As our world become more interconnected, organizations are relying less on traditional hierarchical work structures and more on collaborative ways of working.

These structures enable organizations to more effectively leverage the expertise of all employees and respond to emerging challenges with greater agility. But what does this change mean for leadership?

Traditionally, leadership has been thought of as relationships occurring between formal leaders (often managers) and their followers (often subordinates). However, in contemporary organizations, the roles of leader and follower are becoming more blurred. In the absence of strong, top-down structures and formal titles, where and why do leadership relationships form?

I sought to answer these questions with my colleagues, Donna Chrobot-Mason (University of Cincinnati) and Alexandra Gerbasi (Grenoble Ecole de Management), in our recent research with the Research & Development division of a pharmaceutical company. As is the case in many contemporary organizations, the leadership structure of the R&D division is flat, and their work is accomplished in multidisciplinary teams.

We asked each person in the R&D division to identify which of the other people working in the division were a source of direction, alignment, and commitment (i.e., the outcomes of leadership) for the achievement of the organization’s goals. This process of identifying others who are sources of leadership has been referred to as “granting leadership” (DeRue & Ashford, 2010). We also gathered information about members of the R&D group to examine what other factors (such as their disciplinary background, work team, and formal leadership positions) might explain when and why leadership connections form.

This work revealed several key insights about the nature of leadership in a flat organization:

  1. Leadership is distributed and dynamic – To understand leadership in flat organizations, we must first change how we conceptualize and measure leadership. Leadership no longer involves only a few people who hold formal positions steering the company. Rather, leadership is a social process occurring within a team, department, or organization that results in those collectives creating direction, alignment, and commitment for a shared goal. The relationships between people that generate direction, alignment, and commitment (i.e., leadership) form a dynamic network that emerges and shifts over time.
  1. Leadership depends on organization identification. Our research revealed that the extent to which individuals identified with the organization was critical for predicting when these leadership relationships were likely to emerge. Specifically, we found that individuals who identified more with their organization were likely to be a source of leadership for others (i.e., to be granted leadership) and were also likely to see others as a source of leadership (i.e., to grant leadership). This outcome was true even after controlling for the formal leadership position of the individuals, their performance, demographic characteristics and demographic similarities. In these kinds of organizations, formal leaders and high performers are still a source of direction, alignment, and commitment for others, but the extent to which individuals identify with the organization is a primary driver of the formation of leadership relationships.
  1. Leadership capacity of the collective can be enhanced. Our research suggests that leadership development efforts that focus on helping individuals identify more with their organization are likely to spur people to engage in leadership processes as both a leader and a follower. Individuals who identify with the organization engage in behaviors that demonstrate a focus on the collective and are seen as embodying the values, goals, and priorities of the collective, thus making them a source of leadership for others. These individuals also try to align their efforts with the organization as a whole. To do this, they actively look to others for direction, align their efforts through productive collaboration, and provide support and encouragement that fosters deep commitment. These actions build stronger networks of leadership relationships within the organization.

Although our research provides only an initial understanding of the nature of leadership in flat organizations, one thing that appears to be clear is that organizational identification is critical to the sharing and distribution of leadership across members of an organization. We are continuing to examine this proposition in ongoing work to ensure these findings hold true other contemporary organizations.


To learn more, check out our published research:

Chrobot-Mason, D., Gerbasi, A., & Cullen-Lester, K. L. (2016). Predicting Leadership Relationships: The Importance of Collective Identity. The Leadership Quarterly, 27(2), 298–311.

If you’re interested in participating in research designed to measure and enhance the leadership capacity of your organization contact Kristin Cullen-Lester.

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