Leadership : Distributed Leadership in a Global Landscape

Distributed Leadership is the ONLY way for organizations to handle the complexities and speed of the modern world.

First, what is “Distributed Leadership”? Well, we can no longer just rely on “heroic” leadership, where one individual leads everyone else, whether at the top of an enterprise or as a team leader. We all need to lead. Things move too quickly, and ideas come from so many places, that keeping track is hard enough, never mind acting on it all. And the notion of teams and communities only goes part way to distributing real and effective leadership to all levels of an organization. Of course, shared values are a critical underpinning of this distribution of leadership power – but I digress ….

Work has been done on Distributed Leadership in the US School System, notably by James Spillane, to help figure out how to improve school’s performance with teacher led (rather than just Principal led) action. But little has been published in the world of commerce. My own initial contribution was published last year as part of a work on Linkage’s Best Practices in Leadership Development Handbook. I also see very clear connection between our understanding of how networks work and how Leadership can be distributed – see a recent blog post on this.

But let's first look at some of the forces shaping our world.

Globalization is mainly a positive force and it is now seems irresistible.

There are 101 definitions of it, although most seem to be “economically based” and are built around “open markets in a borderless world”.  Globalization is an intense engagement in both economic and social openness, and today’s Leadership must reflect this.  Held and McGrew called it “a widening, deepening and speeding up of interconnectedness in all aspects of contemporary social life from the cultural to the criminal, the financial to the spiritual”.

So, how should Leaders act to both embrace Globalization and then to help develop others? I’d suggest that the economics side is well-trodden territory, and, whilst political policies need careful and systematic development, even these are getting to be manageable – witness today’s interconnected response to the financial crisis.

I want to focus on the social side of Globalization as this remains a key challenge for Leaders. And, as I have studied the issue, one question that always raises itself is which of the historic “truths” of the Leadership process can we hold onto, and which need to be modified to reflect our modern era?

There are many “macro” drivers which are forcing us to think in new ways, starting with technology. But individual human aspirations (the “micro” view) suggest 4 social trends which are important to Leadership development.

1. Democratization of Decisions

We take this for granted, and when we don’t have it, we want it. Whilst in the West we seem to vote less than we used to, we still demand the right to have a vote and to be heard. And democratization has also been present in the increasing demand for transparency and good governance after the “CEO Scandals” of the past couple of years.

In the developing world, there are struggles for more democracy everywhere, and a demand for the rule of law. As these Countries leap frog into the 21st century, they work hard to keep the best of their traditional culture with the most helpful aspects of the modern world. Democratization tends to be a fundamental plank of modernization.

At work, we also want to be heard and respected, and we want people to abide by collective rules.  The best Leaders have always reflected the needs of their followers, and, in that sense, they have democratized decisions.  But the days of one Leader “deciding” for everyone are long gone. Yes, Leaders point the way. But they must be ever more cognizant of the needs of their constituencies and stakeholders, or else they will lose their place. The desire we have to know what is going on, and to have a say in things, is amplified by today’s 24x7 communications. Every Leadership decision is scrutinized, whether at the highest level of political theatre, or on the shop floor.

The Leadership Lesson: Distributed Leadership

No one individual can handle all of this democratization. Leadership is no longer positional, or belonging to just a few people. Technology is too complex, democratization so widespread and social interactions are too diverse. Leadership must have a common purpose and shared values, which allow it to fluidly move around depending on need, expertise and personal desire to lead. “Distributed Leadership” is a concept that is now coming into its time.

Hierarchy lost out to teams in the 50’s and 60’s, and matrices became de rigueur in the 70’s and 80’s. Networks are increasingly seen as the main metaphor of today’s Organization, and within them ideas, concerns, actions and emotions move around constantly. Leaders can spring up in unpredictable areas and in unexpected ways.  But what if an Enterprise can harness this latent power?

We need to develop Leadership which can move around an depending on the need, expertise and opportunity, rather than have it frozen in an Organization chart.

2. Building Relationships

To one degree or another we’re all proud to be a national of our Country. Even people most noted for political cynicism (could that be my fellow English?) defend the hard won rights of their national laws, culture and social system. And we often use this to define our place in the complexity of the Globe.

But today we all also want to be part of non-geographic communities, both real and virtual. Increased leisure time has led to a myriad of clubs, sporting complexes and entertainment facilities across the world. And, in the virtual space, the explosion of social network sites such as Twitter, MySpace, LinkedIn, flickr and Facebook demonstrate the need in all of us to qualify our lives in terms of relationships and not just geography.

We see these communities as ways of defining who and what we are. And we are learning how to pick and choose the positives and negatives from all of our affiliations. We value our friends, we block those we don’t value, and we pride ourselves in choosing to be with like-minded groups.  Empires today are increasingly built on shared values, ideas and interests, whatever one’s geographic or ethnic origin. They are about our relationships.

The Leadership Lesson: Networks of Trust

Our web of relationships need to be recognized, analyzed and acted upon. The science of Networks is still a young one, but it offers many clues for Leaders who want to understand ever-more complex human relationships. In both “traditional” or “start up” Organizations, Leadership is usually vested in specific individuals and personified to them.  Effective personal Leadership is of course very important to help keep things simple in today’s complex Organizations.

Still, networks can create significant confusion.  For example, individuals may have direct authority to take decisions in certain areas, yet be only “advisory” in others. This can create tensions, lack of motivation and internal sclerosis. Leaders must clarify how these processes will work, and offer a “court of last resort” to resolve issues if necessary. Sometimes a decision actually can build trust, and not negate it.

Since the 1980’s most organizations (big and small) have created matrices and networks designed to balance functional and geographic activities, competencies and learning. All matrices have flaws, yet generally the benefits are considered to outweigh these flaws. Matrices can be of many forms – e.g. functionally focused, where employees remain full members of functional organizations; balanced between functions or geographies, service lines or customer units; or project based, with movement between functions and geographies depending on need. But all of these matrices lead to a high level of “virtuality” and multi-site Teams across functions and geographies.

Experience suggests that some of the following get in the way of trust building:

  1. Misaligned goals and strategies. This can occur in all kinds of Enterprises and organization structures. Thus we must start with a thorough understanding of the goals and strategic choices of the Enterprise, how it is communicated, and how these relate to the organization design.
  2. Resistance to or misunderstanding of change. Individuals react to change in many ways – e.g. embracing it, being overwhelmed by it, or simply remaining stuck in their old ways.  An effective and defined multi-step change process is essential in moving to a new matrix or Team structure.
  3. Unclear roles and responsibilities.  In the early days of a new Team, individuals are uncertain of their role (inside the Enterprise), their responsibilities (including vis-a-vis customers and the external world) and their own personal future development. Well defined and executed measurement processes must build on clear roles – and must not only reflect individual’s specific responsibilities but also their responsibilities to the organization as a whole.
  4. Ambiguous or unclear decision processes. In “traditional” or start up organizations, the Leadership is usually vested in specific individuals and often personified to them.  Whilst effective individual Leadership is if anything even more important in Virtual Teams, the structure itself can create significant confusion.
  5. “Silo focused” organizations and employees. Successful Enterprises are built on strong functional or service line structures and processes, which are well honed. Whilst it is obviously important to retain strong skill sets and competencies, this very strength can lead to a negative silo mentality.  Instead, we must seek to build a sense of shared responsibility and risk. Different approaches can be used to break down these silo walls, working at the Enterprise, Team and individual level. And consideration of the power of communities of practice can be helpful.
  6. Insufficient attention to trust building. This often reflects an imbalance between how best to deliver the goals of an Enterprise, and how to both empower and trust employees to independently handle the tasks at hand. Clear roles, good personal relationships with shared Values are key components to help build trust - once the goals, strategies, structures and measurements are clearly defined.
  7. Infrequent personal feedback and Team celebration. In many multi-site Teams, the only individual feedback people get is infrequent and usually via e-mail or telephone. E-mail is notorious in being easy to misinterpret – as it can be terse and lacking in context and nuance. At the end of the day there is no substitute for some face-to-face contact, especially to discuss performance issues. Celebrations of Team accomplishments can also be rare – other than the laudatory e-mail. I am not arguing for instituting “party time”, but even Virtual Teams need to meet occasionally to celebrate success and failure

3. The Global – Local Paradox

On a Global scale, we are ever more connected – a banking crisis or a flu epidemic directly affects shopping on the high streets of England. A war anywhere (big or small) is now always a World War, both on TV and in reality. Yet, in many Countries nationalism is on the rise and immigration is frowned upon. Suffice to say that just as things are getting more Global (with living standards going up and people wanting similar things) so the desire for fragmentation into local communities gets stronger (driven by specific interests, and, as noted above, relationships).

Put another way, we live in a world full of Global - Local Paradox.

The Leadership Lesson: Loose-Tight Innovation

From a Leadership perspective, we must embrace this paradox, and set a common course which is both mindful and respectful of differences yet has sufficient common ground that it is applicable to all. A great idea to spread best practice is the building of “Success Models”, discussed further below.

