What Matrix Leaders Can Learn from Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride

The success of his
nighttime ride almost 240 years ago is a testament to effective matrix
leadership skills–and a lesson for today’s leaders.

Guest post by Signe Spencer, Hay Group

A few months
ago, I would never have considered Paul Revere a useful example of a matrix
leader. I always thought of him as the prototypical lone hero, galloping
through the night shouting “the British are coming,” more or less at random, to
rouse the countryside.

But then I
read
Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett
Fischer’s excellent account of the people and events leading to the start of
the American revolution. It turns out Paul Revere wasn’t working alone, and
didn’t shout randomly as he rode.

In fact,
almost nothing about his ride that night was random. Revere had spent decades
laying the foundation for his overnight success. And his story has important
lessons for anyone concerned about
effective matrix
leadership
.

A colonial
matrix?

When we
think of early patriots today, we remember a few outsized historical figures
like Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and the Sons of Liberty. But the reality
was far more complex. 

The Sons of
Liberty was just one of seven important Boston patriot groups involving
hundreds of influential citizens. Each was loosely organized around its own
focus and goals, with few connections and little or no formal communication
between them.

In the same
way, every town had its own militia, created for its protection and commanded
by its leading citizens. There was little overlap between them, and no
overarching organization or command structure uniting them.

Today we
would call this assemblage a matrix – a poorly organized one at that. And
veteran managers know better than to expect quick, decisive action from a
poorly organized matrix.

But Paul
Revere succeeded

Paul Revere,
it turns out, had the exact qualities that were required to bring
clarity to this confusion of colonial coalitions, and unify its divergent
forces to deliver a coherent, revolutionary response.

He was a
natural matrix leader, displaying the key leadership qualities that are
essential to success in today’s matrixed organizations.
 
Revere knew the patriot groups. He was a
joiner who had been active in the civic affairs of Boston all his life. In fact,
he was one of only two people known to have belonged to five of the seven
important patriot organizations. As a result, Revere was familiar with the
activities, goals and leadership of all these groups, and was perfectly
positioned to help coordinate the separate streams of patriot activities when
events required.
 

The take-away for matrix managers:
Like Revere, effective matrix leaders
must have a broad organizational awareness to successfully align their group’s
objectives and activities with those of parallel groups, as well as the
strategic goals of the organization as a whole. They also must know where to
seek the resources they need to meet their objectives, and what levers they
have to push to get them. 
 
Revere knew people and how to influence them.
Through
his long record of civic activism, his broad range of interests, and his work
as a silversmith, Revere not only knew most of Boston’s influential citizens,
but those of neighboring towns as well. He also knew how to build consensus to
accomplish common goals, and had established a regional reputation as a man of
his word who could be trusted to get things done.
 
The take-away for matrix managers: Leaders in
a matrix often lack line authority over critical team members, or over
gatekeepers who control critical resources elsewhere in the organization. The
ability to understand people and their motivations – and to use the tools of
influence and persuasion to enlist their support and assistance – is vital to
successful matrix management.
 
Revere took initiative in guiding a
collaborative solution.
He spent months visiting and talking with
local leaders in Boston and surrounding towns, helping to forge unity and
create a specific plan of action to counter an anticipated British move against
the armory in Concord. When the time came, Revere didn’t shout from horseback
to just anyone; he rode to prearranged homes and roused the residents, who in
turn notified other key individuals, activating a cascading communication
network that he had helped to create.
 
What it means for matrix managers: Successful
matrix efforts almost always require thoughtful preparation to create the
conditions that will support a positive outcome. Keen organization awareness
and outstanding influence skills are empty assets unless matrix leaders take
the initiative to use them to lay the groundwork for success, and guide their
teams to create collaborative solutions that meet organizational goals.

Leadership
you can learn

No business
wants managers running through the halls shouting, “The competition is coming.”
But as more organizations shift to matrix structures, the leadership skills
that the real Paul Revere possessed are in greater, and growing, demand.

Yet many
organizations find that good matrix leaders are in short supply – in large part
because veteran managers accustomed to traditional, hierchical roles are not
necessarily prepared for the very different demands of a matrix.

Fortunately,
the skills required of effective matrix leaders can be learned – and your organizational
patriots can be ready and waiting when the competition arrives.

Signe Spencer is a senior consultant and
global practice leader for capability assessment at
Hay Group, and has researched successful leadership
practices in matrix structures.