Distributed Leadership

The next good article in Harvard Business Review is called “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader,” by Deborah Ancona, Tomas Malone, Wanda Orlikowski, and Peter Senge. They point to a myth of leadership in this country: that leaders are the flawless people at the top who have it all figured out and can do everything right. They argue (and I agree) that it is ridiculous to expect this of leaders, and they suggest a more “distributed” leadership model. Of course, it doesn’t surprise me that Petere Senge, one of the leaders of “systems thinking,” has a model that distributes leadership throughout the system, but I think that concept is so critical. Leaders at the top must know when to let go and let people who are better than them do some of the leadership functions. And they boil the functions down to four areas:

  • Sensemaking
  • Relating
  • Visioning
  • Inventing.

I like this framework. Simple but powerful. Here’s one quote about relating.

Traditional images of leadership didn’t assign much value to relating. Flawless leaders shouldn’t need to seek counsel from anyone outside their tight inner circle, the thinking went, and they were expected to issue edicts rather than connect on an emotional level. Times have changed, of course, and in this era of networks, being able to build trusting relationships is a requirement of effective leadership.

I completely agree, of course. The authors said up front that they were synthesizing their research with the writings of others on leadership, and the theme of relationships is there. But I still get the feeling that the “traditionalists” are more numerous than the leadership authors think.


  1. 22.02.2007 at 1:01 pm

    Would you reluctantly call it a synonym of “Legislative Leadership?”
    I know there are still a bunch of traditionalists out there too. How much longer can they survive in this new era?

  2. Matt Baehr
    22.02.2007 at 2:32 pm

    I would agree that there are too many traditionalists out there. But at the same time, many of the memberships are still of the same mold. Unfortunately we may have to wait until the Boards are less traditionalist before they hire leaders who aren’t old school.
    Legislative sounds too political. Let’s keep it distributed so we don’t get any negative connotations. 🙂

  3. 22.02.2007 at 2:43 pm

    Thanks for the comments, guys.
    I don’t think it’s the same as Jim Collins’ legislative leadership, although I must admit I should probably read his nonprofit booklet again to really understand it. I think Collins was referring more to authority. In situations where authority is more widely distributed (lots of people are “in charge” as is the case with associations), that requires a different kind of leadership (legislative) than in situations where power is concentrated in the CEO (executive). He’s talking about different ways to manage that power dynamic.
    But in either case, you can argue for distributed leadership, where leadership functions are expected to be carried out at ALL levels of the system, and the leaders (whether or not they have centralized power) recognize what they are good at and leave the other functions to other people.
    Leadership and authority are definitely NOT synonyms.