It Isn't Just About Individuals — Leadership Is a Social Process
How do you define leadership?
The list of “what makes a good leader” is a long one. It’s as if we’ve taken every positive human quality and made it into a requirement for effective leadership. It’s time to step back and take a different approach, because leadership isn’t actually all about individual leaders and their capabilities.
Instead of putting the entire weight of leadership on individual managers and their capabilities, it’s important to examine how the whole system is involved in making leadership happen.
At CCL, we define leadership as a social process that enables individuals to work together to achieve results that they could never achieve working as individuals.
And how can you tell if leadership is happening in a team, in a work group, on a task force, or across the organization?
Leadership happens in the interactions and exchanges among people with shared work.
Consider the exchanges between employees and their managers, the interactions among team members, the quality of relationships throughout the organization, the actions of teams and committees, and the use of existing organizational structures and processes. These can all impact whether leadership happens or not.
Whether within a team, work group, task force, division, department, community, or an entire organization — for leadership to happen, the interactions and exchanges among people have to create:
- Direction: Agreement on what the collective is trying to achieve together.
- Alignment: Effective coordination and integration of the different aspects of the work so that it fits together in service of the shared direction.
- Commitment: People who are making the success of the collective (not just their individual success) a personal priority.
These 3 outcomes — direction, alignment, and commitment (or DAC for short) — make it possible for individuals to work together willingly and effectively to realize organizational achievements. So when we say making leadership happen, we mean making direction, alignment, and commitment happen.
In fact, we think the only way to know if leadership has happened is to look for the presence of these 3 outcomes.
But there isn’t “a” single leader making leadership happen.
Don’t get us wrong — we aren’t abandoning the importance of leadership development and individual managers examining and further developing their talents and capabilities. But we are suggesting that while that is necessary, it’s not sufficient for improving leadership in groups, organizations, and society.
The actions, interactions, reactions, and exchanges of multiple people are producing the DAC together.
Understanding Direction, Alignment & Commitment (DAC)
As we outline in our white paper research on DAC, here’s how to tell whether your team or organization is weak or strong in each area.
Direction: agreement in the group on overall goals — what the group is trying to achieve together.
- In groups with strong direction: Members have a shared understanding of what group success looks like and agree on what they’re aiming to accomplish.
- In groups with weak direction: Members are uncertain about what they should accomplish together, or they feel pulled in different directions by competing goals.
Alignment: coordinated work within the group and integration of the different aspects of the work so that it fits together in service of the shared direction.
- In groups with strong alignment: Members with different tasks, roles, or sets of expertise coordinate their work.
- In groups with weak alignment: Members work more in isolation, unclear about how their tasks fit into the larger work of the group and are in danger of working at cross-purposes, duplicating efforts, or having important work fall through the cracks.
Commitment: mutual responsibility for the group, when people are making the success of the collective (not just their individual success) a personal priority.
- In groups with strong commitment: Members feel responsible for the success and well-being of the group, and they know that other group members feel the same. They trust each other and will stick with the group through difficult times.
- In groups with weak commitment: Members put their own interests ahead of the group’s interests and contribute to the group only when it’s easy to do so or when they have something to gain.
What does DAC look like in action? How can you recognize DAC? Here’s a quick summary of how to recognize whether direction, alignment, and commitment are happening in your organization or team:
How to Increase DAC on Your Team
At CCL, we have been using the DAC framework with people across level, sector, function, culture, and demographic for over 20 years. Here’s what you need to implement DAC on your team:
1. First, assess current levels of DAC in the group. The best way to do this is to get input from everyone involved. If you rely on just your own perspective, you’re probably missing key information. You can take our quick, free assessment of DAC levels with your team to gauge the degree to which your team agrees on statements such as:
- We agree on what we should be aiming to accomplish together.
- We have group priorities that help us focus on the most important work.
- The work of each individual is well coordinated with the work of others.
- People are clear about how their tasks fit into the work of the group.
- We make the success of the group — not just our individual success — a priority.
2. If you learn that the group has low levels of direction, alignment, or commitment, dig a bit deeper. Some factors that contribute to weak DAC include:
- Direction hasn’t been articulated or talked about.
- We jump into tasks and projects without a plan or connecting it to others’ work.
- We don’t bring in others with relevant expertise, or manage work assignments effectively.
- Resources aren’t appropriately allocated.
- We’re unclear about who is responsible for what tasks or who has authority to make what decisions.
- We see duplication of effort, or gaps where aspects of the work fall through the cracks.
- Group members don’t see themselves as having the ability or influence to address problems.
- Individuals don’t feel like they get the credit they deserve for their contributions to the group.
3. Identify changes that could improve direction, alignment, or commitment. There are countless ways to address the problems you find — but this is where your group can tailor efforts specifically to what matters most. You’ll want to engage the insights and creativity of the group to come up with changes to address key issues.
You can also draw on outside expertise for ideas and solutions. Keep in mind that direction, alignment, and commitment are group-level outcomes. Any aspect of the group can impact them. To enhance DAC, you might need to change things such as:
- The quality or frequency of interactions among group members.
- The relationships among particular members.
- The formal or informal processes for making decisions or getting work accomplished.
- The skills of individual group members.
- Shared assumptions and cultural beliefs of the group as a whole.
Strategies to Create DAC in Your Organization or Team
So how do you, as a manager, create DAC and make leadership happen in your organization? Here are 3 important strategies:
Pay attention to whether leadership is happening. Start looking for evidence of DAC. By paying attention to outcomes, you will not only begin to discern where more is needed, but you will also start to see the kinds of processes and interactions that are producing the desired levels of direction, alignment, and commitment.
Make more leadership happen. When you notice that there aren’t many leadership processes in place, create them. When there are useful leadership processes in place, make sure people have the skills to participate in them effectively. And when existing leadership processes no longer seem to be producing the needed Direction, Alignment, and Commitment, explore new ones. For example, consider:
- To create more Direction: Does a more diverse group of people need to be involved?
- To create more Alignment: When a new strategic initiative is being launched, does your staff have the skills to analyze its implication for their own work?
- To create more Alignment: Do you need to meet more regularly with your peers to prioritize work?
- To create more Alignment: Are clearer accountability structures needed?
- To create more Commitment: Are more honest conversations about proposed changes needed?
- To create more Commitment: Can you match members of your staff with projects that they are most enthusiastic about, while still assuring that all the projects are adequately resourced?
Improve your own ability to participate in cultivating leadership. It’s useful to continually deepen and broaden your individual skills and abilities. With a broader repertoire of capabilities, you’ll be able to participate more effectively in a wide range of processes.
If you’re wondering where to focus your development efforts, consider that one lens for examining this question is DAC:
- If there’s one place in your organization where you would desperately like to see more DAC, where would that be?
- What would you need to get better at doing so more leadership happens in that setting?
Of course, the DAC approach isn’t a quick fix. But it does provide clarity and a way forward. Talk to people about where direction, alignment, and commitment are happening and where they aren’t. Enlist others in your experiments with new leadership processes, and seek input on how to improve your own capabilities.
Because leadership is shared work — at the end of the day, you can only make leadership happen with others.
Ready to make more leadership happen with DAC? We can help your team increase direction, alignment, and commitment and create a strong leadership culture that supports your business strategy through our custom Organizational Leadership programs.