I was recently at a talk (about, as it happens, political blundering) when the speaker said that a sign of a good organisation is whether it is leader-proof. It occurred to me then that cult of leadership is indeed beginning to die its death. After having had decades of alpha males running organisations as the Chief Entertainment Officer, people are starting to question the myth, perpetuated by business schools and head-hunters, that leaders are special. In fact, some are beginning to question whether they do more harm than good. I have written in the past of how those who most want to become leaders are often the least suited to the role. Often they get caught up in the moment and start to believe in their own in supremacy. They’re encouraged by a small coterie of advisers; add in group think and sycophancy and before you know it seems as if the lunatics have taken over the asylum. As Warren Buffett once said: “I always invest in companies an idiot could run, because one day one will.”
Another problem with the wrong sort of leadership is that it can lead to learned helplessness. Employees become so used to being told what to do that they start to lose the ability to think for themselves, either through fear of getting things wrong or out of lack of practice. In many organisations, the strength of the top-down, command and control structure is such that decisions are constantly being upwardly delegated. I know of one organisation where the power of the senior leaders was so strong that middle managers acted on the assumption of how their bosses would react and they’d simply not propose any option that they thought would get a frosty response.
The new leaders are those who see their role not merely as making decisions and being in charge. Rather, they recognise that leadership is about empowering people and creating the environment where decisions can be taken. Yet in many instances, organisations are still only scratching the surface of the creativity of their people. Most workforces today are full of technologically-savvy people who are keen to share and collaborate. Businesses, however, are dominated by silo mentalities and a culture of management by results that inhibits rather than encourages cross-functional working.
One organisation, however, has taken leader-proofing to the extreme. Video games developer, Valve, has no leaders. Individuals themselves decide what to work on, where to sit, even how much each other gets paid. Teams coalesce naturally around the best ideas. Dialogue and creative thinking is at a premium, uninhibited by hierarchy or traditional structures. Obviously such a structure may not work everywhere, but it is interesting how there are those who see that there is another way to operate away from the normal pyramid-shaped, leader-led organisation.
In the meantime, leaders of traditionally-run organisations need to start to consider their own role in unleashing the power of thought latent in their organisation and held back by its structure. They need to realise that the more that they give away the stronger their organisation becomes. Businesses need leaders who embrace the opportunities that new ways of working offer and who can leave behind the old style of management. Leader-proofing means not only liberating the creativity of the whole workforce but also of moving on from the old approach to leadership. The traditional caricature needs to be put to rest. As, for instance, John Cleese once said: “I find it easy to portray businessmen. Being bland, rather cruel and incompetent comes naturally to me.”