Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why Flat Organizations Don't Create Great Leaders (& What To Do About It)

For some time now, the predominant workplace trend has been to go flat and democratic – everyone working together in a large open space with direct access to supervisors and even the company president. Merit is based on your skills, creative output, and ability to work with the team. Leadership is about having confidence and speaking up.
In the book The Art of Possibility, the conductor Benjamin Zander describes this version of leadership as “leading from any chair”; any individual player can inspire and influence the overall sound of the orchestra.
And “leading from any chair” does work – the system has produced many of the most innovative products and services that we use these days.But the trend toward flat organizations also has consequences – and I believe one of them is an emerging leadership gap. As the notion of “coming up through the ranks” dies off, the traditional trajectory to leadership has been short-circuited – without being properly replaced.”Leading from any chair” produces personal responsibility and teamwork, which is great, but true leadership takes practice, stewardship, and a thorough understanding of how the range of your actions affect the people around you. (Just ask New York Jets head coach, Rex Ryan, whose erratic leadership style has been blamed for fraying the team and ending their season.)

Leadership is learned in two primary ways, by example and by trial-and-error. In flat organizations, when project heads are always shifting, there is no distinct model and fewer chances to practice.

As the notion of ‘coming up through the ranks’ dies off, the traditional trajectory to leadership has been short-circuited – without being properly replaced.
So what to do? How do we develop great future leaders while maintaining the benefits of the flat organization? How do we instill the development of leaders as we continue to shift from a hierarchical structure to a dynamic, networked structure? How do we keep the flexibility and freshness of rotating project teams (or “pop-up teams,” as I call them) while also finding the “still point,” the consistency and stability at the core of our work?There’s certainly no silver bullet; innovation can spring from any type of organizational structure, whether overtly hierarchical or flat. But there’s little doubt that strong leadership is central to bringing creative ideas to life. So how can we cultivate that?

  1. Hire for personality, drive, execution, and accountability. Skills and experience will always be essential, but today they’re not enough. The value of positive, responsible, and accountable team members who take action cannot be overestimated.
  2. Reward leadership. Clearly define what leadership means within your organization, then reward it aggressively. Often, leadership means putting yourself second and supporting the growth of the organization and others. It also means shepherding them into growth situations. Put them, with support, in uncomfortable situations such as leading client meetings, or giving presentations.
  3. Institutionalize mentorship. To fill the leadership gap, create a methodical in-house mentorship program with clear goals and a purposeful mandate. Mentorship programs can help new employees adjust or be used as a recruitment tool. IBM, for example, started its program to encourage learning and connect people in a large, scattered organization.
  4. Establish communication hubs. The faulty flow of information, especially in organizations that assemble and disassemble themselves on a per-project basis, is the goo that mucks up the works. Hubs can be digital, or they can be actual people. Appointing a communication czar or even just a referee, can save a project.
  5. Build a company of listeners and question-askers. A culture that rewards self-awareness and emotional intelligence is a culture of leadership.
What’s Your Approach?
How are you minding the leadership gap?

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
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