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Reinventing Organizational Hierarchy

by Michael Tobin on

Shared leadership seems like an oxymoronic term. The idea stands in stark contrast to the popular notion that leadership in an organization resides in the actions of a single person. Leadership is and has been primarily equated with headship. Hooked to the organizational hierarchy, leadership is perceived to be the domain of the most senior individual—the president, the executive director, the CEO, the COO, the founder, the partner.

But the modern reality is that change is a function of teams that are cast in the form of individuals, and is not the outcome of a single person’s actions. The real power behind change is the collective energy of the ideas that propel them.

In modern organizations, regardless of perception, headship cannot be equated with leadership. While this is quickly recognized by the smart leader, it is not widely recognized; for many people, there still exists a tension between the mythology of the individual hero and reality.

Shared Leadership

It may have been true at one point in time that single, historical individuals were transformative figures, but 21st century reality asserts the primacy of the transformative organization and the culture that sustains it. Individuals still play a significant role in a company’s achievements, of course, but they derive their capacity to make a difference from the ability to focus and direct the energies of others.

Those companies that have succeeded have learned how to most effectively marshal the collective leadership of the many in addition to the singular leadership of the individual.

What it means for Talent

The strategic talent management implications of all this are obvious. There is still a push (and a need) to identify and develop powerful leaders at the top, but this identification and development does not rest solely with the company heads. This task now extends down into the organization. Leadership now encompasses managerial leadership, technical leadership, operational leadership, team leadership.

With respect to succession planning, this point of view does wonders for an organization to increase their talent pipeline. From a motivational perspective, allocating leadership responsibility in a non-hierarchical fashion inspires and empowers people to contribute to their organization, as the privilege of being a stakeholder is not concentrated in the C-suite.

Unhooking the Hierarchy

We are shifting toward a definition of leadership that doesn’t automatically connote being at the top. Leadership now exemplifies innovation, the ability to inspire, setting a high standard for company culture and holding peers and other leaders alike to this standard. Above all, leadership now encompasses the ability to work with others. These qualities are not—and should not—be unique to those at the top of an organization. Implicitly, this shift acknowledges that leadership does not always have to equal executive leadership.

Deconstructing a strictly hierarchical leadership model has the power to mobilize an employee base; a head without his or her other leaders leaves an organization incomplete.

How do you feel about shared leadership? What is your definition of leadership?

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