More than ever, organizations feel the need for leadership.
As a result, managers get a lot of advice on how to be more effective leaders. Articulate a clear vision, engage your employees, develop talent, have a global mindset, think strategically, create win-win solutions, leverage diversity, communicate effectively, hold people accountable, be an agile learner.
On one level, all of this advice makes great sense. Who could argue with it? At another level, it can be overwhelming. First, the lists of leader characteristics and behaviors seem endless. It’s as if we’ve taken every positive human quality and made it into a requirement for effective leaders. Second, some of the advice can seem contradictory at times. Managers are told to take charge and to empower others, to be politically savvy and authentic, to be flexible and steadfast.
We think it’s time to step back and take a different approach. 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.
For example, the exchanges between employees and their managers, the interactions among peer managers or team members, the quality of relationships throughout the organization, the actions of teams and committees, and the use of existing organizational structures and processes can all impact whether leadership happens or not.
Don’t get us wrong — we aren’t abandoning the importance of individual managers examining and further developing their talents and capabilities. But we are suggesting that such an exercise is necessary but not sufficient for improving leadership in groups, organizations, and society.
What do we mean when we say making leadership happen? First, in our whole-system perspective, leadership happens in the interactions and exchanges among people with shared work. Leadership can be happening within teams, work groups, task forces, divisions, communities, and whole organizations. Leadership can be happening across teams, levels, and functions.
Regardless of the group, 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.