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:
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