Never the same river twice: resetting leadership

We need to reset leadership to the most human of human roles. Else it is no longer serving our world.

When I make this statement I am holding it against the light of what is true for an organization to be effective. Over the past years I have been talking about Social Architecture. In short social architecture is striking a balance between the authority of a traditional organization and the influence of the communities that are the social fabric through which our organizations achieve results.

Balancing Act

The point is that we need both, compliance and commitment in order to achieve sustainable results.

  • Compliance is achieved by means of a authority-based hierarchy; i.e.: an interplay of positions and reporting lines that was introduced since the Industrial Revolution. There are clear boundaries, functions and control systems in order to maintain stability of operations and uniformity of purpose.
  • Commitment on the other hand demands a different dynamic; i.e.: an interplay of roles and communities that is based on influence without authority. The influence dynamic is based on our tribal nature, which resides in our genes since approximately 200.000 years. In contrast with an authority-based hierarchy, the focus is on what is needed every day in order to connect people around the purpose.
  • Social Architecture means that we balance out both dynamics – instead of engaging in a competition between authority and influence. We need positions AND roles. We need compliance AND commitment. We need authority AND influence.

Never the same river twice

So what does this mean for leadership? Again, we need a double view here:

  • Leadership in an authority based structure is tied to being in charge and to controlling the execution of operations. According to that logic, a leadership position (most of the times identified by a three-letter acronym starting with a “C” or a “V”) is ranked as the highest in terms of remuneration. This means that we design remuneration around financial accountability, which makes sense when the goal is control and stability.
  • Leadership in an influence based structure is tied to picking up a role that is equal to other roles. We are not tying this to a remuneration-logic (else we would be talking about a matrix organization, which is nothing else that two competing authority-based structures). Rather, in a role-based structure, leadership is based on social validation, and it changes according to what is needed each day to connect people around purpose. Leadership, in other words, is a rotating role – which makes sense because the human needs for engagement change from day to day.

In short, it’s never the same river twice; while the riverbanks may stay the same, the water that runs through it is always different.


An example

Last week I visited a support centre for adolescents that operates along the logic of a social architecture. Like every other care-centre for crisis support they have their directors and guides and pay-rolled personnel. But that is not how they operate day to day; it just defines the boundaries and the context in which they operate. One of the most striking things the managing director of the institution told me is that it is a total misconception to think that he or the management is in control of what happens day-to-day. This is when the image of ‘never the same river twice’ came to my mind: riverbanks are one thing – but there is no way they can control the quality, the volume or the color of the water that will run through it every day.

Getting things done

Each morning they look at the activities of the week and then they start the staffing of the roles that are needed to perform those activities. Roles are taken up on a voluntary basis. Over the past 4 years they have distilled a catalogue of roles that need an owner in order for the centre to do its work. Whoever is present that day participates to that meeting: not only the staff and the passengers (‘patients’), but also occasional visitors or students.

OK. So read that last sentence a second time please, because this means that roles are taken up by pay-rolled and non-pay-rolled people. What’s more: the day-to-day roles are even taken up by people who belong to the target audience. For instance, the day that I visited them, an adolescent (in other centers she would be labelled as ‘a patient’) had taken up the leadership role. And she did just fine. By the way, that specific day one of the directors of the centre was taking up the role of cleaning the stable; the centre has 4 horses.

In my opinion there is just a little difference between the day-to-day work in that support-centre and the way we work in projects, task forces, workgroups etc. of our for-profit world. We are engaged on a pay-roll-basis or we work on a contracting basis. However, we never think about our roles as a fluid structure that needs to be re-built every day. What’s more: only very rarely or very late in the project-life-cycle do we think about true participation of our so-called ‘target-audience’ into the daily operations of the project. How about handing out the leadership role from time to time? Sure, this would mean a huge loss of control – but at the same time this would radically increase the level of engagement, radically change how we think about resistance, and enormously improve the results.

Re-setting leadership

I can only conclude that leadership as we know it is ill-defined. Unfortunately the inflated importance of leadership in the authority-based structure leads to a unilateral view of leadership. This view is restricted to a set of skills in the area of strategy, vision, analysis, corporate finance, corporate governance, leading change, etc. On top of that, we often try to find this combination of scarce skills in a charismatic and visionary person. Those people are very hard to find and thus we conclude that leadership is this thing we should put on a special spot. But then we should ask ourselves: is this scarcity of charismatic and visionary leaders a reason to categorize leadership as the most important role or position?

This type of leader will not necessarily bring about the best results in a social architecture. In other words: these leaders will not tap into the competitive advantage of balancing out authority and influence. What we need is a leadership that grants permission; a leadership that is mature enough to lose control, to enable and support others, to make mistakes, and to lead by THAT example. Leadership in a world of social architecture is about connecting people and holding space for things to unfold. This is not a scarce skill, but some of us may have lost it along the way, because it requires us to be in connection with ourselves. We were born that way. We need to reset leadership to the most human of human roles. Else it is no longer serving our world.