Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 7) Isolate initiative

Jan 16, 2011 by

This is the seventh in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 6) Manufacture motivation.

Who are the leaders in the various teams and organizations in which you work and play? Most people can respond to this question with a short list of people and in most cases the responses from members of a team will be consistent. The answer is usually obvious because we label people as leaders with titles. Conductor, manager, captain, CEO, pastor, teacher, prime minister, chief executive rabbit and so forth. In some cases people bestow these labels and responsibilities of leadership without knowing what leadership is. Some claim leadership is about vision while others claim it is about influence or simply having followers. Leadership is arguably all of these things and more. I believe, however, that over the years, the concept of leadership has become way too complicated. Quite simply, one specific point defines leadership more than anything else: taking initiative.

When you think about leadership in this way, everyone should be a leader because everyone in a team can and should take initiative. People should speak up when they believe their team should take a different path or when they see problems that the team should react to. The more people that can do this the more effective the team can be. Of course there is a potential downside: if everyone is always trying to take the team in different directions, the result might be chaos. Yet jazz musicians manage to make this work in small groups all the time. They are constantly switching between roles of leading and following, working variously as leaders or as “sidepeople” on different gigs. However this dynamic reassignment of leadership also occurs during performances. The leader of a gig might choose the tune and count it off, but at various times during the performance, different musicians take on leadership roles, and others follow as necessary. This happens most obviously when jazz musicians take turns performing as soloists and then provide accompaniment for another musician’s solos. However, the reassignment of leadership occurs even more frequently and less obviously than that. Sometimes even for just an instant, a musician who is currently playing as an accompanist may take on a leadership role to direct a specific change in the music. Jazz musicians simply cannot let leadership roles remain statically assigned if they want to create interesting, innovative music.

The key to avoiding chaos while encouraging everyone to take initiative is in staffing teams with people who are always mindful of the health and performance of the team and its various projects and instinctively know when to lead and when to follow. Decentralized, dynamic leadership is become increasingly more common as organizations must move faster and respond to the unexpected. Not surprisingly, the larger an organization, the harder it can be to successfully decentralize leadership. Jazz musicians can decentralize leadership in a small group but a symphony orchestra needs a conductor to act as a single command and control point. Yet there is a big difference between a conductor who actively encourages the musicians to speak up and thoughtfully considers their suggestions and one who acts like an overbearing maestro and insists that he or she knows everything. In education, Jacques Rancière’s classic 1991 book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, suggests that teachers must consider themselves as equals of their students. Teachers should not simply direct students but should facilitate discussions in which anyone can lead and help others to learn. In aviation, the field of cockpit resource management studies the teamwork that takes place in large aircraft with multiple people in the cockpit. Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center studied the underlying causes of pilot-error accidents in the mid-1970s. Their research involved interviewing airline crew members and observing flight crews exposed to potential accident situations in simulator experiments. The NASA researchers learned that pilots are far more likely to make mistakes when they rush to action instead of waiting to obtain more information, which they often can get from other team members.

Decentralizing leadership doesn’t mean that you must completely do away with all semblance of organizational hierarchy but it does mean that leaders must avoid isolating initiative to a small group of people. When leaders straitjacket people with restrictive command and reporting structures, they inhibit creativity and agility and limit their organization’s ability to respond to change. The path to success lies in giving up control and encouraging people in all parts of an organization to take the initiative.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.

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