I like the way Jerry Weinberg defines leadership.
Leadership is a process of creating an environment where people become empowered.
I don’t really like the word empowerment as it is frequently used in the context of making people empowered. The way I understand empowerment such thing can’t even be done. You can’t empower me to do something.
What you can do is give me enough positional power and possibly encourage me to do something. I can still cease to do it because of a number of reasons. I may not see value or sense in doing that. It may move me too far outside of my comfort zone. I may be afraid of peer reaction. Finally, potential consequences of failure may drive my decision.
The way I think of empowerment is that it is intrinsic. I can feel empowered to do something. What others can do is they can create conditions that would enable that. It means anything from creating experiments that are safe to fail to shaping the environment so it supports and not discourages me to act.
Only such way of interpreting empowerment makes Jerry Weinberg’s definition of leadership reasonable.
What Jerry Weinberg talks about is a process. That’s unusual as typically when we think about leadership we think about individual context. How to become a leader or how to become a better leader.
What “a process of creating an environment” communicates is that a discussion about leadership should happen in a different context. Instead of wondering how to help an individual to become a better leader we should discuss how to build an environment, or a system if you will, that supports emergence of new leaders and further development of existing ones.
This inevitably brings to a context of system thinking.
If we consider an organization a system there are many of its properties that influence whether, how and when people can lead.
One of the most obvious ones would be a formal hierarchy. How rigid it is and how many levels it is built of. A hierarchy is important as it often linearly translates to power distribution. Most often it would be managers who make most decisions and influence environment around in extent.
Then we have all the rules that people are supposed to follow. What is allowed and what is not. What stuff I have to comply to before I can do things I want. And most importantly whether everything is allowed unless rules state otherwise or the opposite: nothing is allowed unless rules state otherwise.
Thinking of an organization as of a system from a perspective of enabling leadership is important because the system defines constraints. Normally, one can’t go beyond these constraints without risking dire consequences.
In other words structures and rules define how much potentially is possible in terms of catalyzing leadership. It doesn’t automatically mean that fairly flat hierarchy and few rules is enough to see emergence of leadership throughout a company.
The bit that enables fulfilling potential created by rules and structures is organizational culture. We define organizational culture as a sum of behaviors of people being part of an organization. It’s not only abut behaviors though. It’s also about what drives them: values, principles, norms, beliefs, etc.
Organizational culture constitutes what is an environment we work in. This is what steers how far we would go within existing structures and rules. In fact, it may even let us break the rules. It may be perfectly acceptable to for an organization to go against the existing constraints as long as it means doing the right things and is aligned with organization’s values and principles.
What’s more, for companies that aim for good leadership distribution across the board will likely encourage such behaviors as it is a crucial condition for evolving the system and the culture.
The hard part about organization culture is that we can’t mandate its change the same way as we can mandate for example rules change. We can’t do it as the culture is a derivative of behaviors of many people.
What’s more we can’t mandate the change of behaviors in a sustainable manner either. We can introduce a policeman who would make sure people behave the way we want them to, but the moment the policeman is gone people would retreat back to the old status quo.
So what can we do with the culture? We can work on constraints. This is in fact aligned with a system thinking view of an organization.
A Process of Creating an Environment
The bottom line of this is that most of the time when I hear complaints about not enough good leaders it is because environment is designed in a way that doesn’t let them emerge, let alone thrive.
A litmus test that I use to quickly asses what climate there is for potential leaders would be bringing up famous Grace Hopper’s words:
It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.
The question to ask is how much of that attitude is present in an organization. An interesting observation is that the more people exercise that attitude the less they actually need to ask forgiveness.
The core of it though is empowerment. On one hand it translates to taking the rules into account and then doing the right thing even it means going beyond the rules occasionally. On the other it means that an organization accepts and supports such behaviors. It requires involvement of both parties.
It requires continuous effort to adjust rules and structures and evolve an organizational culture to reach such stage. It requires a lot of discipline across management on all levels not to break such attitude once it is present as it is fragile.
That’s why it’s a process and not a thing. Good news is that the better you do that the more leaders would get involved and the more self-sustaining the process will become.
At the end of the day, there’s no shortage of leaders, only a shortage of companies that let leadership emerge.