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When the leader is not the smartest person in the room

Posted on 23rd February 2022 by Sheila Vasan Singla

In my work with leaders over the last three and a half decades, I have had the opportunity to observe and interact with both brilliant and average leaders. And the one thing that stands out, is even while the nature of leadership has seen minor shifts over the years, it has not changed at the scale it needs to. The concept of Heroic Leadership – where leaders had to be better than the rest – has endured for many years. It was these heroic leaders who swooped in to rescue people, situations, and organisations. This style of leadership was supported by the steep hierarchies that were an inherent part of organisations. In a Brittle, Anxious, Non-Linear, and Incomprehensible world, the pressure on leadership is becoming increasingly overwhelming. The onus to provide inspiration, direction, instruction, and motivation lies solely on the shoulders of leadership.

While this is a reality, there is a strong counter reality that is forming. Traditionally, the leader had to have all the solutions and answers. The leader had to be the smartest person in the room to lead the pack.

Increasingly today, the leader is not the smartest person in the room and that reality is will only get stronger.

In a non-internet world, there was no access to information – especially out of turn. Hence the leader came to the table with more access to information and insights. The leader knew more and that itself justified the position of leadership. However, today there is almost a complete democratization of knowledge. Anyone, anywhere, can go ahead and get the information they need and glean their own insights, and build their own expertise.

In the 1980s and 1990s, expertise was a function of experience. The greater number of years a leader had under the belt – the more the leadership position was justified. In the 2000s and 2010s designations made expertise implicit. The last two years have definitely upset the apple cart – in today’s world more and more expertise is linked to capabilities that drive results. Age and experience are becoming irrelevant when you look at a leader’s expertise and honed capability.

Businesses were relatively simple earlier and the environments in which businesses thrived were predictable and stable. Today the complexities and scale of business have compounded. It is fairly impossible for a handful of leaders to have clarity and provide all the answers.

Perhaps the time has come to look at Leadership with a new lens – something more appropriate for today’s world.

Imagine a situation where leadership is collaborative, where while there may be one person in charge – there are multiple people who take charge according to their own areas of expertise and capability. Power and influence get shared amongst people on the team. Imagine a situation where there are seamless handoffs between team members and the leaders’ work is to review, guide and challenge. If these scenarios excite you – then welcome to Shared Leadership.

Shared leadership is critical in this ever increasingly complex world. The challenges faced in business environments are too many and varied for a single leader to manage. Enabling Shared Leadership will ensure that the organisation benefits from the talent and capability of its employees. It also works at creating deep engagement on part of the employees and drives elevated levels of ownership.

While the benefits of Shared Leadership make for a compelling case, what goes into creating a conducive environment for Shared Leadership to flourish must be worked on consciously.

Mindset of Leaders: Leaders need to come to terms with their own frailty and look at building a mindset where they see themselves as coaches and enablers. There needs to be a shift from leading to facilitating teams. Leaders need to mature and understand that by building expertise and capability beyond their own, they are setting their organisations, functions, team, and themselves up for success. This change in perspective will help cull out space and time for leaders to ease up and start dealing with this complex world in which businesses are being conducted.

Acquiring and Nurturing Talent: For this to happen, there has to be a focussed endeavour to acquire and nurture high-quality talent. Shared Leadership works only when the team has the expertise and niche capabilities that can be brought to the table in a synergistic manner. The time has come to shed conscious and unconscious biases and relook at the talent we acquire and how we deal with them. Now, more than ever before, diversity in all its forms will augment the strength of the quality of talent.

Flatter Organisation Structures: It is important to realise that talent alone will not help in establishing a flourishing Shared Leadership. In the 2000s and 2010s, organisations structures expanded into highly hierarchical levels which made it difficult to empower people. Designations defined expertise and value and so there were a plethora of designations that came into being. While it suited its purpose then, flattening organisational structures to create opportunities for people to take charge today is imperative. Whittling down on the designation compendium would work towards reducing the role gaps between levels and enabling an environment for Shared Leadership to thrive.

An Enabling Culture: The ability of an organisation to create a culture steeped in transparency and one that provides psychological safety to its employees will encourage team members to step up and take on the Shared Leadership mantle. When employees know that they will not be penalised for mistakes or errors of judgement, there will be fewer inhibitors to take on the challenges of leadership.

Strong Frameworks and Processes: The last but certainly not the least important requirement is to create strong frameworks and processes for communicating, decision making, and executing when you are empowering people to take charge. These function as toolkits to guide employees. They ensure that a safety net is set up to support employees get used to shared leadership in a more structured manner.

The time has come for us to accept that the expectations and requirements from leadership are quickly morphing. This is happening firstly because of the pandemic years and the way it has impacted all of us and secondly because of how the world has changed in the way business is being conducted. The sooner we shift from a Heroic Leadership to a Shared Leadership style – we are transforming ourselves and the leaders’ role into what the future may need. This concept is only going to get more embedded in organisations and will help us jumpstart into a future that is changing faster than what we can grasp and in ways that are too dynamic to pin down.

“Shared leadership… is less like an orchestra, where the conductor is always in charge, and more like a jazz band, where leadership is passed around … depending on what the music demands at the moment and who feels most moved by the spirit to express the music.”

Phillip C. Schlechty

ABOUT AUTHOR

Sheila Vasan Singla

Founder

Sheila is the Founder & Principal Associate of Chrysalis. She is a pioneer in Human Performance Improvement in India who has been passionate about driving business impact through Results Based Learning™.

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