Here’s the typical image…
…used to illustrate the difference between a “boss” and a “leader”.
The basic message conveyed by this image is that true leaders are always up front, pulling and leading the way, where “bosses” just sit comfortably behind a desk, shouting out orders and forcing their teams to pull all the weight (this image is, sometimes, also used to show the difference between “leaders” and “managers”).
Although I understand the message that the picture tries to convey, I find it a bit too simplistic and not a true representation of how true leaders lead or where they do it from. It also doesn’t match with my experience leading Product teams.
I often think about what Donald McGannon said a long time ago…
That means that leadership is not always up in the front and should not always rest on the shoulders of one single person.
In today’s hyper-fluid fast-paced working environment, where visions, strategy and tactics; goals and priorities are in constant flux — businesses need to remain nimble so that they can adjust to these changing conditions. For this to happen, organizations need a more flexible leadership model —leader-leader or co-leadership.
In a typical organization’s structure, the power and leadership is top-down and 1:N. This creates, in my opinion, a variety of problems. To list a few:
- What happens if the leader leaves the team/company or is run over by the proverbial “bus”?
- In my experience, the higher up the leader is in the org chart, the more disconnected he/she is from the day-to-day running of the team/company and what the boots-on-the-ground are experiencing.
- The one leader can, and usually does, become a bottleneck in decision-making and slows down the people that need to take action.
In the leader-leader model, the relationship of leadership to those lead, changes from 1:N to N:N, as there’s no single leader — but rather opportunities for various team members to step up and lead different tasks and initiatives depending on their areas of expertise. Their ability to paint a clear picture of what needs accomplished to get there and motivate and coordinate with others is of utmost importance.
This way, responsibility and accountability are spread and shared. This promotes a deeper sense of belonging and ownership and promotes a tighter and more knitted team.
Leaders are not born but made. And true leaders are those who, without a call or title, assume responsibility and take action.
If you are a leader, other than doing what’s needed to achieve the desired outcomes, you should focus on the following:
- Get your team fired up. Share your vision with them in clear terms and show them how much better things will be when you, all together, achieve the goals that you are setting for the team.
- Take the heat for the team. As a leader you are ultimately responsible for the execution and outcomes of the team. If the s**t hits the fan it’s your job to take the hit and cover for your team. No excuses and no finger pointing.
- Give them all the credit. You may be leading a team, but it’s the team that’s carrying the weight. So when praise falls upon you for a job well done, make sure to give credit where credit is due… the team.
And probably most important of all…
- Seed, mentor and provide growth and leadership opportunities to those below you (manage up, lead and inspire down).
In his famous book Turn the Ship Around, Navy Captain L. David Marquet (I highly recommend that you go read this book NOW!) presents a powerful example, not only of truly great leadership but also of co-leadership (and he does so in one of the most stressful working environments there is, where a mistake could cost lives — both aboard and around the world).
He trained his crew not to ask how to solve a problem or to ask for permission to execute a task but, rather, to take the initiative and leadership to own an area of operation, commit to great execution and communicate, in clear terms, the intent of the action to be taken, why it would be taken, demonstrate that all contingencies have been evaluated and what the desired outcome is.
He empowered (after careful training and evaluation) his crew to be able to make decision on their own and then got out of the way to give them the room and opportunities necessary for them to do so (the Santa Fe had one of the highest re-enlisting percentages in all of the Navy and a high number of Captain promotions).
Through this approach to co-leadership, mentoring, trust and providing opportunities to grow and lead, Captain Marquet turn the traditional top-down, one leader-N followers rigid structure of a submarine crew into a powerful organization of N-leader-leaders that worked as a team of co-leaders, strengthening the unit and forging true leaders.
Finally, great CEOs and smart founders hire teams with diverse backgrounds, experiences and skills — and the smart ones hire people smarter than they are. If you hire great people, then it’s only fair that you trust them to do their job without you getting in the way and providing them the opportunities to grow and lead.
If this leader-leader strategy can work in a metal tube loaded with nuclear missiles at a depth of 1,600 feet below the ocean surface, it sure can work in most organizations.
Ready to lead the transformation?