What do leaders do?

For over ten years, researchers at Leadership Science have been learning what leadership interactions actually do in an organization to help it succeed. 

Before, reporting our findings, let us first acknowledge the obvious: leaders are often motivated by self-interest. As a result, they promote themselves in order to gain more power and access to resources. For them, the fact that the organization might also actually benefit as they achieve their goals is often only a secondary concern.

Leaders Think Globally but Act Locally

Agricultural patterns in Brazil as seen from space

This large dose of reality aside, what Leadership Science has found in its research is that organizing succeeds in complex environments when there is a critical mass of individuals who know what leadership needs to be doing to support common objectives and purpose at the global level. These people are the one who know what to do and how to do it. Further, the critical mass must exist across the organization.

This means that these individuals feel empowered to do what needs to be done, and they have the skills to influence others in their interactions at the local level in ways that change, dampen, or reinforce interactions that impact what needs to be done. In this way, leadership changes local rules of interactions in ways that resonate with the global purpose of the organization.

Desert foolws
Close-up of desert flowers in bloom.

Because one cannot predict when or where the need for leadership will arise, organizing succeeds only if effective leadership can emerge spontaneously anywhere and everywhere as the need for it arises. In short, in complex environments, an organization can succeed if and only if has a culture of leadership.

Leadership influences the local interactions among individuals. It does this within their work groups, as well as in and around the organization, and it does so in pursuit of a common purpose or agenda.

Leadership influence can extend across organizational boundaries, and at times, it even has an impact beyond its boundaries. This might be the case when, for example, effective leadership influences the interactions among individuals in surrounding communities, in government agencies or within strategic partners.

It turns out that, counter intuitively, the key thing to realize is that because it must influence local interactions, leadership must always act locally. But, at the same time one must also realize that to be successful for the organization as a whole, it must do so from the perspective of the entire organizing system, furthering its purpose.

Followers act and interact differently under the influence of leadership interactions.

What Leadership Success Looks Like

When leadership is effective, this difference integrates individual action into the organizing system as a whole. Absent coercion or direct incentives (which are more the purview of management that leadership), this can only be done by aligning the individual’s sense of identity with that of the organizing system as a whole.

In these cases, the whole can be a mob, with organized protests and or even riots being the effect. It can be an orchestra with sonorous complexity resonating dynamically is ways that bring joy to experienced listeners. Or it can be champion sports team that generates electric excitement in the special of extreme human physicality being coordinated into a winning performance. In each case, the influence is local, in and of the individual, although the purpose can only be achieved as a global outcome – to win the match, for example.

What Leadership Failure Looks Like

Often, however, we observe individuals who think that they are leading, but they are actually doing the opposite of leading. These are cases of failed leadership.  Would-be-leaders who fail do so by attempting to act globally while they are thinking locally.

These are cases when an individual tries to influence the organizing system globally, by “to be innovative”, or “to increase profits”, but they do so limited by their narrow parochial local point of view.  These individuals make pronouncements about what the organization should be doing (but they do so from their perspective). This is the rough equivalent of a sports fan screaming from the bleachers that their tem needs to score. This failure of leadership is in contrast enabling through the hard work of targeting many specific instances of their influence locally in leadership interactions which serve to catalyze the types of interactions that need to happen locally as experienced by others throughout the organization (for the benefit of the organizing system as a whole).

Management Level Matters Only in Degree

Here, the notion of thinking from a limited local perspective can just as easily relate to the insular view of an executive within the C-Suite who fails to understand what is happening in the field as someone in the field office complaining about the inaction in the C-Suite. Or it might involve a sales team in a satellite office where a would-be-leader carps about a new corporate initiative without fully understanding how that initiative fits into the global purpose let alone the pressures and tensions at work on the organizing system.

The notion of acting globally rather than locally might refer to an individual in the C-Suite or a remote field office spouting the needs of the organization as a whole – for example: We need more growth! Or our customers are deserting us! – while failing to put this system demand into terms that might influence each individual’s daily interactions in one direction or another. It doesn’t matter who is acting globally.

In any and all cases, leadership is failing when it is being enacted by someone who is thinking locally but acting globally. It is succeeding when it things globally and acts locally. The management level of the actor only determines the degree to which a particular case of success or of failure impacts the health and welfare of the organization.

Why Is Leadership Necessary?

The need for leadership arises locally. In part this is because what any given individual knows, thinks he or she knows, or how she or he will react in a given situation is uncertain. It is, dependent upon the information stored within that person’s history, both social (personal experience) and biological (DNA). In complex adaptive systems (CAS), where human beings are the interacting agents that form the system, micro or fine-grain interaction dynamics are both predictable to a degree and in all ways uncertain at least to a degree.

First, leadership is needed to bridge the macro or coarse-grain to the fine-grain. This creates a linkage from the organizing system and any implications that coarse-grain events have on it, to the fine-grain interactions of the many individuals who participate in the organizing. Leadership must therefore further its organizational purposes by exerting its influence locally and specifically.

Second, leadership is needed to bridge the fine-grain to the coarse-grain. This creates a linkage from the fine-grain interactions that are occurring among many individuals who might recognize local events that might impact the organizing system, or who might discover possible ways to exploit the locally discovered opportunities, to the coarse-grain by framing global issues and identifying emerging coarse-grain events impact the organizing system globally. Leadership must therefore develop the capacity to think globally.

Events Are Recognized by Individuals First – It Can’t Always Be the “Leader”

In organizations with an effective culture of leadership, the direction and impact of leadership influence forms globally, at the organizing system level.  For example, profits might be down for the firm. Sales might be down for the regional office. A competitor might have opened a field office across the parking lot, or it may be about to launch a new product in direct competition with the firm’s most profitable product line.

Each of these events is first sensed locally in various pockets of fine-grain interactions in the organizing system. Thus, it is first sensed – information about it is gathered – by individuals who identify with the organizing system and become aware that they and the system they identify with are being threatened. The definition and implications of the threat and any potential response is formed by their conceptualization of events at the organizing system level, be that their work group, their department, their or their ecosystem writ large.  Thus the nature of the threat and the particulars of the response form at the global level.

Those individuals who are able to perform leadership – that is, who are able to effectively perform as leaders – conceptualize the global threats or opportunities of the organizing system as a result of event, forecast their implications, and translate this “model” into a set of needs for the organizing system that can be actualized locally. As such, they are able to become local in their influence, precise and personal. This enables the integration of individual selves into the identity of the whole. They do this in a manner such that the purpose and direction of influence that falls on each individual resonates with that person’s affinity with a global identity.

Complex organizing is characterized by collective action within and ecosystem which has embedded information that enables some level of predictability, and also uncertainty at all level, from the fine-grain through the meso levels to the coarse-grain, which makes each action one taken with a posture of probability rather than certainty. Each step creates more information. Each next step adjusts for prior error keeping the organizing system within its boundaries of dynamic stability.

This locally relevant influence to interactions that enables global integration under a shared identity is necessary to enact certain requisite organizing functions. Although often performed by the nominal “leader,” they can also be performed by others when necessary.

Fortunately, communications technologies are able to help facilitate this cross level influence.

Contact Leadership Science for our technology solution today!

%d bloggers like this: