundaries.

While the term “distributed leadership” may be relatively new addition to the corporate buzz-word dictionary, it seems that there may be valuable lessons from what we’ve already learned how to do: good old-fashioned empowerment and delegation.