Endorsements for Leaderful Organizations

"Our organizations and societies increasingly face complex issues for which hierarchical leadership is inherently
inadequate.  The profound confusion between leadership and formal authority is sure to persist until, as Joe Raelin shows, we develop new, nonhierarchical ways of thinking about and developing leadership."
                   -- Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chairman of the Society                  of Organizational Learning

 "A novel approach which makes the practice of leadership everybody's responsibility."
                   -- Warren Bennis, Late University Professor, University of Southern California and Lifelong Leadership Expert


Reflections from Clients and Case Studies on Learning about Leadership

  1. In an operations unit, staff were miserable working under the thumb of an imperial supervisor.  But things began to pick up because there was news of her impending retirement as well as her replacement by a much “kinder and gentler” supervisor.  This occurrence came to pass and people were excited by the new supervisor because she was interested in sharing leadership with everyone.  They enjoyed the new approach, but it didn’t last long.  In due course, the staff began to resent having to take on managerial responsibilities because they felt it was the supervisor’s job.  Many of them “reported” her to management and in short order, she was fired.  The reason was that she was not an effective leader because she did not know how to take control and run the unit as any good manager should.  She did not have the necessary competencies of an effective leader.

    In the post-analysis of the case, it was discovered that the new supervisor had a credible idea but was not able to figure out how to help her staff make the transition from working under a former autocratic boss.  She did not realize that it takes time for people to develop both an appreciation for and an ability to adopt leaderful practice.  Through mentoring, she could have learned that she needed to be gradual in her approach, initially taking small leaderful steps (engaging her staff in effective two-way communication and reflection; giving them a chance to try out some self- and team-management practices, etc.) and also determining the varying readiness levels of her staff.

    In her subsequent job, after some extensive 'leaderful' coaching, this supervisor learned how to develop a leaderful group through appreciation and mobilization of the team’s underlying dynamics and was eminently successful; in fact, the product development group that she “supervised” broke all company records.
  2. While managing a one-year project to increase community building across groups at MIT, a manager sought the support of a coach and facilitator for the effort. The manager describes her reflections on the value of sharing leadership:
    I have thought much about leadership as a shared process of working together rather than as a role or set of traits, though the former idea can hold a great challenge in a world that, for the most part, still structures organizations hierarchically. If leadership is a process rather than a structure, then we should put more emphasis on actions than on personality. I have also learned to ask “good” questions that stimulate group inquiry and engagement and to develop a measure of resilience and flexibility when conflicts arise in order to help underlying commonalities and solutions surface. We feel a sense of urgency to respond, but sometimes the most effective response is to slow down and reflect rather than jump in quickly without having first built the foundation for a sustainment of effort.  So in fact, a manager could better serve the group by influencing it to take time for purposeful self-examination and to help build itself as a community. Otherwise, the tendency will be simply to shoot the messenger and continue steaming down the train track not necessarily in the right direction or with attached cars.
  3. An operations manager charged with heading up a process improvement project in his company, a global consumer products corporation, admitted that he effectively canceled the opportunity for his team members to vent their emotions on the mistaken belief that such an airing would frustrate them.  His explanation was as follows:
    As local implementation leader my initial approach during early meetings with my team members was to tell them what we needed to do and what was expected from them.  Because there was no debate whether or not this project was going to take place (it was handed down from corporate), I did not find it necessary to ask the members what they thought about the situation.  I did this because I did not want to give them the impression that they had a choice, because they did not. 

    I now know from reflection with my mentor that this was not the approach to take.  I received negative responses back from my group members, and I began to feel they blamed me for recommending the need for a new system.  I had unknowingly positioned myself in an adversarial role and felt my group meetings were transforming into win/lose battles in which I was the advocate of the new system while the rest of the group was the defendant of the current one.

  4. In implementing leaderful practice, as people learn they can take on leadership, there may be frustration for the position manager as there are bound to be mistakes and performance lapses.  Enduring these errors is often the most difficult task of all during a transition period.  Here's how Bill O'Brien, former CEO of the Hanover Insurance Company, describes this experience:

    ...what kept me up at night?  It was when I had to deal with poor performance.  I said to myself, "If I'm going to do this, I'd rather take a little more time and do it too late than do it too early because I have a human being's life here."  Finally, you get signals that tell you you've waited too long.  Some of your direct reports are coming to you, trying to drop hints that ... there are missed deadlines - a whole host of things.  I erred by being too late.  I was late partially by design because I wanted to minimize the fear. For the most part the fear in corporations today is very debilitating so I wanted to keep us at a very low level of fear.  I would rather have a lot of other people say, "It's about time O'Brien woke up!" than having people say, "Where is O'Brien going to strike next?"

  5.  In a project to upgrade a university's web page, a manager reflected on her need to involve some key stakeholders in the process:

    I had an idea that I wanted to advocate, but I also wanted feedback from the others about their thoughts.  I wanted to create excitement about the initiative but at the same time create an environment where they gravitated to where they wanted to go. I repeated to myself, "pull, don't push."  I had to work very hard at ensuring my advice didn't ring too loudly.  As I have described in my journals, I have a tendency to see myself as a lone champion of a cause in a win-lose manner.  I realize that this attitude and methodology can be destructive to a project.  Fishman bluntly writes, "And what happens to pioneers alone on the frontier?  They get shot."

  6. When asked why he wasn't taking credit for not only the stability but the reinvention of his company during the dot.com demise, former CEO Jim Kelly of UPS responded:

    I think CEOs are terribly overrated.  The whole concept of the superstar CEO is nuts. When you look at successful companies, there are a whole lot of folks doing a whole lot of things to make them successful.  Being a superstar has an awful lot to do with timing.... Around here, we don't think of ourselves as individuals doing too much on our own.  We think of ourselves as people working together to get things accomplished. 

  7. Here is how Tracey Kidder in his famous book, The Soul of a New Machine (about the design of a minicomputer at Data General), described the Eclipse project team:

    The entire Eclipse Group, especially its managers, seemed to be operating on instinct.  Only the simplest visible arrangements existed among them.  They kept no charts and graphs or organizational tables that meant anything.  But those webs of voluntary, mutual responsibility, the product of many signings-up, held them together.  Of course, to a recruit it might look chaotic.  Of course, someone who believed that a computer ought to be designed with long thought and a great deal of preliminary testing, and who favored rigid control, might have felt ill at the spectacle.