When I was a commanding officer in the Navy, part of my job was training junior officers and senior non-commissioned officers who had recently been promoted to positions of authority. Enlisted sailors who had attained a rank that enabled them to give orders were shocked to find that their juniors didn’t necessarily do what they said. If you’ve spent any time as a leader, this is not news to you; the fact that you have an important-sounding title and a position high on the org chart is no guarantee that people will listen to you.
This is the “illusion of control” feature of hierarchy. It looks like you have authority over people, but assuming that your title alone will get the job done usually results in a rude awakening in one form or another. Most CEOs I know will happily complain at length about how difficult it is to get others to support their vision, and how much time and energy they spend trying to enroll people in executing the company’s strategy. Fortunately, there are much better ways to do this, though they are not yet well understood.
To help my fledging naval leaders with this transition, I came up with the following definition:
“Leadership is getting other people to do stuff.” I’ve read many books on leadership, and to date, I have yet to encounter a better one. Most authors will talk about features they would like leadership to include, as when Shimon Peres said, “Leadership is service.” Although this is a nice idea, it’s not a definition that leaders can apply “in the trenches” to influence their teams to operate effectively. On the other hand, consultants and trainers who run leadership programs often use definitions so broad that everyone becomes a leader, rendering the term meaningless.
Beneath its laughable simplicity, this definition I created for my naval leaders has an interesting feature: it isn’t dependent on hierarchy. It is possible (and often necessary) to get people to do stuff, even when you don’t have hierarchical authority over them. (Ask any politician, salesperson or project manager.) These days, with all the “dotted line” responsibilities and peer influence that goes on, this kind of influence is becoming more and more necessary for success.
Leaders who rely exclusively on hierarchical authority to get things done have begun to appear old-fashioned. In the 1950s, it was socially acceptable for a boss to yell orders at an employee (or to hurl insults, for that matter). This has become much less common, due in part to the high disengagement costs of this approach. Ruthless company cultures still exist, though, as described in the recent New York Times article on harsh management practices at Amazon.
Similarly, telling people what to do, even in the politest terms, does little to stimulate their creativity, initiative and talents. Implementing decisions someone else made isn’t most people’s idea of fun, no matter how much they are being paid. Small wonder that so many organizations enjoy such low levels of employee engagement.
But hierarchy was never intended for managing complex networks of highly educated workers. It was designed for building pyramids and organizing infantry for combat. These are situations in which the key knowledge and expertise rest with a few, while the vast majority are executing simple, repetitive tasks.
The big problem is that our ideas about leadership are inextricably interwoven with hierarchy. All of our training and models assume that the leader has the authority to tell others what to do. Take away this authority, and the whole concept of “leadership” collapses. Even if they acknowledge that telling people what to do is old-fashioned and disengaging, most leaders will cling desperately to the illusion of control that hierarchy affords them.
More recently, systems like Holacracy and the Collaborative Operating System have begun to replace hierarchy completely, as a way to give employees more influence and opportunity to contribute. There are excellent articles about non-hierarchical companies like W. L. Gore, Zappos, the Toyota production line and Semco Partners, exploring how they function and whether their systems are better or worse than the typical organizational structure. There is an interesting question, though, that many of them fail to explore deeply. What happens to the leaders in such an organization?
A very natural resistance most leaders have to exploring non-hierarchical systems is self-preservation. If a system doesn’t use hierarchy, what will happen to them? If there is no need for leaders in this new paradigm, why would any leader implement it, even if it were good for the company?
This is where the “getting people to do stuff” definition shines. Leadership is only dependent on hierarchy if you are using hierarchical authority as your principle tool for influencing people. If you are not dependent on your authority to get things done, then your leadership will be effective in a variety of situations and structures.
A “new paradigm” leader, then, is someone who can make things happen, regardless of the organizational system in use.
And if you want to be a successful leader in the rapidly evolving, complex environment of modern business, you had better start weaning yourself from your dependence on hierarchical authority.
The good news is that you don’t need part of a cutting-edge, collaborative structure to hone your new-paradigm leadership skills. All that is required is a shift of mindset. If you are currently operating within a hierarchy, that doesn’t prevent you from exerting other forms of power and influence.
One of my clients is a good example of this. He is the CEO of a very successful, fast-growing, high-tech startup, and committed to reinventing himself as a new paradigm leader. Although he is known as a very successful manager, loved by his employees, he found himself not achieving the same degree of relationship and results with his board members. As we went through the process of transforming him into a new paradigm leader, he saw that he had been trying to please his board members. He began to see the board as partners, rather than superiors. Following this, he began to see the board, and everyone involved with the company in any form, as a resource, potentially able to help the company succeed at its purpose. The company has tripled its valuation every year since.
His example is by no means unique. I have seen people involved in business and government shift their perspective and greatly increase their expression of power, with no change in their formal position. In essence, that means you have an opportunity to influence others around you and to make things happen, regardless of your current title, role or list of responsibilities. And exerting this kind of influence successfully makes you much more valuable as a leader.
Take a moment to reflect on how you can inspire those around you to do the stuff you need or want them to do, regardless of their position in the hierarchy (or yours). And notice any beliefs that come up in you about why this isn’t possible! If you’re interesting in taking on something really specific, here are a few learning challenges you can try. How smoothly they go will tell you something about how developed your influence skills are:
- Think of something you want someone who works for you to do. How would you ask them to do it if they didn’t work for you? Try asking this way and see how they react.
- Think of something you need someone who doesn’t work for you to do. Think about how you can make this a win-win, i.e., how it can result in mutual benefit if they do it. Try to enroll them in doing it. Explain the win-win aspect of it (if there is one) clearly and transparently.
- Think of something that someone else wants you to do (preferably someone you don’t work for.) This will work best if it’s something you’ve been putting off or resisting doing. Think about how you can make this a win-win for both of you. Ask them for help figuring out how to make it work for both of you. Voice your concerns and resistance clearly and ask for ideas.
By identifying ways you can influence those around you without depending on the hierarchical structure, you’ll be better equipped to produce results, increase your power, and rise through the hierarchy. Done well, you can do this without creating enemies, too. And as organizations evolve away from hierarchy, you’ll be prepared to navigate in the new world.