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Why You Need Distributed Leadership

Why You Need Distributed Leadership

Dan McCarthy | Great Leadership

June 16, 2010

Here’s a guest post I wrote a few weeks ago for Right Management’s Talent@Work blog:

In a recent article in The Washington Post, Deborah Ancona, a professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, wrote about a concept called “distributed leadership”.

She used the term to respond to a reader’s question: “How can a senior leader encourage junior leaders to act and make decisions when they find themselves without specific guidance? How can a junior leader know when it’s right to take charge?”

Distributed leadership is basically just what it sounds like – pushing leadership, or in most cases, the freedom to act, to others. Think of it as the opposite of “command and control."

Based on a quick Google search, the term shows up most in the academic environment. However, Deborah does a nice job advocating the concept with historical and current examples that can readily apply to the corporate environment. She cites John Buford, a Union cavalry officer during the American Civil War, and a local leader in Haiti who took matters into their own hands rather then waiting for orders from above.

Distributed leadership sounds to me a lot like empowerment, one of the leading corporate buzzwords of the 90s, as well as delegation, a term that dates back to the 1600s. The desire for autonomy, freedom, and responsibility is not something that generation X or Y has brought to the workforce – it’s a basic human desire that leaders need to leverage.

Unfortunately, just like we all have a basic need for recognition and belonging, managers and organizations will often take a deceptively easy concept and still somehow manage to screw it up.

What does it take to “let go” as a leader? Building on the points made in the Deborah’s articles, the following conditions need to be in place:

1. The right managers.

Managers have to be willing to let go of what may have gotten them promoted in the first place – being the expert, solving problems, and making decisions. Some managers learn the importance of letting go the hard way – though overwork, burn-out, under-performing and dissatisfied teams, and failed relationships. Others – those with strong leadership potential – are more naturally inclined to manage that way. It’s the hard-core, autocratic micro-managers that will struggle with it the most and most likely either resist letting go or do it in a way that could make things even worse.

In order to establish a culture of distributed leadership, you’ll need to either hire leaders with a track record of being willing and able to let go effectively, or teach managers that are wiling to but don’t know how.

Next: The Right Employees >>


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