Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

mix-administrator's picture

Natural leadership

As change accelerates, authoritarian power structures will become ever more untenable.  In traditional hierarchies, power flows down from the top, rather than up from the bottom.  This model encourages managers to safeguard their careers by “managing up,” rather than by managing out and down.  It also produces misalignments between positional power and leadership capability, and thereby undermines employee morale.  To overcome these failings, the traditional top-down pyramid must be replaced by a “natural” hierarchy, where status and influence derive from the ability to lead rather than from the ability to accumulate positional power (e.g., Amazon’s top reviewers aren’t appointed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos…)

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martin-sutherland's picture

Michele, thanks for the reference, that is a great article and interestingly refers to so many of the ways to reduce the issues mentioned here. Pick the people who want to work like that, it's not for everyone; Keep group size small;create space for experimentation; ensure access to information; create effective decision making structures.

There is no doubt that "natural" leadership exists, and can be really useful in certain contexts, my feeling is just that in a business context it can be difficult to maintain continuity of purpose because there are not that many people who can see the big picture and play the long game (how many WL Gores are there?), making the tough calls that are needed to ensure sustainability and creating an integrated system and culture that supports it. But it will be interesting to watch the companies you mention perform over the next 10 years and it must be great to be a part of one.

martin-sutherland's picture

Amazon's top reviewers represent a voluntary workforce whose opinions of products create (free) "reputational" content for Amazon.

Jeff Bezos has created a continuity of leadership, direction and purpose; taken unpopular positions (especially with a powerful group of stakeholders, his shareholders); had the authority, guts and resources to take risks on new business ideas (not all of which have worked). It is very difficult to do these things in a "natural" hierarchy.

I'm not dismissing the concept, but maybe context determines the benefits of structure?

michele-zanini_4's picture

Hi Martin, good point on Amazon. That said, there are examples of real leadership emerging naturally, vs. imposed from the top, at companies like WL Gore and Haier Corp in China. For instance, at WL Gore leaders are appointed in a peer review process--that is to be a leader there you need to have people who want to follow you. You can get some of the detail on the MIX story on WL Gore here: http://www.managementexchange.com/story/innovation-democracy-wl-gores-or...

Thanks again


val-green's picture

There are some serious tensions here. Diversity is important, but not everyone will function well in any one organisational structure, including one which has a very loose structure. If agility is dependent upon having a 'natural' hierarchy, how will we guard against simply creating an elite of like-minded people within an organisation, or maybe just picking/promoting your friends to take the organisation in a direction that suits you personally? We have tried so hard to engender fairness and equality in the last forty years and have only partially succeeded. If we lose the open and transparent structures, which hierarchies are, how will that demand for fairness be met? Organisations have to be successful, but they also have to provide employment that meets the needs of the workforce in terms of all of the stuff at the bottom of Maslow's triangle as well as the law of the land. We can't trample on people's needs as this will damage them and that is never going to be justifiable, but on the other hand the organisation has to survive to be able to meet those needs at all.

There are people who are natural leaders and those that are selected into leadership role through process and appointment. Both of which are equally capable of leading the way. Not all natural leader however have the want or desire to lead teams. I disagree that the top down approach needs to move aside for a "natural hierarchy" because the company direction needs to be set from the top and the leaders of the business have the responsbility to achieve this. What we can however do more of is listening to colleauges to engage in their opinion and understand how best to achieve the companys direction.
By undertanding what you need to achieve within an orgnaisation can enable you to appoint the right person for that role.

hendrik-dejonckheere_1's picture

'because the company direction needs to be set from the top" Why should that be the case?
-if the top has more information then there is not enough transparency
-if all the power needs to be concentrated in the top there is not enough trust
-if there is not enough knowledge the process of developing people within the company is substandard
-if there is to much indecisiveness the company lacs a decision-process that works
In all this cases the company acts doesn't realize his full potential.
Leadership is for a large part situation dependent. By discussing the situation at hand and evaluating the needs of the team (i.c.organization), Personal Leadership can be called to do the job for a team a branch or an organization for a certain period of time or until a certain goal is obtained or situation handled.

andy-lippok's picture

Adaptability and agility will be dependent upon people collaborating spontaneously to meet a need however and from wherever the need arises. They can no longer afford to wait for direction, if they do the opportunity will be missed. Authority will disappear and responsibility will arise.

julien-pascual's picture

We could even consider, more than "natural" leadership, that tomorrows leadership is granted to leaders by the employees themselves. You are not a leader, you are selected to be the leader by people, because people trust you to personify the purpose of the activity, the project you will lead. That means, in some projects you can be a leader, in others a contributor. Leading becomes a duty and not a right.