Rethinking "leaders at all levels"

Rethinking "leaders at all levels"

It’s one of those phrases that sounds great when you hear it: an organization of individuals who think of themselves as leaders, regardless of their roles. “Leaders at all levels” is clear and simple, and it promotes egalitarian ideals. Flatter organizations, empowered people, an atmosphere of initiative and accountability.  It has a “who-could-argue-with-that” quality.


Maybe we should though, for many reasons, including the most obvious:  if everyone is a leader (read: delegator, manager, and decisionmaker), who’s supposed to do the work?  Plus,

Who’s in the inner circle, sweating the game-changing decisions?

Who has the perspective and experience to mentor and develop younger, greener talent?

Who keeps the peace when conflict arises?

Who ensures that every team member’s contribution is heard and respected?

How does the organization define (or redefine) career paths and promotions?

How does the organization build bench strength and a succession plan?

Where does the buck stop?

Business is not a democracy, and no matter how egalitarian we try to make it, businesses need leaders—strong, inspired ones, transformational ones.  People who are both gifted and trained to lead others.  People who are paid more for accepting the risks and responsibilities of leadership.  People who are in charge.

And because business is not a democracy, not every employee can be expected to agree with game-changing decisions and how they’re made.  Want to create chaos?  Just try to get a majority of employees to agree that: a.) change is necessary, b.) this particular change is necessary, c.) right now, and d.) the current approach is the best way to implement the change.  It will never happen.  Everyone responds to change differently based on their unique experiences, views on whether change is even needed, career stages, perceived ability to develop new skills, and lots of other factors.

This is good news.  When we stop trying to shape business on a model that doesn’t work for it, when we realize that consensus and change are incompatible, and that transparency (which has the admirable goal of trying to explain change in a way that is so open and clear that of course, no one would disagree with it) can wreak havoc if employees overhear leaders debating ideas that aren’t baked yet, a good chunk of the change management struggle subsides.

We’re left with a few powerful and timeless principles: 1) Transformational leaders groove on working with empowered people who take initiative, 2) Employees should be free to voice their views to leaders who hear and respect them, but 3) Ultimately, leaders make the game-changing decisions, and 4) Whether employees agree with those decisions or not, they should promptly put a shoulder to the wheel and push hard. Sensible decisionmaking and appropriate accountability at all levels.

Who could argue with that?