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Written by: Louise Reimer
Leadership is traditionally thought of as lying within the domain of formal positions in organizations. In the workplace, CEOs, senior executives, and managers are typically seen as leaders. The Merriam Webster Dictionary (n.d.) provides the following standard definition of leadership: “a position as a leader of a group, organization, etc.”
Yet, even several decades ago, management guru Peter Drucker (1996) began to challenge traditional thinking with this statement: “Leadership is not rank, privilege, titles or money, it is responsibility.”
The limitations of leading solely from a position of authority are numerous, including reducing trust, limiting innovation and creativity, creating a culture of compliance, and resulting in lacklustre results (Ambler, 2013). Ambler cautions against leading simply from a formal position designation: “”Using title, authority and position is a poor way to influence others. It encourages people to rely on command and control as a means of getting things done.”
Challenging the Traditional Understanding of Leadership
Forward thinking leadership development experts and workplaces are exploring more deeply the traditional understanding of leadership and the command/control paradigm. Margaret Wheatley, Robin Sharma, and Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander are among the influential voices who are pushing against a model that ties leadership to formal position and power.
American writer and management consultant, Margaret Wheatley, has written extensively about the problems of a command and control approach in today’s volatile, complex and uncertain world. She articulates the devastating impact of the traditional command and control leadership model (2005): “The dominance of command and control is having devastating impacts. There has been a dramatic increase in worker disengagement, few organizations are succeeding at solving problems, and leaders are being scapegoated and fired.” The solution, from Wheatley’s perspective, is a model of self-management that involves and engages staff from all levels: “We do know how to creative workplaces that are flexible, smart, and resilient. We have known for more than half a century that engaging people, and relying on self0managed teams, are for more productive than any other form of organizing” (2005).
Canadian leadership guru and author of a series of bestsellers (The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, The Greatness Guide), Robin Sharma, explored this further in his 2010 book, The Leader Who Had No Title. While recognizing that all organizations need a structure of position, Sharma (2011) states that “the new model of leadership (leadership 2.0) is all about every single stakeholder showing leadership in the work they do.” He describes leadership as a “philosophy” and an “attitude,” not a position, a “state of mind … available to each one of us.”
What does this look like in organizations? Sharma (2011) describes this leadership culture as one in which employees focus not on the problem but on finding solution, where employees all have personal responsibility to advance the business, and where each employee “shape[s] culture, stay’s] positive, and lead[s] by example.
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander’s best-selling book, The Art of Possibility, outlines 12 paradigm-shifting approaches to seeing the possibility in any situation. “Leading from Any Chair” is one of these. Benjamin Zander (2000), conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, shares a perspective from his musical background: “I had been conducting for nearly twenty years when it suddenly dawned on me that the conductor of an orchestra does not make a sound. His picture may appear on the cover of the CD in various dramatic poses, but his true power derives from his ability to make other people powerful. I began to ask myself questions like ‘What makes a group lively and engaged?’ instead of ‘How good am I?’”
Leading From Any Position: The Edmonton Public Library Experience
Shifting from a traditional, power-based leadership model to one that enable and engages staff at all levels is no small undertaking and requires an intentional leadership development strategy. For the past 8 years, the Edmonton Public Library (EPL) has been doing exactly this through its Leading From Any Position (LFAP) leadership development initiative.
In 2009, EPL embarked on a purposeful strategy to engage and involve employees of all levels more purposefully in growing an organizational culture where staff of all levels saw themselves as leaders and acted as leaders. The LFAP program was developed to foster a culture where staff felt comfortable making suggestions, demonstrating initiative, solving problems, implementing change, and challenging he status quo in a healthy way.
Shannon Schreiber Associates, a US based consultancy firm which had offered leadership development training to libraries throughout the world, were contracted to provide the initial training. Their model was to start with training all of EPL’s managers, recognizing that manager buy-in and support were essential to creating and sustaining this shift in culture. Shannon Schreiber’s two day Leading From Any Position training was intended to create an organizational environment where staff felt free to:
- Make suggestions
- Take initiative
- Challenge the status quo to improve the organization and customer service
- Solve problems
- Implement change.
Participants learned specific tools and skills to lead from their position, including brainstorming, teamwork, problem solving, data-based decision making, setting priorities, and identifying and resolving low-hanging fruit issues.
Over 100 staff members were trained by Shannon Schreiber Associates.
In 2012, working with Shannon Schreiber Associates, responsibility for the LFAP training was transitioned to an internal group of EPL trainers. The training team was intentionally composed of staff from different levels within the organization.
