Is Leadership a series of actions or a process? and, by the way, who is the Leader? Leadership in the Knowledge era (Part II)
Leadership models of the last century have been products of top-down, bureaucratic paradigms; suitable for an economy built on mass production aiming at satisfying mass consumption but not adequate for an economy dependent on innovation that seeks to deliver intangible offerings to customers on demand. Innovation is sourced in the intellect; in the force of existent knowledge to create more knowledge and the capacity of imagination to envision a product or a service that does not exist.
In my last blog I explored the phenomenon of leadership and the role of the leader within the organizational landscape of the Industrial Era. Within this period of stable hierarchy, clear organizational boundaries and well-defined roles, leadership focused to individual leaders and their traits, abilities and actions, detached from their cultural context. During this era, leadership was given a central place in enforcing principles, motivating employees and communicating future goals and visions to strive for (1).
The Knowledge Era has changed it all!
The dramatic breakthroughs in technology we have witnessed at the end of the 20th century not only have created turbulence and uncertainty but have changed the organizational landscape for good. The rapid pace of change and systemic impact that came with the shift from simple digitization in the 1980s (Third Industrial Revolution) to innovation based on combinations of technologies in the 2010s (Fourth Industrial Revolution) is beyond comparison. Today, disruption both on the supply and demand side is the name of the game that has forced companies to adapt the way they design, market and deliver products and services (2). The knowledge economy has made idea generation (creativity) and expertise (knowledge) the primary sources of value creation; and human imagination the primary source of wealth creation (3).
The implications of the above for management and leadership are significant as they have led to numerous and varied efforts to create an organizational environment that promotes value creation: less hierarchy, less centralized decision- making, more emphasis on collective achievement, social networks, and the importance of teamwork and shared accountability (4).
Who is the leader within the current contextual dynamic?
The acknowledgement that leadership is a function of the environment and only one of the properties that shape the conditions of the world, has led practice and academia to a path of re-envisioning the “who”, “where” and “what” of leadership. The “who” by focusing on the need to distribute the tasks and responsibilities of leadership up, down, and across the hierarchy. The “what” by articulating leadership as a social process that occurs in and through human interactions; and the “how” by focusing on the more mutual, less hierarchical leadership practices and skills needed to engage in collaborative, collective learning (5).
Some of the most well-known theories that focus on one or more of the non-hierarchical, collective and contextual aspects of leadership are: shared leadership (6); collaborative leadership (7); dispersed/distributed leadership (8); relational leadership(9); participatory leadership (10); adaptive leadership (11); discursive leadership (12); systems leadership (13) and quantum leadership (14).
Of significance in the above models is the blurring of the distinction between leader and follower as leadership interactions are fluid, mutual and two-directional. That is, while tasks and responsibilities differ dependent on organizational position, the notion of shared leadership practices suggests that leading and following are two sides of the same set of relational skills that everyone in an organization needs in order to work in a context of interdependence.
Obviously, a number of questions arise regarding the dynamic of the interactions, such as
- If there is no top-down leadership influence and power which enforces principles, motivates employees and communicates future goals and visions to strive for, where does the influence and motivation come from and how are leadership outcomes achieved?
- If there are no bottom -up processes, such as the influence of followers and interpersonal dynamics, where does the influence and motivation come from and how are leadership outcomes achieved?
- Since there is inseparable connection between leadership and agency, how is accountability shared?
- What role do emotions, thoughts, reactions and embodied cognitions, which can fundamentally alter leader development and behavioral outcomes play? (15)
- Do personalities change when the leader changes role?
Their common denominator is a shift in the perception of self. Rather than the traditional image of self as an independent entity, these models recast the relationship between self and other, evoking a more relational concept of self as interdependent entity. This entity, something closer perhaps to the psychological concept of self-in-relation (16) suggests a more welcoming less competitive stand towards others.
How are we suppoeed to conceive this relational concept of self as interdependent entity?
I propose here, as a first step, to expand our mindset by exploring what this relational concept of self could look like through the philosopher’s Martin Buber’s “I- Thou” relationship. The ““I- Thou” contrasts the ““I-it” experience. The “I-thou” relationship is based on knowing myself as a subject seen through the other who is also a subject (17). The relationship is personal, egalitarian and dialogic: one subject -I-confronts another subject -Thou. The other person, the Thou, is a reality-that is, it is given to me by an experiencing subject, but it is not bounded by me and cannot be appropriated as an experienced object. We are meeting in the present moment of interaction; not in the past (we do not let our past disappointments dictate our present) and not in the future (we do not allow our fears to dictate our present). Our relationship is founded on a shared sense of caring, commitment and mutual responsibility and is transformative for both.
Whereas the organization of the past has been a connection between things “I-it”, the organization of the future -if it is to realize its aspirations and succeed- should become a community of beings “I- Thou”(relation of persons).
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(17) Buber, M.(1937). Ich und Du. I and Thou... Translated by Ronald Gregor Smith. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.