Leadership vs. Leaders – a new framework to differentiate the two

In a 2006 article published in the Financial Times, business school professor Henry Mintzberg attacked the obsessive focus on individual leaders as the pillar of organizational effectiveness: “By focusing on the single person…leadership becomes part of the syndrome of individuality that is … undermining organizations”.

Henry Mintzberg is not alone in bemoaning the excessive attention to individual leadership.  Many authors have voiced their objections.  To be fair however, the fixation on leaders as individual actors results from the lack of an alternative framework from which to view leadership.

That alternative framework is readily available today.  The difficulty is that old habits and ways of thinking die hard. It is far too easy for us to conceive of leadership in terms of the individual actor.  As a result, we do not see the alternative framework – even when it stares us in the face.

The frame of reference that helps us to better understand the effectiveness of  leadership  is the network.  Work in organizations gets done through the collaboration of individuals.  Individuals that work with each other (and/or exchange information) form the basis of a network.  A mapping of the networks inside of an organization reveals how information flows inside of an organization and what patterns of collaboration exist.  From this framework we can begin to talk about leadership in the plural.

Let us look at an example:

Network analysis

The above diagram is a network analysis of two companies that have recently merged.  Each small square represents an individual.  From this diagram it is clear that managers are still only interacting with those individuals from the company from which they came.  There is one individual who straddles the information flow between the groups, but otherwise the groups interact separately (with minor exceptions).

The individual at the center of the information flow  could be seen as an invaluable asset to the organization.  He or she is the leader that connects the two organizations.  From a systemic perspective that same individual could potentially also be seen as a major bottleneck in the effective collaboration of the two teams.

Through network analyses like this one, the role of leadership can be visualized.  Leadership is the interaction of various “leaders”.  Effective leadership in this case would visibly alter the pattern of collaboration.

Creating maps such as the one above is not difficult.  The software and analysis tools to create such diagrams are readily available.  The biggest inhibitor in using the network frame of reference is our lack of familiarity with it.  If we were able to change the mental models of our leaders so that this frame of reference were commonplace, the impact on our organizations would be immense.

Individual leadership development is as necessary as ever.  Perhaps as part of that leadership development, we should teach our leaders to view leadership from a different perspective.

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”       Marcus Aurelius

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Executive Team Development

Most leadership development work focuses on the individual.   And indeed the leadership skills that individuals bring to the table are fundamental to the success of any endevour.  Nevertheless the real music takes place in the ensemble of how individuals work together.  We all know from watching professional sports that having the best talent on a team does not guarantee a first place finish.

As a workshop facilitator I have often run activities where the results of teams are compared with the results of individuals.  One rather sophisticated activity is a case study on change management.  A company on the verge of bankruptcy needs to change quickly.  Both individuals and teams can choose what should be done from a menu of options.  Almost invariably the team comes up with the better solution.

These activities interestingly enough are really aimed at individual leadership development not at team development.  The point of such exercises is to help individuals become aware of the qualitative difference.

However if the music is in the ensemble, why aren’t there more leadership development efforts aimed at teams?

I find the lack of attention to team leadership troubling, particularly at the top executive level.  I did work for an automobile part manufacturer where the so called executive “team” only met twice a year.  In another case for a very large non-profit, the “team” which operated in various locations globally did not actually know each other personally.  In a third case – for a reknown truck manufacturer – the executive team would on principle never get together for any longer than two hours.

Such “team” constellations are in my opinion not really teams but fiefdoms.  The heads of the various clans come together only to make decisions that they could not otherwise make alone.  Perhaps each of the individuals is a great leader – but what image are they projecting about leadership through their team interactions?  Can such a constellation at the top truly inspire great teamwork throughout the organization? A critical dimension of leadership appears to be neglected.

Breakthrough research was conducted by Dr. Meredith Belbin in the 1970s on teams. Over 9 years teams were asked to participate in simulations.  During these simulations the different kinds of contribution from team members were observed, recorded and categorized.  The results were illuminating.  The best teams were not those with the greatest intellectual capacity, but those teams that demonstrated the best balance in the types of contributions that were being made.  From this research sprung the conceptual model of team roles.  In his book Management Teams – why they succeed or fail Belbin highlights 8 various roles (later expanded to 9 roles) that teams need to be successful.  The Financial Times selected this book as one of the top 50 business titles ever.

Belbin_Circle

Each of the segments in the above circle represents one of the 9 essential team roles.   Each of the individuals on the team have been placed into the different segments twice (represented by their initials) – for their top two contributions to the team.  There are two roles which are not represented in the team – both roles which are part of the social category.  The implications of this finding are that there could be a substantial risk to team cohesion.

Presenting this type of information to a top executive team can be very insightful.  The non-profit organization I spoke of earlier  had 3 roles underrepresented which highlighted many of the issues that the organization was facing.  In addition to the overall team report, individuals also get an overview of where there could be “chemistry” issues between certain members as shown in the sample report below.

Relationship_Report

Leadership is three dimensional. Development occurs at the individual, team and organizational levels.  Investment in individual leadership capability is not enough.

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” Michael Jordan