Since taking over the LFAP program, the EPL team has significantly reworked and revised the training, basing it firmly within the framework of Peter Senge’s concept of a learning organization. In his book, The Fifth Discipline (2000), Senge described a learning organization as one in which “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” David Garvin (1993) has noted the extensive dialogue and disagreement about defining a learning organization and the EPL trainers, while finding Senge’s definition aspirational, felt that it was lacked clarity and concreteness. As a result, EPL developed its own plain language definition of a learning organization: “EPL is an organization where we are committed to one another’s success, to working and learning together to help one another be the best we can be.”
Senge’s model is structured around five disciplines that, taken together, foster a learning organization:
1. Personal Mastery – “a discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively”
2. Mental Models – “ deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action”
3. Shared Vision – “ unearthing shared pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance”
4. Team Learning – “start[ing] with dialogue, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into genuine thinking together
5. Systems Thinking -- integrates all five disciplines, fusing them into a coherent body of methods, tools, and principles, all oriented to looking at the interrelatedness of forces, and seeing them as part of a common process.”
The course content has built upon that of Shannon Schreiber to include new sections on teambuilding, approaches to disagree with decisions, and learning styles.
Impacting Organizational Culture
In the 8 years since the introduction of the LFAP training, language, approaches, and tools have become solidly embedded within EPL culture. In a recent survey of Managers and their understanding and application of the training, this theme predominated.
EPL’s practices have developed to provide opportunities for staff to engage and to lead from their position. Much of the work at EPL is done through a structure of teams rather than individual experts. Using a framework of rotating leadership and membership of staff from all levels across the library system, teams lead key initiatives and business plan priorities, and are encouraged to practice leadership under the slogan of “Imagine, Incubate, Innovate.” Undertakings such as the development of the Business Plan and visioning sessions around the revitalization of the central library are structured to maximize staff engagement, including leadership of facilitated discussions by staff from various levels.
Staff evaluations of the LFAP training initiative are resoundingly positive. In evaluation surveys, participants have shared comments like these:
- “It has changed the work environment.”
- “We go beyond saying ‘this isn’t working’ to asking ‘so what can we do?’”
- “LFAP training has bridged the gap between staff and management.”
At this point over over three quarters of EPL’s 700+ staff have participated in the Leading From Any Position training.
As well, there has been significant interest from other libraries, and EPL’s team has delivered the LFAP training to libraries across Canada and has presented on the LFAP program to conferences in Canada and the US.
Keeping the Momentum
The saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” This applies to employee learning. Carol Leaman (2014) states that “the biggest challenge for organizations is what happens after the training.” She cautions about viewing training as an isolated event, and challenges both learners and their supervisors to take responsible for their ongoing learning transfer.
For EPL to foster a sustained shift in organizational culture through its leadership development program, the creation of learning momentum strategies has been key. Part of this happens through a specific strategy included in the training; after attending the two day LFAP training, participants select a practical project based on the training, and come together to report on their project six months after their initial training. Refresher training and special events (such as a system-wide “Low Hanging Fruit Day,” in which all staff groups generated ideas for Low Hanging Fruit) have been other strategies. Currently, the training team has created quick and fun refresher packages, known as LFAP Zip Kits, which staff teams can use for learning bursts during staff meetings.
Shifting from a command/control model and leadership development for the select few to an inclusive and grassroots culture of leading from any position requires intentionality in messaging and in training.
As a first step, organizations need to challenge themselves in terms of their willingness to share power and control. Benjamin Zander (2000) challenges formal leaders: “A monumental question for leaders in any organization to consider is: How much greatness are we willing to grant people?”
Ambler, George. (June 16, 2013). Leadership is not title or position. Retrieved from http://www.georgeambler.com/leadership-is-not-title-or-position/
Drucker, Peter F. (1996). Your leadership is unique. Leader of the future. The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management.
Garvin, David A. (July-August 1993). Building a learning organization. Harvard Business Review.
Leaman, Carol. (February 28, 2014.) Improving learning transfer. Retrieved from https://trainingmag.com/improving-learning-transfer
Merriam Webster dictionary. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/leadership
Senge, Peter M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.
Sharma, Robin. (2010). The leader who had no title. Free Press.
Sharma, Robin. (2011). Powerful tactics to lead without a title. Retrieved from http://www.robinsharma.com/blog/08/powerful-tactics-to-lead-without-a-ti...
Wheatley, Margaret. (2005). How is your leadership changing? Retrieved from http://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/howisyourleadership.html
Zander, Rosamund Stone and Zander, Benjamin. (2000). The art of possibility. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.