Leadership, as we know it, is not working. FRSAs Juliette Summers and Brian Howieson argue that the experience of organisations like Wikipedia provide some lessons about how to reconnect organisations to the public good.
A lack of leadership is a good thing, for business and for society. This is not a throwaway statement; there is a deep-seated problem with leadership in that it is currently widely conceptualised, taught, and understood in terms of the exemplary individual and their special ability to produce enhanced organisational performance.
This approach dominates the management literature and suggests that leaders are seen as ‘something different’ or special. This concept is deeply flawed and has, arguably, contributed to a divorce of big business from its social worth and a separation of leadership from social good. Because much leadership activity has become more focussed on monetary worth than on social worth, this can lead to damage to the societies and communities in which organisations operate and upon whom their actions and decisions impact. The failure of the banking industry is just one example.
In this respect, organisational leadership has moved away from Adam Smith’s notion of a naturally moderated self-interest and a concern for others. The result has been instability in organisations and in society as leadership approaches put utilitarianism, balance sheets and profit before social worth.
We need to reconsider leadership and challenge its divorce from social worth. To do so, we can consider what leadership looks like in organisations whose value is primarily in their far-reaching social worth, not their monetary value. These are, by definition, unconventional organisations.
Wikipedia (an online encyclopaedia written by the people who use it), OpenStreetMapping (online maps updated and complied by users), or online journalism such as WikiLeaks are particularly interesting examples as their value is their worth to society since they are non-profit community projects; no one owns them and none of the community members make money from contributing to them.
A replacement for leadership could be derived from the emerging experiences of these new digital commons; one that is less costly to society and the wider economy. Here we see a group of people who come together voluntarily for a common purpose to share their knowledge and experience and based upon trusted communities and reciprocal giving of services. In these unconventional organisations, we see a shift from expert guidance and direction to a conversation, a ‘fluid hierarchy’ or ‘equipotentiality’ as the driver of decision-making, with no notion of leadership. This means that people or organisations’ members, employees, or communities, are acting without needing to seek permission. They can self-direct using their own individual and collective agency as equals in the sense of their being both superior and inferior to each other in their varying skills and areas of endeavour.
In a similar vein, research into virtual teams suggests that the key to the success of such teams is a strong shared identity, something which is likely to be experienced and developed through reciprocity and trust. A consideration of successful organisations such as Wikipedia clearly has implications for how organisations approach leadership and their consideration of the costs of continuing with outdated notions of ‘leader’. In order to operate, the digital commons demonstrate voluntary association through participation, transparency and accountability, but no leadership. While they have administrative support functions, these do not control or direct members’ organisational activity. In this way, these organisations are designed to operate without leadership and the founders are the organisational designers, not leaders.
So, where conventional organisations would have leaders, or leadership operationalised at all levels to a known strategy, these unconventional organisations have a positive lack of leadership. The space formerly occupied by leadership is occupied by unguided deliberation, conversation, and mutual agreement among organisational members. This is significantly different to other new thinking on leadership (‘collective’, ‘eco’ or ‘relational’ leadership concepts, for example) that continue to populate the space absented by traditional leadership with a person or people.
When the operation of an organisation is about building, not extracting from, society, what replaces leadership in this vacant space is ‘public good’, operating for the good of society and based on the values of society. Were the purpose of organisations to be of benefit and build society, rather than to extract wealth, the solution to the failure of leadership would become not having leadership. Perhaps, rather than a lack of leadership being a bad thing, such a lack is an essential if we are to reconceptualise the value of organisations, not just in monetary terms but in terms of their worth to society. In enabling organisations to contribute to what is valued by society, they have to be part of that society, not divorced from it. For organisations to achieve this they might have to replace structures designed around notions of leadership with unguided deliberative spaces ― where the space is occupied not by leaders or leadership, but by commonly identified values and worth, i.e. the public good.
This, we think, is a good starting point for organisations.
Dr Juliette Summers is a lecturer at Stirling Management School, University of Stirling. She is vice-chair of a local community campaign group (BRIGS), a community councillor, and a co-opted director of a development trust in the Hebrides.
Dr Brian Howieson is Director of MBA Programmes in the Graduate School of Natural Resources Law, Policy and Management at the University of Dundee, after spending over 25 years working with the Royal Air Force and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.