The MIT Leadership Center is one of several research groups in the MIT Sloan School of Management. Its key focus is distributed leadership “. . . the idea that leadership today, even more than in the past, must come from every level of an organization or every part of an organizational network.” Central to the Leadership Center is the belief that “the development of skilled, thoughtful, passionate leaders must be rooted in real world experience.”
Earlier this month, the Center sponsored a Distributed Leadership Forum, which brought together an invited group of people from industry and academia to explore the key attributes of distributed leadership required for effective 21st century organizations. I am a member of the Leadership Center and was involved in the planning of the Forum.
People often use leadership and management interchangeably. In my opinion, the clearest distinction between the two terms was given by Lou Gerstner, - former IBM Chairman and CEO, - at a lecture at MIT last year. He succinctly said: you manage results and processes; you lead people. The key quality you need for good leadership is passion - instilling a sense of urgency in the people around you to attack and solve the complex problems that all organizations face.
Leadership and passion cannot be delegated the way you can delegate management tasks. Therefore, a true leadership organization must embrace the principles of distributed leadership through every part and every level of the organization. How you do this was the key question addressed in the Forum.
It was a very stimulating event, with lots of interesting discussions on a variety of subjects related to leadership, innovation, organizations, management, technology, and all kinds of related subjects. Many interesting ideas came up during the two days of discussions. Let me summarize some of the key discussions that particularly captured my attention.
Distributed Leadership and Technology
The Internet is in essence an incredibly disruptive communications innovation. Ever since it emerged in the mid 1990s as a major marketplace force, it has been transforming the way companies and organizations work. More recently, new social media platforms and applications have been having a huge impact on the way people collaborate and generally relate to each other in the workplace.
There is little question that technology, no matter how sophisticated, will by itself not result in good leadership, distributed or otherwise. At the Forum, we had a lot of discussions as to whether an organization can effectively implement distributed leadership while also ignoring or discouraging the use of these Internet-based communications and collaboration capabilities at work. In other words, while technology may not be sufficient for distributed leadership, is it necessary in today’s environments?
Ted Schadler, a highly respected analyst at Forrester Research whom I have known for years, recently completed a study for their clients on The State of Workforce Technology Adoption. The study found that in spite of all the advanced social media technologies we now have, they have still not been widely adopted within companies. By a wide margin, e-mail remains the default collaboration tool for most people at work.
This is a problem, particularly for younger workers who are widely using social media technologies outside of work. The Forrester study found that sixty percent of workers younger than 43 use social networking at home, but less than one quarter of them - 13% - also use such technologies at work.
There were different points of view among Forum participants as to how serious a problem this is. My personal opinion is that companies that discourage the use of social media technologies at work will be at a disadvantage in getting people to collaborate across the organization, as well as in their ability to attract and retain a talented workforce.
There is general agreement that the corporation is going through dramatic changes in the 21st century, driven by a combination of advances in information technologies - especially the Internet - and the heightened competitive pressures brought about by globalization. For example, a major finding of IBM's 2005 Global Innovation Outlook (GIO) was:
“The nature of competition - increasingly intense, global and unpredictable - requires strength across the board. So the objective is to decompose the enterprise into its component parts, understand with great precision what is truly differentiating - where the enterprise has strengths and weaknesses - and then make decisions about how to build, buy or partner for world-class capability.”
“In this model, companies can focus their energies on their true point of differentiation, instead of trying to master many domains and ultimately squander competitive advantage by dispersing focus and investment. Rather than existing as static and fixed organizations, more enterprises could essentially become an aggregation of specialized entities with complementary interests - expanding, contracting and reconfiguring themselves in a way that best adapts to or even anticipates market dynamics.”
As enterprises increasingly rely on business partners for many of the functions once done in-house, one of the major organizational challenges is how to best manage the evolving virtual enterprise given such a distributed model. The management of supply chains has significantly advanced over the last decade to help companies with their distributed operations across a network of interconnected companies.
But, how about leadership? Is it important for a company to not only be good at managing its distributed operations with its business partners, but also at having effective relationships with the people in these companies, so they can better collaborate, innovate and solve problems together?
After much discussion, the consensus at the Forum was that leadership is important not just within your own company, but increasingly, within your overall business ecosystem. If a company has embraced distributed leadership, that is, if they have implemented a scalable leadership model through all levels of the organization, then it is much easier to extend the distributed leadership model to now apply to key external relationships as well. Given the increasing importance of the business ecosystem to a company’s overall success, a major reason for embracing distributed leadership is that it will also facilitate extending that leadership to the relations with external partners.
Individual and Community Empowerment
Distributed leadership is all about empowering individual leaders throughout the organization, so they will step up to help address problems as they arise, as well as work together, self-organize into communities of interest, and collaborate in tackling the toughest, most complex problems. Such an entrepreneurial culture based on individual and community empowerment represents a fairly radical departure from the industrial age corporate culture that was common in the twentieth century.
In the corporate capitalism of the industrial age, the prevailing view was that the individual should subordinate his or her personalities for the greater good of the company. Corporate capitalism reached its height in the US in the period between the end of World Ward 2 and the start of the 1960s social revolutions, roughly from 1946 to 1963. After the pain and chaos of the Great Depression and the war years the country craved a sense of stability, conformity and traditional roles, which we often refer to as the fifties.
The corporate culture of the era was chillingly captured in William Whyte’s 1956 classic The Organization Man. The thinking at the time was that well-rounded team players were more valuable than individual, brilliant leaders, who would probably be disruptive to the overall objectives of the corporation. Whyte wrote about the shift he saw all around him from individual creativity and economic dynamism toward the complacency and uniformity advocated by business, government and American society in general. He saw the quest for stability in return for the sublimation of individuality as dangerous for everyone involved.
Distributed leadership is the opposite of this culture. It celebrates the creativity and innovation of individuals throughout the company. It recognizes that in today’s fast moving world, such innovation and creativity are needed more than ever and can only come through the efforts of leaders across the organization. It is a linchpin of the entrepreneurial culture that companies must embrace to succeed in the 21st century.
The Forum raised a lot of important questions. How do you bring about the needed changes in the leadership and culture of companies? What are the key qualities we want in great leaders? How do you best teach such leadership qualities both within existing companies and in university programs? What are the major research questions that we should be addressing? These will be among the key questions that will be pursued in the ongoing work of the MIT Leadership Center in close collaboration with its corporate and academic partners.