Leadership is a quality not a grade

The West Acre Summer Fete yesterday featured 'the usual attractions for young and old – welly wanging, duck and ferret racing, craft activities, etc. Price of entry – £1 for big people and 50p for little people (5-16 years)'. I didn't see the welly wanging but enjoyed watching the little people win on the coconut shy, throwing a ball through a small hoop, and keeping their hand steady as they tried to move a loop along an electric wire bent into a complex path to the end without incurring a penalty beep if the hand wobbled and the wire was touched.

Beyond that, the even more enjoyable thing I found was watching the big people interact with the little people. With some exceptions they applauded the little people's achievements, gave them a helping hand along the way, encouraged them to have another go if things went awry, and guided trade-offs like is it better to spend the remaining 50p of the financial budget on a ferret bet or a piece of flapjack? The exceptions to those positive responses tended to be social norm reinforcement like 'put your clothes on NOW', yelling at the kid and escalating things at volume, with both parties ending up furious and frustrated.

What was great about the 'little people' was that many of the ones I saw were terrific at specific things: one – a ball through hoop throwing expert – showed his grandparents exactly how to stand to get the ball through the hoop, the arm movements and so on. Another won three coconuts in three shots. Others were good at bringing their friends along to have a go at something.

The village fete showed up in my mind as an organisational metaphor where the little people represented staff and the big people positional leaders. The 'little people' were better at some things than the 'big people', but the 'big people' were willing to learn from the 'little people' and at the same time be positive, encouraging, and supportive. Things went wrong when the 'big people' exerted power over the 'little people' . Things went well when both sets of people treated each other with respect and understood the requirements.

So all this became a backdrop to the stuff I'd been thinking of writing about this week: 'leadership is a quality not a grade' as it seems to be the topic of the moment in the organisation I'm working with. It's hot topic for five reasons:

1. It's an organisation with 11 grades of hierarchy which are not going to disappear in the immediate or even medium/long term future.
2. Typically people progress through the grades – they don't jump any. Progression is less about technical ability or expertise and more about …. This is a bit of a question mark but let's say it's about displaying management skills.
3. Decisions get made by going up through the ranks and then back down. It's rather hard for a low grade person to feel confident about making a decision.
4. There's a certain fear about stepping outside the parameters of 'my job'. It's not nearly as pronounced as the 'I'll have to ask my supervisor', responses that are culturally ingrained in many US organisations I've worked with but it is still evident.
5. The organisation operates in silos which isn't efficient or effective unless you're in an individual competition like the ferret race I watched. The ferrets start at the same gated line (as in a horse race) but the gate leads into a drain pipe so they tear down the drain pipe – without being able to see the each of the other racers – and one emerges the winner. The ultimate in siloed competition! As we're not ferrets, encouraging cross organisation working would help improve organisational performance in a number of ways.
6. Positional leaders are doing less leading and more operational stuff than is a good use of their time.

Since the organisation is aiming to become more of a 'social'/digital business – explained well in the white paper Building a Digital Culture – it has to change from a command and control bias to a collaborative, collective responsibility, and distributed leadership bias which does not sit well with a traditional hierarchy.

But, believing that the existing grading system will provide too great an obstacle to getting to distributed leadership is defeatist. Assuming that the grades and hierarchies will remain in the structure the task is to think innovatively about working through and within in it. Part of this (and perhaps the biggest challenge) is for everyone to believe and act as if they think, as I do, that leadership is a quality not a grade. This goes for the positional leaders at the top of the hierarchy and the lowest graded staff at the bottom of the hierarchy and for everyone in between.

There's a danger in interpreting 'leadership is a quality not a grade' as resulting in some form of anarchy in just the same way that the currently popular phrase 'everyone a leader' is incurring comments ranging from unequivocal support for the notion to total derision.

What I'm talking about is not 'leader' as a title, as in 'team leader' nor do I think that everyone is inherently a leader as in being able to lead a project or a team or an organisation. I am talking about leadership as a set of qualities seen in those organisational contexts that give people freedom to operate within a sensible framework, few barriers within the framework, more responsibility than is typically seen in a command and control organisation, and the space to manage themselves and how they do their job. (See a blog post that this paragraph draws on)

This means that people, whatever their grade, are able to use the day to day leadership skills they use outside of work – the sort of skills I saw in operation at the fete demonstrating that leadership as a quality not a grade is much 'less about position and more about disposition. It is not so much about superiority but about service in the area of our strengths. It has less to do with a set of behaviors and more to do with a perspective with which we view life.' (Source here).

So how could this context where people can learn and use leadership qualities at all levels be introduced into a traditional hierarchical organization? Here are five ideas we are working on and I'd be interested to hear others:

1. Encouraging the 'good rebels' at all levels to challenge, initiate experiments, and push for change
2. Finding people who have leadership skills and abilities that they are using outside the organisation that they feel they can't use inside the organisation and learning why this is and what needs to change so they can
3. Publicising stories of leadership qualities in action at various levels/roles in the organisation
4. Looking at the reward, recognition, and development systems that could foster leadership qualities at all levels
5. Provoking conversations with hierarchical leaders about 'letting go', the downside and opportunity risks inherent in this, and the role modeling they could do to help develop the transformed organisation they say they want

If you listen to the Radio 4 programme The Leadership Gap you'll hear lots more ideas for changing organisations from ones with command and control (authoritarian) leaders to a more distributed model of recognizing and using leadership qualities at all levels. And if you're enjoying Pimms with strawberries and cream at the local fete on a sunny summer day look around and you'll see the world of positive and, less likely, negative leadership qualities in action.

True or false: everyone has a leadership obligation, no matter who they are and what they do? What do you think? Let me know.