Saturday, 31 October 2009

No one in charge?

image: flickr salimfadhley

Been catching up on some of my favourite blogs this morning and the following caught my attention:

Graeme Martin's HR and People Management Blog

I include here three very short and somewhat out of context quotes (I hope Graeme will forgive me: but do please look at the rest of the post to review his evidence and well argued case)
  • celebrity leadership and traditional leader development are typically planned and individualistic while (Distributed Leadership) is typically emergent and collective (I have paraphrased here)
  • 'no-one in charge' can lead to highly positive outcomes......
  • "The 'romance with leaders' is definitely on the wain"

One of my interests in looking at leadership of virtual or dispersed teams probably springs from my own disillusionment with leadership as much as it does from my personal predeliction for working from home.

My own sense of the reality of making things happen is that very often the impetus emerges from within a network of interested and proactive people and very infrequently at the behest or dictat of a nominated leader.

This is certainly true of all of the really exciting projects I am currently involved in - they seem to mainly involve small networks of people who do not naturally fit within any organisational matrix - indeed seem to exist in spite of it! - but who are working with passion (for their "subject" or service, for an inspiring end goal ) and well beyond their usual "terms and conditions of service".

Even when I have been placed in the position of formally leading a project, I have found that the outcomes are significantly improved when each team member has been able to contribute their own thoughts - and even better, when they have individually or in small groups, been charged with taking on some of the responsibility for designing those outcomes and working to achieve the desired results. Such teams are energised, they feel an ownership for and pride in the final product and the sense of having achieved it by themselves.

Unfortunately it is still the traditional view that certain tasks - setting targets, deciding on strategic direction, monitoring performance - are the sole province of a designated "celebrity" leader, ignoring the expertise of equally or more experienced colleagues in the name of "strong leadership". At best this approach produces bored, underutilised people who doggedly follow the rules and produce whatever mediocre results are deemed sufficient to tick the boxes. At worst it leads to passive aggressive behaviour: deliberate sabotaging of goals, disaffected staff who leave to find new jobs, take long term sick leave or simply refuse to contribute to "team meetings".

There are analogies here with teaching. Certainly in the areas in which I "teach", I am not the expert dispensing wisdom from on high, but the facilitator of students accessing their own and others' expertise, helping them to making sense of it and to turn this knowledge into something useful, something they might themselves start to feel passionate about.

This last few weeks, as always when I work with groups of clinical managers in the NHS, I have felt genuinely humbled by their creativity, dedication and genuine desire to make a change for the better. Despite the complaints of target driven bureaucracy and poor leadership I also see evidence of distributed leadership at work in the inspiring and creative projects these managers produce - and beyond that to see the genuine difference this work makes in the lives of others - their colleagues, team members, students, volunteers, patients.

My romance with leaders has clearly been on the wain for years and I see nothing around me to make me want to start believing in them again. Here's to the Distribution of Leadership....and to no one in charge!!


  1. As long as anarchy does not rule; well tyoo much anyway. Good blog and I like the transformational idea of leadership and empowerment to the followers who are often left out but somehow still need to do.
    I now have another good idea for my 'Wiki West Block' ning site. Thanks Jane

  2. Last cvomment was from Annibale

  3. thanks Annibale: my guess is that one man's anarchy is another's dispersed leadership! (and vice versa)

  4. I love your article, Jane. I see within the team of volunteers with Heart to Heart a network of interested, proactive people who provide and ever increasing and committed support service because they are passionate about it. Not for monetary or career gain but because they feel empowered to make a difference. They are way ahead of our decision making Board!!

  5. Sorry about the Kilimanjaro trek bit. It wouldn't let me sign in unless I blogged it (that's the Blog from my home computer)or became anonymous!

  6. Thanks for this feedback Lynne: passion plus empowerment plus community seem to be recurring themes. I guess passion could equally apply to an anarchic (or fascist!) "state" but community and empowerment suggest interdependence and democracy, which sounds like pretty much the way your group operates! I like the ambiguity of the title - no ONE in charge - is it really about everyone taking charge, individually and collectively, perhaps?