We need to create innovation processes which can broaden access to information and drive best practice - and simultaneously push down responsibility as far as we can in our Enterprises. I call this “Loose-Tight Innovation”. We must also use our Networks of Trust to create innovation from outside the defined boundaries of our Enterprises, as no one business can invent everything itself anymore.

Organizations such as Innocentive help connect inventors with Companies needing ideas, and many Enterprises use such networks to aid internal invention. Toyota has done this for years through its supplier network, and P&G uses the well-documented “Connect & Develop” approach.

4. The Need for Personal Engagement

At every level, we all want to feel properly connected to what we are doing – whether at work, socially or on-line. We have seen that this need to connection is driving innovation on the web, and it also fuels the Global-Local paradox. Leaders, now more than ever before, need to go out of their way to build organizations and processes which connect and engage their people - up, down and across the enterprise.

The Leadership Lesson: Strategic Engagement

A fundamentally important role of a Leader is to engage and connect people with stories, which bring the strategy alive to make sense for every individual. Think of John Kennedy’s “By the end of the decade, we will put a man on the moon and bring him home safely”. This not only energized an entire scientific and industrial strategy, it brought alive what was being done to the “man in the street”. And the context (of getting to the moon before the Russians, having been beaten by Sputnik) became a source of national pride and energy.

Dave Hanna, an ex-colleague, once wrote that “Every Organization is perfectly designed to get the results it gets”.  Leaders must always start with a clear understanding of the strategic choices of the Enterprise and their goals. But how they are communicated and how employees engage with these choices is absolutely critical to success.

A good working definition of Employee Engagement might be the measurable extent to which employees are aligned with and emotionally attuned to the values, goals, strategies and tactics of their Enterprise.

There are of course many other Global influences at work, but these seem most helpful in thinking about a Leader's response.

Now let's put all this into an action plan.

Readers will be familiar with Mick's 4E's Leadership Framework, and also the thinking on Building Better Organizational Networks. So let's put the thinking on global forces with these two sets of ideas.

We will put the 4E's of Leadership (Envision, Enable, Empower and Energize) as one axis and the key global leadership lessons  as set out above on the other axis.






Distributed Leadership

Common values

Common purpose

Integrate paradoxes

Roles & responsibilities

Decision processes


Training & Development

Delegation of authority

“Action Learning”

Minimum layering

Loose-Tight Innovation

Knowledge sharing

Networks of Innovation

Success Models

Local Innovation

Reward innovation

Encourage change


Networks Of Trust

Collective Purpose



Member Identities

Communities of Excellence



Strategic Engagement

Global / local knowledge

Customer understanding

Technology impact

Common systems

Common work-culture


Integrated Goal Setting

Feedback systems


Communication to all


 “Walk the Talk”















I hope that this matrix is reasonably self-explanatory, as it uses many concepts from other articles on this site.

But let's also look at this from a slightly different angle, Senior Managers of most Enterprises seem to be pre-occupied with two people development issues - first, how to reward and develop high potential people, and, second, how to win "the war for talent". Both are important. But both, if not thoughtfully considered, can have unexpected effects.

First, most Organizations have a large group of middle rank employees who keep the wheels turning. These same people could, if suitably encouraged, trained and rewarded, be increasingly positive contributors to the collective success. By contrast, an over-focus on top performers can distract from encouraging this "middle group". Having a few outstanding managers is powerful - but imagine the strength in getting an entire Organization inspired and feeling well rewarded.

Second, winning the external war for talent is of course important in keeping an Organization's DNA vital and energetic. But it often seems easier to hire a high flying manager than it is to help large groups of existing employees learn to do a better job, use their experience and enjoy doing it.

It is my belief that the test of great Leadership is to raise the standard across the entire organization, and not just focus on key players – hence creating Distributed Leadership.

So the “Envisioning” focus is on the creation of common values, and creating common purpose. The aim is always to push responsibility out to wherever the decision can best be taken. “Enabling” demands that clear roles and decision processes are in place, and “Empowerment” is about providing the necessary training and development throughout the Enterprise. Cutting out non-essential organizational layers can help (note Elliot Jaques’ work), and the use of Action Learning programs, are amongst the most useful “Energizing” activities.

So - there you have it. Some pointers on how to think about Distributed Leadership in today's world.

It probably raises a lot of questions, and I'd be very happy to get feedback....

This article is fully copyrighted Mick Yates 2010

It is excerpted frm Mick’s work in Linkage’s “Best Practice in Leadership Development”, published in April, 2009 by Pfeiffer (ISBN 978-0-470-19567-3).

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